Unions Push For Protests Throughout D.C.

Dec 6, 2011
Originally published on December 6, 2011 10:11 am
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


We thought it would be helpful to get some additional context, so we've called upon Elisabeth Jacobs. She's a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, and that's a think tank, a research and policy group in Washington, D.C., and she's currently taking a look at long-term unemployment and talking about how policymakers have grappled with it in the wake of the economic downturn. Ms. Jacobs, thanks for joining us.

ELISABETH JACOBS: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: I mean, I know it's early, you know, this necessarily is clear but do you see - what do you see as the relationship between the Take Back the Capitol folks and the Occupy Wall Street folks and what are the differences?

JACOBS: I think the similarities are what they're motivated by. So obviously the impacts of the Great Recession have been devastating. We have a jobless recovery that's left 13 million Americans out of work. Forty-three percent of those unemployed workers have been out of work for six months or more and that's really motivating people to get out and try and do something. And then there are these longer economic terms. I mean, economic inequality is a norm, as we've seen the incomes of the top 1 percent grow by 275 percent since 1979. The incomes of the middle has grown by, you know, far less than that, just 40 percent.

MARTIN: In the same time frame?

JACOBS: So, in the same time frame, yeah. And so, I think that's the similarity that's motivating these two groups.

MARTIN: What's the difference between these two groups?

JACOBS: The difference is that the Occupy protests have really been kind of an organic thing. You know, there's been back and forth as to the do they have a leader, do they not? But the way they're run is this very - you know, people show up and it's a very horizontal structure. Whereas the Take Back the Capitol movement has really been organized by the organized left, and that's the unions, the progressive interest groups and people who've really been working for a long time to actually mobilize people who care about economic justice issues.

MARTIN: And so - and I know you don't speak for the group - but to what end? You know, what is the purpose of their organizing? You heard I was asking Reverend Hawking this and - but I'm asking you this as well. What are they organizing for?

JACOBS: I think both groups are organizing broadly around this message of the 99 percent. The fact that our economic system and our political system has really made things go very well for a certain sector and go less well for a lot more people. So, that's a similarity. On the other hand, you have these organized groups that have been pushing for specific policies for a long time. They've got an interest in, you know, making it easier to organize, or at least protecting the rights that folks have now in order to continue to be able to organize unions at their workplaces.

And then you have issues like unemployment benefits, basic social safety net things that have been...

rights that folks have now in order to continue to be able to organize unions at their workplaces and then you have issues like unemployment benefits, basic social safety net things that have been, you know, under attack for a while and that have been bolstered during the recession, but the people have concerns that, potentially, they could be stronger. And what are we going to do as we continue to just kind of try and dig our way out of the economic hole that we're in?

MARTIN: Now, I know that many people on both the left and the right don't love the comparison between the Tea Party and the Occupy group, that Occupy, slash, you know, Take Back the Capitol Group that - the Take Back folks being, you know, left of center, the Tea Party, being, you know, right of center.

But you do see the analogy around kind of the grassroots movement, which kind of starts organically, but then quickly coalesces around a certain kind of idea. The central idea around the Tea Party folks, which did seem to have an impact in the midterm elections, was that they seemed to pretty quickly coalesce around the central idea of smaller government, keep taxes low, certainly no tax increases or even cut taxes as much as possible. And they were effective. I mean, I don't think it's in much dispute that the Tea Party did have an effect on the midterm elections and the kind of - some of the candidates, particularly the Republican freshmen, who then wound up on Capitol Hill now.

Is there any evidence that this movement on the left, the Occupy group and Take Back the Capitol group, are coalescing around a similar idea, which could then have an impact? Since, as we discussed, they are headed to Capitol Hill, presumably to press their case to those people.

JACOBS: I think the 99 percent idea is actually sort of comparable to this less government, cut, cut, cut idea that the Tea Party's got. So as far as a big motivating principle, I think they're sort of on the same page there. I think where the Tea Party was different from the Occupy protests and from the Take Back the Capitol movement is that the Tea Party - I mean, I kind of think of it as a three cornered hat. You know, that's what they wear and so it's a continuing way of remembering things. But you've got the activists who are the people who wear the funny hats, right, who are out there doing the protests.

You have a conservative media that's really pushing their ideas and giving them the publicity and then you have institutionalized moneyed interests that are really putting money behind it and doing real organizing. And I think those three pieces are really key to what the Tea Party is and why they were successful. It's not so much that they had an idea. It's that they had an idea that was organized.

MARTIN: And now on the left...

JACOBS: So the question on the left - I think where we are right now is you have Occupy Wall Street that's really kind of galvanized around an idea and given the left this motivating idea that it's not just: we don't like what the right has to say. We don't like the Tea Party. It's this is what we stand for. We stand for economic justice. We stand for making the economic system and the political system really work on behalf of everyone, not just on behalf of the few.

MARTIN: So what I hear you saying is that the Take Back the Capitol movement might be that prong of the stool, that third leg of the stool - we'll use a different analogy just because they're a different group. We'll leave the hats on the right and we'll do a stool on the left. You're saying that that could be leg of the stool that tries to - that starts now to translate that general unhappiness into a legislative platform.

What will you be looking for to determine whether or not that energy on the left is actually translating into something that could have an impact, either legislatively or in policy or in some kind of way that we can notice, as briefly as you can?

JACOBS: Okay. I'm seeing - I mean, first, we've got the fact that, obviously, conservative politicians are already worried because the Occupy movement has resonated. So public opinion and just getting that message out there has already made a difference.

I think we'll see in the midterms - or in the presidential election and the congressional elections coming up whether Occupy and Take Back the Capitol can translate into something politically real.

Elisabeth Jacobs is a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. She joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Keep us posted if you would.

I will. Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: Thank you for joining us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.