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Trumka Draws Fine Line Between Supporting and Usurping #OcupyWallStreet Protests

Members of the political elite have finally had to confront the question of the #OccupyWallStreet protests and the larger movement for social and economic change that it represents. Sen. Jeff Merkley agreed with the goals of the protesters and their belief that the system is broken, and expressed interest in going to a protest. Ron Paul also supported the protests, though he made an assumption that they were fully aligned with his particular vision for the country. Likely Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney muttered something about class warfare. He also said that “he had spoken to the people involved,” which I find highly dubious. Maybe he meant some bank executive, like Andrew Ross Sorkin.

One of the big questions about the Take Back the American Dream conference was whether there would be a co-opting of the #OccupyWallStreet movement and their message, channeling it into electoral politics or some kind of policy scheme. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka addressed this on a conference call today, delineating between supporting the movement and co-opting it.

“These demonstrations are truly spontaneous,” Trumka said. “They’re happening around the country. We intend to be supportive of them. We believe as they believe that the economy is shutting down 99% of the people. We think there’s a different and a better way. So we’re going to support them any way we can. We’re not going to try to usurp them, we’re going to support them. I hope they’ll support us.”

Clearly, the anger and frustration in an economy that doesn’t work for 99% of Americans has a unifying force and an ally in organized labor. Trumka pointed out that his organization had a demonstration in the spring of 2010 on Wall Street with 15,000 working people. This is part of the longstanding movement for bank accountability that a number of groups have taken on. “Like the protesters on Wall St. are saying, we have an economy and a political process that isn’t serving the 99% of our country,” Trumka said.

The AFL-CIO will try to put that outrage to work to create jobs through the legislative channel. They’ve planned hundreds of events across the country starting on October 10. And that’s fine, though I doubt it will succeed. But the wariness of joining, and taking over, the #OccupyWallStreet protest is a pretty good sign from the establishment left. First of all, I don’t think they actually could co-opt such an organic movement. But this ensures that the movement will remain independent and without a hierarchical structure and a continued voice of important dissent with a dysfunctional system. Maybe the establishment left can provide some options that the movement can choose whether or not to endorse. Trumka mentioned writing down mortgage debt and a financial transactions tax to pay for an immediate investment in jobs. Great ideas, and I’m sure many at the #Occupy protests would find them worthy of support. But that’s a decision that they can make, not one that needs to be imposed.

“There’s a groundswell happening, people across the country are declaring that we are the 99%,” Trumka said. When you have that broad a constituency, the instinct should be not to herd it but to let it flower.

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David Dayen

David Dayen