Updated 7:25 pm EST
NEW YORK - Unions gave a high-profile boost to the long-running protest against Wall Street and economic inequality Wednesday, with their members joining thousands of protesters in a lower Manhattan march. Across the country, students at several colleges walked out of classes in solidarity.
People gathered 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 marched to Zuccotti Park, the protesters' unofficial headquarters, where they refueled with snacks and hurriedly painted new signs as the strong scent of burning sage wafted through the plaza.
Competing drum circles went full speed on the north and south sides of the square as people continued to chant and march around the perimeter.
Susan Henoch, 63, of Manhattan said she was a "child of the `60s" and came out to the park for the first time Wednesday. She held a sign that read, "Enough."
"It's time for the people to speak up," she said. "Nobody's listening to us, nobody's representing us. Politics is dead.
"This is no longer a recognizable democracy. This is a disaster," she said.
Sterling W. Roberson, vice president for the United Federation of Teachers, said union members shared the same ideals as activists who have been camped out in sleeping bags for more than two weeks.
"The middle class is taking the burden but the wealthiest of our state and country are not," he said.
Thousands of protesters packed Foley Square, standing behind police barricades in front of the courthouse buildings. Some wore union T-shirts, others were in business attire, and many left work early to be there.
People in the crowd were carrying red-white-and-blue signs bearing a giant star-graced A -- representing the motto "Rebuild America." Other signs bore slogans including "Tax Wall Street" and "Make Jobs Not Cuts."
Some union members were there from other states.
Karen Higgins, a co-president of National Nurses United, came down with a group of colleagues from Boston. She said they had seen patients who skipped important medical tests because they couldn't afford them.
"Tax Wall Street," she said. "Those who make all the money need to start paying their fair share."
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.
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.
South African Adam Ash, who lives in New York City, has slept at the scene. He told CBS News that he and the protesters know they are channeling an anger that is worldwide. "We have a rallying cry - the anger with Wall Street, the economic inequality and greed. It's simple. When people say we don't have demands -- we do have a demand. We want to point out the massive inequality -- economic, social inequality."
Police said that United NY had sought a permit for the rally Wednesday and were expecting about 2,000. They were planning to use microphones at the square, but not at the park.
"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."