Who ya gonna call? Occupy Austin!

Protesters with signs circle in front of Blue Sage. Sign: Blue Sage Feel Our Rage

An old-fashioned picket line (Photo: Kit O'Connell).

Last week we heard from the United Steelworkers on behalf of C&M Conveyor, a firm in Mitchell, Indiana. They unionized with United Steel a year ago but have struggled with the company’s owners, vulture capitalists Blue Sage Capital who have refused to give them a contract while cutting their hours, wages, health care and retirement benefits. Though health insurance is theoretically provided, the insurance deductible to cover a family is $10,000, leaving some workers literally bankrupt after medical emergencies. Many workers are so broke that they qualify for food stamps.

Today we protested at Blue Sage’s downtown Austin offices. The action was organized by United Steelworkers with Occupy Austin and the Texas AFL-CIO. Our coalition was joined by the Texas State Employees Union, the Freelancers Union, and the Sierra Club.

When I arrived there were just a few protesters in front of the building, but within minutes a march with dozens more came up the sidewalk chanting & holding signs. As Occupy Austin’s Dave Cortez drummed on a bucket, we took turns signing an oversized letter in support of C&M Conveyor’s demands:

To Jim McBride and Blue Sage Capital:

The motto that guides your firm is inspiring:

‘Twenty years from now we hope to be remembered for exemplary character in all that we have done.’

As concerned Texans, we call on you to live up to these fine words and bargain a fair deal, with affordable health and decent wages, with the hardworking men and women at C&M Conveyor in Mitchell, Indiana.

We commit to watch, monitor and extend our community of concern to our state and national networks until these simple goals are met, in order to improve the lives of people who make Blue Sage — and C&M Conveyor — work.

After hearing from two of the visitors from Indiana about their work and the conditions at C&M Conveyor and forming what Dave called “an old-fashioned, Southern picket line,” it was time to deliver our letter. At first the security guards were going to turn us away, and threatened to call the police. But by the time they finished saying that, we were already boarding the elevator. One guard relented and said three of us, plus Austin Chronicle photographer John Anderson, could ride the elevator to Blue Sage’s eighth floor office under his escort.

As we approached the office, the security guard entered first and I could hear a protest at allowing us to enter (not audible on the video to the left). But we were already in the office, and the visibly distressed employee had no way to refuse our delivery.

As we promised, we turned around and began to exit after delivering the letter. On the ride down we could hear the security guards radio crackle and the head of security demanding we get out of the building. We began a mic check as we left, letting Blue Sage know we’d be back and to ‘EXPECT US!’

With our mission complete, we marched to Congress, the main street through downtown, to hand out fliers about Blue Sage. I saw cops arrive as we left, but they vanished into the office building. I didn’t think anything more of them, since we were leaving anyway.

Until, that is, Austin Police Sergeant J. Spillers (Badge #3559) caught up to us, and grabbed me by the arm! “You’re the organizer!” he declared.

I insisted that I was not, and that there was no one in charge. Next he grabbed Dave as he drummed, shoving him back against the plate glass window of a nearby museum; in a surreal touch, a large crowd of school kids in matching t-shirts watched us from the other side with rapt attention, getting their first taste of the police state. We began yelling for him to stop manhandling us and shoving us around.

He kept demanding to know who was in charge, and repeating that security guards had said “the little guy in green” (that’s me, readers!) was the leader. Finally, another activist (with Texas AFL-CIO) said he’d helped organize the event. Sgt Spillers continued to threaten Dave Cortez for his drumming. Then, as John Anderson moved in closer to take a photo, he shoved him back against the museum with a hand on his lens.

Spillers insisted he’d felt intimidated and threatened by the drum and the camera lens, then got up into my face, then another activist, almost chest bumping us as he asked if we felt intimidated. We agreed that we did, but pointed out that he’s the man with the gun!

He finally began asking questions. Why hadn’t we left the building when asked? But we did, we said. Suddenly he was trying to be placating, while still using threatening body language, insisting he was just “trying to help us.” He gave his card to me, and then when it became clear we weren’t detained the bulk of us marched away, returning to the AFL-CIO to debrief (or, in my case, to a nearby deli for a sandwich).

It’s disturbing to me Sgt J Spillers had so poor an idea of how to handle a protest, even insisting at one point that his position as “a cop” somehow trumped John Anderson’s free speech rights as a journalist! Somehow, he was able to say moments later that he was trying to be helpful, even after threatening us verbally and physically. Two officers stood nearby as backup the whole time, refusing to get involved, and seeming dismayed at many moments with their fellow officer.

Compare Spillers behavior with the officer at the recent Chase Bank action, who simply asked us not to touch any customers or photograph them at an ATM, then let us alone. Sgt Spillers could have done the same, but instead chose to escalate. As is almost always the case, the only violence at Occupy actions is violence instigated by authorities.

C&M Conveyor told us that Blue Sage has promised to open negotiations. We hope they do, but if not they know now that Occupy Austin will keep them feeling the pressure.