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October 2011, Week 1

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Wed, 5 Oct 2011 22:41:39 -0400
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Forty Years after the Hard Hat Riot, A Different
Response from Organized Labor to Wall Street Protests
Greg Smithsimon
October 4, 2011 12:20 pm

http://dissentmagazine.org/atw.php?id=568

At the edge of Liberty Plaza, across from the World
Trade Center, a group of protesters from Occupy Wall
Street began a ragtag drumming circle last Thursday
morning. A handful of others danced around them. At
lunchtime over a hundred construction workers streamed
out of the steel frames of the rising Trade Center
office buildings and headed for the park. What happened
when the protesters and hard hats met was shocking:
nothing. The construction workers, highly visible in
orange vests or dayglow yellow shirts, sat in groups on
the benches, ate their lunch, and watched the dancers.

This is not always what happens when protesters and
labor unions meet in Lower Manhattan. On May 8, 1970,
high-school and college students came to Wall Street to
protest the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia and the murder
of students at Kent State by the National Guard.
Hundreds of construction workers streamed out of their
work sites on their lunch break and charged the
protesters. Construction workers beat protesters with
crowbars, fists, and their hard hats. Seventy people
were injured. The police did little, and only six were
arrested.

Long before I had the political understanding to
comprehend what came to be known as the Hard Hat Riot, I
had heard the story from the father of a childhood
friend. The riot was his proudest moment. He had been a
construction worker in New York at the time and recalled
it fondly. Years later, he would tell the story of
marching down Wall Street and growl with bravado, "We
showed those hippies."

The Hard Hat Riot was organized by Peter J. Brennan, for
over thirty years the president of the Building and
Construction Trades Council of Greater New York. The
protests were organized around notions of patriotism,
culture clash (some workers singled out young men with
long hair for beatings), and most of all the flag. The
hard hats had marched behind a U.S. flag and initially
demanded that they be allowed to install it on the steps
where the protesters were standing. They later marched
to City Hall to raise the flag that was flying at half
mast for the students killed at Kent State, and even
tore down nearby Trinity Church's Episcopalian and Red
Cross flags, apparently because they were different.

Maybe that's why someone at the Occupy Wall Street event
gave my seven-year-old son a U.S. flag: as inoculation.
One of the dancers waved a big American flag as well.
Particularly after September 11, many workers have U.S.
flag stickers on their hard hats. But without an
instigator like Brennan, the construction workers
downtown today don't show signs of hostility.

Instead, in my two days watching construction workers
watch the protesters, it's been a careful dance. The
construction workers practice studious inattention. They
look, but don't look. Occasionally one will do a little
hip-shaking dance to the music to entertain his friends.
But the two groups are careful to respect each other and
keep their social if not physical distance. A woman who
had apparently slept in the park was sitting on a bench
surrounded by beefy guys in dayglow shirts. She put on a
cardboard protest sign then removed her shirt. Topless
but concealed behind a single piece of cardboard, she
freshened up with some underarm deodorant, then got up
and walked through the park with her sign. The
construction workers played it cool. They were likewise
blase about a topless woman walking casually around the
park with Occupy Wall Street slogans written across her
stomach. One man in a dayglow vest with a high-end
camera asked if he could take pictures. She posed, and
he laughed with her and snapped some shots.

Of course, the fact that protesters and construction
workers were keeping their distance was a disappointment
as well. Wouldn't it make sense to reach out to
working-class America with a message condemning greed
and class warfare by the elites and demanding a better
deal for working people? After all, it wasn't just
protesters that had slogans. Plenty of those yellow
shirts had union logos on them with slogans like "Live
Better--Work Union" and "Yes We Can, Yes We Have, Yes We
Will."

Although the lunchtime crowd was timid, Occupy Wall
Street is quickly building bridges with the city's
largest labor unions. Protesters from Liberty Plaza have
joined rallies for the Communication Workers of America
strike against Verizon (which is holding up contract
resolution for 45,000 workers), for Teamsters locked out
by Sotheby's, for postal workers, and for union pilots
hurt by the merger of Continental and United Airlines.

Unions have returned the favor, recognizing the power of
both the message and the medium of the protest, which
captures the innovations of the Arab Spring, this
summer's Israeli social justice movement, and Spanish
anti-austerity occupations. A march is planned for this
Wednesday, October 5 from City Hall to Liberty Plaza,
with 32BJ SEIU, 1199 SEIU, Transport Workers Union Local
100, the United Federation of Teachers, and the
Communications Workers of America rallying to support
the occupation. In a far cry from the days of the Hard
Hat Riot, Jason Ide, the president of Teamsters Local
814, told Crain's New York Business, "What's so great
about it is they've managed to capture a feeling that's
out there that decisions are being made that aren't
helping 99 percent of society." A spokesperson for the
Transit Workers Union Local 100 told the Village Voice,
"It's kind of a natural alliance with the young people
and the students--they're voicing our message, why not
join them? On many levels, our workers feel an affinity
with the kids." Solidarity doesn't flow from abstract
ideals; it develops from concrete contributions.
Protesters have shown their commitment by logging hours
supporting union causes, and unions return the favor.

How about on the other side of the class divide? In
1970, there were conflicting reports about which side
Wall Street bankers were on. Some conservatives claimed
that the suits joined the hard hats in bashing the
protesters. But at least one partner at Lehman Brothers,
Robert A. Bernhard, tried to protect a protester from
assault; he and another white-collar worker were beaten
as a result. This time around, unions are facing off
against Wall Street. At a parallel occupation in Boston,
protesters report that "Boston's office workers are
coming to meet us on lunch breaks. They bring food and
love." It can be lonely for that 1 percent, eating lunch
alone. How many suits will join the protest this time
around?

____________________________________________

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