When Richard Trumka, the head of the nation’s largest labor union coalition, the AFL-CIO, visited the Occupy Wall Street protesters last week, he offered a simple message. “We are going to support them in any way we can,” he said. “We’re not going to try to usurp them in any way.” Those marching orders have since been spread across the progressive and Democratic establishment. The rag-tag groups of kids who have been gathering around the county have support from the highest levels of power. But no one wants to try to tell them what to do.
This delicate courtship is playing out in interesting ways, as I explain in a story in this week’s issue of TIME, now available online to subscribers. Progressive institutions like the Center for American Progress have devoted sections of their website to cover the protests and spread their 99% message. MoveOn.org set up a projector at the site of the protests in lower Manhattan to broadcast messages of support from its members who could not be there. Democratic members of Congress have been visiting the protests around the country, and protest organizers have been invited to Capitol Hill to brief leaders. “Members are saying, ‘They are right. They are absolutely right,’” said one senior Democratic aide in the House.
It just so happens that institutional progressives had already planned to launch an autumn protest push around the country, under the banner of a new group, Rebuildthedream.org, which was founded by Van Jones, a former Obama administration official who has since returned to activism. Their plans for nationwide protests have since been recalibrated to make room for the Occupy movement, which has a new, more compelling national brand. “There is enough overlap between the networks of people,” explains Jones. “We are able to be on listservs together. We text together.”
Among protest organizers and supporters, there remains significant anger at the perception that organized right-wing groups, like Americans for Prosperity, were able to turn the spontaneous Tea Party protests into an arm of the organized right. But at the same time, all sides recognize the potential for synergy. “As long as those organizations don’t attach strings, I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t accept,” says Patrick Bruner, a spokesman for the protesters in Zuccotti Park.
One early sign of the coordination can be seen in a nascent effort to collect funds to get pro-Occupy ads running on television. Established progressive organizers in D.C. have been working with the media working group of the Zuccotti Park protesters to put together a small campaign to share this footage.
A start-up called Loudsauce.com has set up a webpage where anyone can give money to place the ad on television. If the campaign catches fire with grassroots donations, look for bigger money to enter the picture. Professional progressives are also hoping to rally big protests nationwide on Nov. 17, the two month anniversary of the first Occupy Wall Street overnight. In addition, more rallies are being planned this weekend around the country. Union participation is likely, just as it is unlikely that most of the union participants will be wearing their labor t-shirts.
The discussions to the Occupy potential have already reached the highest rungs of the Obama Administration. On Oct. 6, senior Obama aide Stephanie Cutter was meeting with progressive leaders in the White House complex, just as Occupy D.C. protesters converged on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce a block away. Chuck Loveless, the top lobbyist for AFSCME, the public employee union, told everyone at the meeting that they should adjust their thinking going forward, given the people filling the streets. “We should all recognize that we are in a new moment,” Loveless said.
Suffice it to say, the leaders of liberal Washington establishment recognize the moment. And they have no desire to let it pass them by.