Since Occupy Wall Street (OWS) was evicted from its home in Zuccotti Park last November, 2011, observers have speculated about whether the movement would bounce back this spring. On May 1,2012, the movement delivered its answer, launching actions across the city culminating in a mass march through Lower Manhattan of well over ten thousand labor unionists, students and community activists.
Though May Day as a day of labor action was born in this country in the 1880s during the struggle for the eight-hour day, it nearly disappeared from the United States during the Cold War. But May Day protests were revived by immigrant rights groups in 2006; and since then, more and more unions in New York City have marked the day. This year unions, immigrant groups and Occupy Wall Street all came together to march from Union Square down to the Financial District, and hundreds of PSC members took part.
“I’m here because I believe in student rights, and affordable higher education is under attack,” said Jaimie Weida, a faculty member in BMCC’s English department. “The money we’re spending in overseas military operations, the cost of tax cuts for the rich – all this is being paid for by the poor and the middle class. It’s being paid for by people like my students who tell me they’re not sure whether they’ll be able to afford a Metro card this month, or that they need to get a second job.”
“This is a powerful movement,” said Franky Laude, looking around as the crowd filled Broadway. “The voice of the people is in the streets!” Unions and the Occupy movement have the same concerns for economic justice, Laude said: “Student debt piling up, corporations taking over politics – we’re challenging these things, and it’s the civil rights movement of our time.”
Members of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance in their yellow cabs led off the march from Union Square to Wall Street. Transport Workers Union Local 100, SEIU 1199, the PSC and other unions brought out sizable contingents. After the end of the march, members of Musicians Local 802 regrouped in Washington Square Park and marched through the West Village, stopping to play outside jazz clubs as a part of their Justice for Jazz Artists campaign. Jazz musicians often end up impoverished in old age and the union is demanding that the clubs agree to regular pension plan contributions for each gig that musicians play.
Agitation for worker rights took many different forms throughout the day. An effort dubbed “99 Picket Lines” (for the 99%) brought roving protests to corporate offices in Midtown. Some pickets targeted big banks and corporate media, while others supported workers in ongoing labor disputes – from postal employees to Strand Book Store workers to immigrants in the restaurant and laundry industries.
Student loan debt and soaring tuition costs helped spark Occupy Wall Street last fall. On May Day, OWS organizers held a free university in Madison Square Park that featured nearly 100 classes, many of which were facilitated by CUNY faculty or students.
Frances Fox Piven, a distinguished professor of sociology at the Graduate Center, lectured on the role of social movements in 20th-century America and how they won victories for working people while expanding the rights of individuals. The tide began to turn in the 1970s, she said, as the corporate class mobilized to “take it all back.”
“Every protest movement has won what they won because it refused to cooperate with business as usual,” said Piven. “They raise the issues and make the price of governability paying attention to those issues.”
Describing the teach-ins as “preparatory,” Piven said that the future of the Occupy movement lies in direct-action campaigns around home foreclosures, student debt, worker rights and other issues that directly affect the lives of millions of people.
On the following night, the spirit of May Day echoes outside Sotheby’s, when Occupiers protested alongside art handlers from Teamsters Local 814. The upscale auction house has locked out its employees for the last nine months in a contract dispute over Sotheby’s demands for deep concessions – despite its large profits. Inside, Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream” sold for a record $119.9 million, of which Sotheby’s receiving $12.9 million in commission fees.
“The same kind of corporate greed you’re seeing at Sotheby’s is what’s destroying the economy,” Julian Tysh, one of the locked-out art handlers, told the Huffington Post. The small union local has credited Occupy activists with helping to sustain its long-running struggle – and on the day after May Day, the union was ready to continue the fight.