Unions lent their muscle to the long-running protest against Wall Street and economic inequality Wednesday, fueling speculation about how long the camp-out in lower Manhattan — and related demonstrations around the country — will continue.
Thousands of protesters, including many in union T-shirts, filled Foley Square on Wednesday and then marched to Zuccotti Park, where the protesters have been camping since Sept. 17.
Labor leaders say they will continue to support the protests, both with manpower and donations of goods and services.
"The great thing about Occupy Wall Street is that they have brought the focus of the entire country on the middle class majority," said George Aldro, 62, a member of Local 2325 of the United Auto Workers, as he carried the union's blue flag over his shoulder through lower Manhattan.
"We're in it together, and we're in it for the long haul."
The protesters have varied causes but have spoken largely about unemployment and economic inequality, reserving most of their criticism for Wall Street. "We are the 99 percent," they chanted, contrasting themselves with the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans.
Ed Figueroa, a janitor in a public school in the Bronx and a shop steward with Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, said the march was "the first time in these weeks that unions have shown their face."
"But it won't be the last time," he said. "We'll be back."
The unions were donating food, blankets and office space to the protesters, said Dan Cantor, head of the Working Families Party. But he said the young protesters would continue to head their own efforts. The movement lacks an identified leader and decisions are made during group meetings.
"They're giving more to us than we're giving to them. They're a shot in the arm to everybody," Cantor said.
"The labor movement is following the youth of America today and that's a good thing."
Victor Rivera, a vice-president for the powerful 1199 Service Employees International Union, which represents health care workers, said the union had donated "all the food they need for this entire week" to the Zuccotti Park campers. Union leaders had also assigned liaisons from their political action committee to work with demonstrators.
"We are here to support this movement against Wall Street's greed," he said. "We support the idea that the rich should pay their fair share."
Late Wednesday, some demonstrators marched toward the New York Stock Exchange but were stopped by police about two blocks away.
Police said about 28 arrests were made, mostly for disorderly conduct. One person was arrested for assaulting an officer; police said the officer was pushed off his scooter.
The Occupy Wall Street protests started Sept. 17 with a few dozen demonstrators who tried to pitch tents in front of the New York Stock Exchange. Since then, hundreds have set up camp nearby in Zuccotti Park and have become increasingly organized, lining up medical aid and legal help and printing their own newspaper.
On Saturday, about 700 people were arrested and given disorderly conduct summonses for spilling into the roadway of the Brooklyn Bridge despite warnings from police.
Several Democratic lawmakers have expressed support for the protesters, but some Republican presidential candidates have rebuked them. Herman Cain called the activists "un-American" Wednesday at a book signing in St. Petersburg, Fla.
"They're basically saying that somehow the government is supposed to take from those that have succeeded and give to those who want to protest," the former pizza-company executive said. "That's not the way America was built."
Many of those protesting are college students. Hundreds walked out of classes in New York, some in a show of solidarity for the Wall Street movement but many more concerned with worries closer to home. Protests were scheduled at State University of New York campuses including Albany, Buffalo, Binghamton, New Paltz and Purchase.
Danielle Kingsbury, a 21-year-old senior from New Paltz, said she walked out of an American literature class to show support for some of her professors who she said have had their workloads increased because of budget cuts.
"The state of education in our country is ridiculous," said Kingsbury, who plans to teach. "The state doesn't care about it and we need to fight back about that."