The ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protest movement is already being described as a liberal tea party movement. Unions have quickly endorsed and pledged to join the protesters, but they also want this momentum to spill over into their own activism. Whether it will is unclear.
For months, former Obama administration official Van Jones has been trying to rally liberals under a common banner, one that could counter the tea party. The American Dream Movement was created, and a contract or legislative platform was born, with input from hundreds of thousands.Yet since its launch, the liberal contract has gotten little attention outside the groups involved in writing it.
Since Sept. 17, the anarchist-heavy New York protest that began two weeks ago, organized in part by the Canadian magazine AdBusters, has quickly spread to other cities and garnered national attention.
At the American Dream Conference in Washington this week, Jones argued that there was plenty of room for different approaches and different names on the left.
“I go to the supermarket, I see lots of brands,” said Jones. “We’re happy, we support ‘Occupy Wall Street’ 100 percent. If you sleep outside for three weeks, you should be on TV, period.”
But at the American Dream Conference in Washington, D.C. this week, there was a noticeable hint of annoyance that these protests have gotten so much media attention while union marches have been largely ignored.
“We had 10,000 people march on Wall Street last year,” AFL-CIO executive director Arlene Holt-Baker told reporters. “We see this as a continuation in many ways, where these young people are stepping up.”
Deepak Bhargava, executive director of Center for Community Change, concurred: “The occupation of Wall Street is a huge step forward, but it is the crest of a wave that has been building and will break this fall.”
At the same time, there’s relief that public anger over the economy is no longer seen as exclusively a province of the right. Officials involved in the American Dream effort argue that there’s a need for both labor organizing and public, messy demonstrations.
“We're echoing each other. Camping out in a park is not what everybody can do, but working against corporate control of government and demanding jobs and democracy is something everybody needs to do in their own way,” said Karen Nussbaum, executive director of Working America, an organization dedicated to reaching out to non-union workers.
There is finally highly visible evidence of what these groups have been saying for years: that ordinary people are fed up with corporate greed. They’re helping revive an angry liberal movement that has barely been visible since President Obama took office.
“I’m actually suprised that the unions have been so receptive,” said Michael Kazin, a history professor and author of a new book on the American left. “[The protesters are] pressuring the president from the left, and that’s a better strategy than just trying to get Democrats to pass laws. And I think some people in unions are realizing that.”
Bringing unions into these protests could help boost their numbers and credibility. It could also dampen enthusiasm from outsiders for what has been a spontaneous and media-friendly free-for-all.
While tea party activists have received lots of support from Republicans and conservative organizations, the groups that are too nakedly establishment-backed — the Tea Party Express, for example — have turned off the rank-anf-file.
But in Wisconsin and Ohio, unions have started taking cues from organic protests and helping build from there. If they can do the same on Wall Street, it might be the start of a liberal tea party movement after all — whatever it’s called.