May Day Protests Show Occupy Wall Street, Liberal Establishment Bonds

05/01/2012 07:30 pm ET | Updated May 02, 2012

A little over six months ago, Stephanie McGuinness was camping out in Zuccotti Park, the epicenter of a new movement that often shunned politicians and community groups and other bastions of the liberal "establishment."

On Tuesday, as thousands gathered for May Day rallies around the country, McGuinness stood in New York's Bryant Park, handing out literature and chatting up passersby in her new role as an intern for the bastion of the liberal establishment that is the broadcast network Democracy Now.

Over the winter and spring, as Occupy Wall Street largely faded from the headlines, activists in the movement kept busy meeting with members of community groups and other pillars of the traditional left. The ties that have been forged between these two distinct outgrowths of the left signal what many describe as a broad change in the Occupy movement. "We recognized that people have been working for the same changes for centuries," said McGuinness. "And it's obvious that we need to listen to them and take a step back from being the only voice for progressive causes."

To hear McGuinness and others tell it, she is just one of a large number of Occupy activists who have recently joined with community organizations and other progressive groups fighting for the "99-percent" long before Occupy Wall Street popularized the phrase.

Some, like McGuinness, have landed internships or jobs with those groups. Others have linked with them in less formal ways. The coming together has been gradual, but many activists hailed May Day rallies as the first real blossoming of the collaboration, a springtime bloom of revolution following a long winter of talk and tension.

Across the country on Tuesday, Occupy activists and people from established groups marched and talked together, sometimes borrowing from each other's lexicon. In New York, for example, you could see a 60-year-old community activist leading a chant of "We are the 99 percent," while familiar figures from the Zuccotti takeover spoke about the "working-class" and its venerable struggle.

Those scenes aren't exactly novel. Labor unions and occupiers have been working together at least since early October, when occupiers and union members rallied together in New York's Foley Square. What's different about the May Day rallies is the extent to which the groups have formalized these connections.

Joan Donovan, an Occupy activist who runs a conference-call network used by many occupiers around the country, said that as far as she knew, the effort to unite these divergent factions for a big May Day event goes back to December, when activists at an Occupy assembly in LA brought up the possibility of a general strike. "People who had been organizing in LA for the past 10 years were part of the occupation," Donovan explained.

Valeria Treves, director of a community organization for new immigrants in Queens, said a member of her staff began going to Occupy meetings after occupiers connected with one of her colleagues in the immigrant-rights movement. "Despite the fact that they had a lot of media attention right away, particular elements had been recognizing that a lot of this work had been done for years by different community-based organizations and they started to reach out to us," she said.

It isn't so clear what effect this convergence may have. Before Tuesday's marches, there was much excited talk of a general strike and of blockades of tunnels and bridges, but most of those plans were called off. Donovan said she never harbored illusions that the demonstrations would look anything like the massive strikes of the industrial era. "It's a very different thing to organize a general strike where only 12 percent of the population is unionized," she said.

Others brushed away the suggestion that the rallies may have somehow failed to meet expectations. "I think Occupy is proving that this is a sustainable thing," said Michael Kink, director of Strong Economy For All Coalition, a New York community group founded last year with the aim of influencing Albany lawmakers and now working closely with the Occupy movement.

By getting involved in the May Day rallies, occupiers have symbolically entwined themselves with a leftist tradition that dates back to 1886, when a bomb went off during a strike in Chicago's Haymarket Square and police fired on demonstrators, killing several.

The government used the violence as a justification for cracking down hard on the labor movement, and the celebration of May Day as a labor tradition essentially moved overseas. But in recent years, workers and immigrant-rights activists in America have tried to bring it back, with some success.

Charles Jenkins, a 53-year-old organizer and electrician for the Transport Workers Union of Greater New York, has been part of that effort since the beginning. Leaning against a metal police barricade at a rally in Union Square on Tuesday, he said he used to honor May Day with a small group of activist workers at the Solidarity Center, a hub of progressive conversation on Manhattan's West 17th Street.

In 2004, he helped organize the Million Worker March, a rally in D.C., and one of the goals that came out of that gathering was to restore May Day to its special place as a celebration of labor history.

That led to a demonstration in Union Square on the first day of May in 2005, followed the next year by a "Un Dia Sin Immigrantes" -– "A Day Without Immigrants" -– in which hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest a law that would have classified undocumented immigrants as felons.

Jenkins has been meeting with Occupiers since October, and said the idea of a joint May Day rally first came up in one of those meetings a few months ago. "We thought it was a great idea," he said. "We're all fighting for the same cause."

He later used two different terms to describe that cause: the "working class" and the "99 percent."

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