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Occupy Wall Street: The First Quarter and Beyond

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In the world Wall Street has made, quarterly results are the measure of all things. And so, with the three-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street just passed, it is, inevitably, time to take stock of the movement.

The results so far are impressive, only the most jaded cynic would deny it. Political leaders obsessed with the debt and deficits have been forced to focus on jobs and inequality. Tax breaks for the wealthy that were untouchable before September 17th are suddenly in the crosshairs of Congress. Giant corporations that pay no taxes are finally being called to account, and more progressive taxes are being promoted in Albany and elsewhere.

Still, the cynics can say that the tents are gone from Zuccotti Park and that the encampments across the country are disappearing one by one. In their eyes, Occupy Wall Street is just another sinking stock, one more bubble ready to burst.

Of course, this is why we need a longer time frame to appreciate the remarkable achievements and lasting promise of the Occupy movement. Like all of America's great reform movements, Occupy Wall Street is attacking problems that seemed insoluble and uniting people who never realized they had interests in common. Students drowning in debt, workers without health care, retirees denied pensions, the unemployed of all stripes and party affiliations -- they're all united now in a way they weren't three months ago.

To those of us in the labor movement, it's clear that Occupy Wall Street is doing what only the most tenacious organizers can: forging a way forward when progress seems impossible. Whether we formed our unions in the coal mines of Appalachia, the assembly lines of Detroit or the hospitals of New York, we recognize when the political and economic system is stacked against the working class and we recognize the enormous effort required to even the scales.

For decades, labor, the left and progressives of every stripe have warned about the scourge of inequality in America. It was Occupy Wall Street that finally jumpstarted a real conversation about how and why the richest 400 Americans have more wealth than the bottom 150 million combined.

Occupy Wall Street has reframed the national debate as quickly and dramatically as any social movement in American history. Before this fall, America had no common language to explain the crash of 2008 and its causes. Now we can see and describe the chasm separating the 99 percent and the 1 percent. The Occupy movement might be mocked as naïve for lacking a specific set of demands, but they've brilliantly identified the one fundamental problem of our time.

Because Occupy Wall Street has drawn attention by marching across bridges and sitting down in streets, some critics call it a lawless mob. But Occupy's peaceful protestors are firmly in the tradition of the civil rights movement. Having grown up in the segregated South, I understood that civil rights activists sat down at lunch counters not to break the law but to fix it. That's what America's real freedom movements have always done. Abolitionists, suffragists, gay rights activists, they've all pushed to reform the laws that betray America's values.

We in labor know all about laws that need fixing. In our union, 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, another movement born on the streets of New York, our hospital workers had to push beyond the bounds of existing law when they joined together a little more than 50 years ago. A loophole then in the nation's labor law denied virtually all hospital workers the right to form unions. But the workers, many of them living in poverty, felt a union was their only way forward so they struck for fair wages and demanded recognition from their hospitals.

Hospital officials quickly condemned the strikers for their "revolution against law and order"--words that must sound familiar to Occupy protestors. During the strike, the hospitals conceded very little, and after 46 days the impoverished caregivers had to settle. Like the Occupiers forced from their encampments, the workers had to retreat from the streets and call survival a victory. Yet, after an intense advocacy campaign, hospital workers did win union rights in 1963 when Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed a bill granting collective bargaining rights to New York City's hospital workers. After decades of organizing, the once-impoverished caregivers have become the bedrock of our city's working class. We know that movements with humble beginnings can do great things.

Nevertheless, despite all the progress our members have made -- expanding far beyond the five boroughs to unite with over 350,000 caregivers up and down the East Coast -- none of us are insulated from the chill wind blowing through today's economy. Nicole Owens, a medical assistant in Massachusetts, still has her job, but her husband can't find work and now they and their three children are on the verge of eviction. In Florida, radiographer Jason Smith is also working, but his hours have been cut and now he's facing foreclosure.

America's middle class is living on a knife edge and all of us need the Occupy movement to keep focusing Washington's attention on that fact. For three months, they've done it when no one else could. Although many Occupiers are leaving their tents, if anything, their influence on community organizations, student groups and labor unions is only growing stronger. They're reminding us of the hard-fought achievements of our past while giving us hope for the future.

Yes, the movement is fragile. No billionaire brothers are funding it. But the millions of Americans it's inspired promise to make Occupy Wall Street as powerful, resilient and long lasting as any of the great American reform movements.