NEW YORK — A diverse group of powerful unions joined demonstrations near Wall Street on Wednesday, lending focus, credibility and potentially hundreds of participants to a group that started out with a few college students camping out in lower Manhattan.
Among those planning to join the clamor were members of the Chinatown Tenants Union and the Transit Workers Union, the liberal group MoveOn.org and community organizations such as the Working Families Party and United NY. At several colleges across the nation, students participated from afar by heeding organizers' calls to walk out of classes.
In New York, protesters were gathering at Foley Square, an area encircled by courthouses and named for "Big Tom" Foley, a former blacksmith's helper who became a prominent state Democratic leader. From there they were to march to Zuccotti Park, the unofficial headquarters where protesters have been camped out in sleeping bags.
It's unclear how many people will be joining the march on Wednesday, but some organizers said thousands could show up. About 1,000 people were in Foley Square shortly before the march was to begin.
Some union members were driving in from other states. Roxanne Pauline, a coordinator for the Northeastern Pennsylvania Area Labor Federation, said some of her union's members plan to stay in Zuccotti Park over the weekend.
"They'll teach the younger people what unions are — that they're not thugs or mobsters, but working people," she said.
Police said that United NY had sought a permit for the rally and that about 2,000 people were expected. They were planning to use microphones at the square, but not at the park.
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.
The protesters have varied causes but have reserved most of their criticism for Wall Street. They've spoken out about unemployment and economic inequality, saying "we are the 99 percent" — in contrast to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans.
"I think they're capturing a feel of disempowerment, feeling like nobody is listening to them," said Camille Rivera, executive director of United NY. "What do you do when no one is listening to you? You speak up, you take action."
Other groups have periodically gathered and protested in spots throughout the country. In Boston, about 200 Northeastern University students gathered on campus Wednesday to condemn what they called corporate control of government and the spiraling costs of their education.
"We're letting inequality build in this country and there's not enough resistance," said senior international affairs major Andrea Gordillo, of Sarasota, Fla.
"There are real bread-and-butter issues in this country — like the future of Social Security and our parents' retirement — that aren't being taken care of now, and we're the ones who are going to be called on to fix that," she said of her generation.
Hundreds of college students at New York's sprawling public university system walked out of classes Wednesday afternoon, 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."
No one needs a permit to protest in New York City, where picket lines and marches go on nearly every day. But a permit allows demonstrators to do things that would normally be illegal — like filling an entire street.
During the U.N. General Assembly, thousands of protesters took to the streets, but police were aware and facilitated and planned for traffic disruptions. But during one day of the assembly, six demonstrators attempted to block traffic and were arrested.
"That was more in the tradition of civil disobedience," said Paul Browne, spokesman for the NYPD. "It seemed their aim was to get arrested."
About 700 members of the Wall Street group were arrested and given disorderly conduct summonses for spilling into the roadway of the Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday despite warnings from police.
It's not clear whether the protesters meant it as civil disobedience; some say they were tricked by police into entering the road and were wrongly arrested. Police video shows officers with bullhorns telling them to keep off the road.
Browne said that the department was prepared for a large group march Wednesday, and that officers were anticipating spillover onto the streets.
"Officers will be in the lane next to the sidewalk, and we will try to keep people on the sidewalk, but we realize they may need to walk on the street if it's crowded," he said.
That type of activity that could result in arrest would be if members of the group, say, purposefully try to stop traffic on Broadway, Browne said.
MoveOn.org is planning a "virtual march" on its website by encouraging people to post photos of themselves with the caption: "I'm the 99 percent." The group's executive director, Justin Ruben, called the protesters "brave young people" who have successfully inspired others to join them.
"From our perspective, we're protesting kind of the greed that led to the collapse of our economy," Ruben said. "The fact that these banks aren't paying their fair share."
Associated Press writers Mark Pratt in Boston and Chris Carola in New Paltz, N.Y., contributed to this report.