NORTHAMPTON – The paved walkway in Northampton’s Pulaski Park slowly filled with people last Thursday afternoon as a mixture of students, union representatives and older activists milled around prior to the day’s planned Occupy demonstration.
The protest, which was organized by local off-shoots of Occupy Wall Street and featured several veteran occupiers on a bus tour from New York, drew approximately 100 people out into the February cold to march, chant, hold signs and register their discontent with the economic and political situation in America.
The march took place following two days of organizing and training put on by the efforts of local Occupy groups interacting with protest and labor groups from western Massachusetts. The Occupy Wall Street activists from New York were on a five-week trip to various Occupy groups in the northeastern United States. Local organizers said the previous night’s screening of films from local and national Occupy groups drew 600 people to the city’s Academy of Music.
A demonstrator led a protest sing-along in the middle of the park; one song described Wall Street bankers as “greedy parasites who would lash us into serfdom.” Two Northampton police officers looked on from the outskirts of the gathering. Members of the Expandable Brass Band, a local music group which often plays at activist events, received a request for “Down by the Riverside” and played a version of the gospel song, their hands in fingerless gloves against the dropping temperature.
Andrew Huckins, a Pioneer Valley native who spent the last four months at the Wall Street encampment, stood on a bench and announced the start of the march using the call-and-response technique that occupiers call a “mic check.” The crowd echoed each sentence of his short speech and then moved out, crossing over to Masonic Street and chanting as they made their way to a Verizon storefront.
The march progressed to the sounds of chants and hand drums, spilling into the street as the demonstrators turned at the corner of Masonic and Center Streets. Two police officers followed, yelling over the crowd and directing the protesters to move onto the sidewalk. Most of the demonstrators either did not hear or chose not to follow the order, staying in the middle of the road before turning onto the sidewalk of the more traffic-heavy Main Street. Marchers continued onto Market Street, filtering back into the middle of the road.
“We are the 99 percent and so are you!” chanted many in the crowd. “Out of the sidewalk, into the streets!”
By 5:30 p.m. – about an hour and 15 minutes after the march began – the demonstration returned to Pulaski Park. Three police cars sat nearby with flashing lights as demonstrators stood on the steps of Northampton City Hall. Some demonstrators later “mic checked” that night’s City Council meeting, interrupting the proceedings to shout and echo a list of economic and political grievances that protesters felt the council had failed to properly address. The protesters left after agreeing to City Council President William Dwight’s proposal of holding an open forum at a later date to discuss the issues raised by the demonstration.
Union representatives also spoke at multiple stops on the protest, criticizing employers in Northampton for what they characterized as poor working conditions, low wages and unfair contract negotiations.
Jon Weissman, a representative of the AFL-CIO and the coordinator of Western Mass. Jobs with Justice, called on Verizon to come to a favorable agreement with its union, saying that the AFL-CIO was “fighting for one of the best contracts in America, one that we want for everybody” His words were echoed by demonstrators outside Verizon’s Northampton office.
In an interview, Weissman recognized the skepticism that some protesters felt towards the possibilities of electoral politics, but defended efforts to advocate within the existing political system.
“The labor movement has had friendly leaders elected to a majority in both houses under a Democratic president, and they still weren’t able to change the laws to improve Social Security and Medicare, or the right to organize or any of the important things that would buttress the average person,” Weissman said. “I think you have to work through every system that exists, but you have to understand that every system is under pressure.”
The protest also targeted ServiceNet, a Northampton-based non-profit which provides physical and mental health care as well as other forms of support for Pioneer Valley residents. Ronald Patenaude, a representative of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2322, stood on the steps of ServiceNet’s King Street office building and criticized the organization for its treatment of its workers.
“It’s not just the 1 percent, it’s the 5 percent, like Sue Stubbs, the CEO of Servicenet, who makes $170,000 a year while the majority of her workers make less than $30,000,” Patenaude said. “The management also pays half what our members pay for health insurance. It’s wrong. We’ve been in contract negotiations for 10 months, and it’s time that these people did the right thing.”
Both sides accused the other in interviews of stalling and failing to bargain in good faith.
Stubbs accused the UAW of distributing misleading and false information and obstructing negotiations by refusing to enter mediation proposed by ServiceNet. She cited an Association for Behavioral Healthcare salary survey that placed ServiceNet as providing above average compensation, compared to similar organizations in the state. A 2011 report by the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health Task Force on Staff and Client Safety, however, reported concerns among mental health staffers that overall low compensation to care providers harmed safety by making the recruitment and retention of experienced staff difficult.
“They’re disrespectful of our members and respecting their rights,” said Patenaude. “Mediation is useless when one of the parties doesn’t want to bargain.”
According to Patenaude, ServiceNet offered a four-year contract with an initial raise of less than 1 percent and no raises in subsequent years. But after rounds of counteroffers, the proposal now currently offers a 2 percent raise in workers’ first year and then no guaranteed raise in the next.
Patenaude, however, further argued that the way the deal is structured would not actually give a 2 percent increase in wages, since the raise would not be postdated to when the last contract expired months ago.
Stubbs, though, wrote in an email that the deal included yearly 1 percent bonuses, as well as yearly negotiations which could potentially result in raises. In a letter she sent out to ServiceNet staffers, she stated that the UAW’s initial proposal would have cost ServiceNet approximately $6.5 million and that managers, while receiving significant jumps in compensation four to five years ago, had not as a group received raises in the last 18 months.
Some protesters, prior to Thursday’s demonstration, reminisced about what compelled them to join the local occupy effort.
John Conant, a 74-year-old Pioneer Valley resident who taught electrical engineering at UMass before retiring, stood in Pulaski Park before the demonstration took place.
“As soon as Occupy happened, I was enthusiastic watching the goings-on on news. When it came to the Valley … I got involved with Occupy Amherst, which has been going on ever since,” Conant said. “I think Occupy has raised the awareness of people that there’s a huge disparity of wealth and income [in America]… that’s really important.”
For Conant, the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which legalized unlimited corporate and union donations to political action committees, was a key issue due to the role that such donations are likely to play in current and future political campaigns.
“It seems like we’re losing our democracy as a result. I’m pretty frightened about that,” said Conant.
Sarah Coflan, a student at Greenfield Community College, was at her first protest.
“I’m here because it feels like a lot of the ideas are just sort of common sense,” Coflan said. “We’re being told education is really important and that’s how you get places, but I’m like, how do I get there if I can’t afford it?
“[Student debt] is a really big issue for me,” continued Coflan. “It’s going to be affecting me for years and years. It’s something that really scares me.”
Dan Glaun can be reached at [email protected]