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Occupy Wall Street May Day 'General Strike' Planned With Unions, Immigrant Groups

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Occupy Wall Street activists are planning for a nationwide series of demonstrations billed as a "general strike" on Tuesday in what could be the biggest test of the movement's organizing muscle since the winter.

Touted as a "day without the 99 percent," and modeled in part on massive immigration reform protests in 2006, Occupy groups in New York, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay area, Chicago and more than 100 other cities will join forces with immigrant rights groups and labor unions. Organizers expect tens of thousands of supporters to swarm the streets in those cities on the anniversary of the traditional labor movement holiday.

"No work, no school ... don't bank, don't buy," posters for the day that have been circulating around New York say. But activists are mixed on whether they expect the day of action to result in large-scale walk-offs from work, and one of the most controversial actions, a proposal to block traffic over the Golden Gate Bridge, was called off over the weekend.

"Spring has come, and this is our reawakening," said Matt Presto, a 25-year-old graduate student who has been involved in the movement since before it occupied New York City's Zuccotti Park on September 17. "We're rejuvenated, and I think this will be a display of collective force and what we're capable of."

In New York, protesters will start their day with a series of picket lines targeting financial institutions in Midtown Manhattan including JP Morgan and Chase Bank. Later in the day, a rally will start in Union Square and then turn into a "solidarity march" to Wall Street. Artists like Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and rap group Das Racist will also be performing music in support of the events. Later in the night, organizers hope to stage a "Haymarket Martyrs Memorial Resistance Rager" after-party on the streets.

"For many of us there is the intention of halting things and trying to shut the city down," Presto said. He expects at least 10,000 people to hit the streets in New York, the protesters' numbers swelled by the thousands of rank-and-file members pledged by unions and high school students who are planning to walk out of class in protest against school closings.

Organizers hope the rallies will be able to dispel the impression that "Occupy is gone, it's been in hibernation too long," said Bill Dobbs, a member of Occupy Wall Street's media team. But he added that people should temper expectations: "it's not a make-or-break day."

Despite claims by the anti-corporate Adbusters magazine that some protesters would try to "block the Golden Gate Bridge; occupy a Manhattan-bound tunnel; seize the ports," the actions may prove to be less dramatic. Several involved with the movement in New York doubted that anyone would try closing a tunnel there. In San Francisco, the Golden Gate shutdown's cancellation may be a sign that protests on Tuesday will be muted by the presence of more traditional hierarchical organizations on the left.

The San Francisco Bay Area's Occupiers, whose tactics have been among the most confrontational of any in the country, are planning a wide-ranging series of coordinated events in virtually every corner of the famously progressive region. While the largest rallies are scheduled for downtown Oakland and San Francisco, the labor-backed shutdown of the bridge had been the highest-profile action planned.

A dispute over health care benefits between bridge management and a coalition of unions representing some 380 employees developed into the coalition's threat of a May Day strike. Local Occupy groups pledged to support the strike by taking some sort of unspecified action that would bring traffic on the iconic thoroughfare to a screeching halt. However, while union leaders initially welcomed Occupy's aggressive tactics, they've since backed off.

"The negotiations have left us no choice but to strike," Alex Tonisson, an organizer with the Golden Gate Bridge Labor Coalition, said. "However, we're asking all our supporters, who have been following our lead on this, to keep the bridge open."

If organizers succeed in pulling off large-scale May Day protests, they will in some sense be bucking American tradition. Soon after May Day was created in response to the 1886 Haymarket Riot in Chicago, the holiday became an occasion for “an extreme right wing conservative crackdown,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbra. “May Day had a nasty connotation and then it more or less migrated to Europe. Labor Day became the more conventional, respectable holiday.”

Virginia Alverez, an Occupy activist from outside Chicago who worked as an ironworker in the 1980s, said back then union members observed the holiday as one to “go to the bar and drink. What all blue-collar Midwesterners do.”

But in 2006, as Congress considered passing a law that would have classified undocumented immigrants as felons, the Spanish-language media called for massive rallies throughout the country. On May 1, hundreds of thousands skipped work and school for "Un Dia Sin Inmigrantes" -- "A Day Without Immigrants."

The 2006 protests saw immigrant-rights groups and labor unions working together, despite some apprehensions on boths sides.

“Perhaps in a more traditional or mainstream American mindset a unionized worker and an immigrant worker might be pitted against each other,” said Valeria Treves, the executive director of the New Immigrant Community Empowerment organization in Queens, NY. “But immigrant-rights organizations have been working with labor organizations for a number of years."

These days, she said, she was also working with Occupy Wall Street, and will take part in the rallies on Tuesday. “Occupy has gotten so much traction and so much visibility, so as community organizations it's important for us to be in communication with them," she said.

Labor and immigrants' groups may be on board for the protests, but financial institutions are anticipating them warily. In New York and California, some bank employees said that they were gearing up for unrest and preparing action plans to protect property and workers, but others said they had heard next to nothing about the planned events in the week leading up to the demonstrations.

A vice president at Goldman Sachs who asked not to be identified had not personally heard any discussion around the offices about the planned May Day events in the week leading up to May 1. That was fairly unique, the VP added, because the firm often sends out alerts to its employees via email about potential security risks.

“Of course [Goldman employees] are paying attention to it, but less now than previously,” said the VP, adding that Occupy "had their moment in the sun and I think it faded." The source was skeptical protesters would actually be able to shut down the bank, saying, "They’re so obvious when they try to get into our office. They have dreads and they haven’t showered in days."

A spokesperson for Goldman Sachs declined to comment on the firm’s security plans. A spokesperson for San Francisco-based Wells Fargo, where protesters attempted to disrupt an annual shareholders' meeting last week, said the bank was preparing for possible unrest.

“We will adjust our business operations based on security decisions,” said Holly Rockwood, the spokesperson, though she declined to go into specifics about the firm’s plans. “We’re obviously keeping an eye on it ... We always respect the rights of Americans to peacefully assemble and we always welcome an open and collaborative dialogue with our stakeholders. We certainly recognize these are challenging economic times and we understand people are demanding a lot from our financial institutions.”

Matt Sledge and Aaron Sankin contributed to this report.

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