|Prior to Wednesday’s rally protesters had not been joined by labour unions in a major way [Reuters]|
A group of powerful unions joined demonstrations against mishandling of the financial crisis in New York on Wednesday, lending institutional support to angered citizens who have camped out near Wall Street for more than two weeks.
The encampment calls itself ‘Occupy Wall Street’, and in the weeks since their demonstration started, about 780 of them have been arrested, and more than 80 demonstrations inspired by the one near Wall Street have cropped up in other cities around the United States.
It is unclear how many people will be joining the march on Wednesday, but some organisers said thousands could show up, according to the Associated Press.
Alan Saley, a spokesperson for New York’s Transportation Workers United (TWU) Local 100 union, which represents 38,000 members, spoke to Al Jazeera about the increasingly difficult situation for transportation workers and why they are supporting the growing Occupy Wall Street movement.
AJE: Why is the TWU Local 100 supporting Occupy Wall Street?
AS: The situation in New York state has been getting grimmer and grimmer for our members. We’re facing large deficits. The state is not properly funding mass transit and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of will in the legislature to put the kind of money into public infrastructure and mass transit that we need to keep the system going and in a good state of repair. We had 1000 of our members laid off last year.
More broadly speaking, this is all about inequality – growing inequality in the United States, and someone has to do something about it.
We put out a broad based appeal [for participation in Wednesday’s march], we put out an e-blast, fax-blast and our people are getting our word out to different transit barns and garages and facilities around the city.
AJE: The protest so far has not had institutional support or backing, and has organised itself around the idea of being independent from unions, non-profits (NGOs), etc. Do you expect your participation to change that at all?
AS: We’re hoping that we can add some organisational muscle, I would say. Obviously, they need some logistical support, and we’re working on providing that. I can’t [say] more on that.
AJE: Do you have specific goals or demands in this protest?
AS: The only demand that we have right now is that the state of New York reconsider its phasing out of the millionaire’s tax. There’s a tax on families earning more than $200,000 a year in New York State. That brings in about $5bn that the governor decided to phase out. That’s $5bn less for things like health and education and transit.
AJE: The New York Police Department ordered workers in your union to drive people who were arrested during Occupy Wall Street protests to jail, but TWU Local 100 opposed the move. Can you describe why?
AS: We don’t believe that our members should be commandeered by an arm of law enforcement to drive buses in which people are being transported who were arrested. We feel that is outside their job responsibilities and a violation of their constitutional right under the 4th amendment against illegal search and seizure.
We went to court to stop it. They said in court yesterday that the only reason they asked our drivers [to bring those arrested to jail] is that the regular department of correction buses were delayed in traffic en route to the Brooklyn Bridge.
The federal district court judge yesterday said that he doesn’t think this should ever happen again and he thinks the police department will be prepared and will not ask our members to drive these buses again.
This has never happened before.
AJE: How far is the TWU Local 100 willing to go to support this protest? Is there a possibility of a strike?
AS: People have to come to work. We’re not telling people not to come to work, to go to the rally. A strike would be illegal under New York state law. I can’t comment on that.