What Activists (Should Have) Learned in 2012
by Randy Shaw, 2012-12-17
Activists learned some important lessons in 2012. DREAM ACTivists reminded us that pressuring political allies to keep their campaign promises is often essential for achieving progressive change. Teachers in Chicago and elsewhere showed us how the billionaire/corporate takeover of public schools could be effectively fought
. The 2012 elections showed how activists could harness public support for reducing inequality (the 1% v.99%) and economic unfairness, but still need to create a sense of urgency on jobs. Labor activists learned how to more strategically challenge
Walmart, and progressives discovered they could win marriage equality and increased taxes through state ballot initiatives. Applying these and other lessons from 2012 will help activists bring progressive change in 2013.
Activists are in far better spirits than one year ago. Progressives see that the public is on their side, and, unlike in the aftermath of the 2008 elections, are staying engaged in the major policy struggles that elections are supposed to be all about.
Let’s consider what lessons activists did or should have learned from 2012:
: Activists have learned not to overly rely on their good relations with Obama or Democratic Senators to get comprehensive reform done. They know that they must act as if the 2012 election campaign were ongoing, which means mobilizing millions of Latino voters and their supporters in this struggle.
Immigrant rights activists are primed to reverse their mistakes of 2009 and get legislation moving right from the start in 2013. Organized labor has already unified on this issue (a problem in recent reform efforts), and progressives are likely to make comprehensive reform their top priority once the “fiscal cliff” tax and budget struggle is resolved.
Tax and Budget
: Activists learned in 2012 that the public strongly backs progressive efforts to address inequality and economic unfairness. They also know from the aftermath of the 2008 election that the substance of election victories can be quickly overturned absent post-election mobilizing. The so-called “fiscal cliff” encouraged ongoing engagement, but I think more is involved: activists realized that their pressure is essential to ensuring that Obama and national Democrats make the most progressive possible deal.
Activists have hopefully also learned that the deal around the Bush tax cuts and “fiscal cliff” is not a substitute for a national jobs campaign. All of the job creation measures Obama failed to get passed in 2012 should be back on the table, as even the most progressive budget deal is no substitute for public investments to get people back to work.
: Activists learned in 2012 that this issue is off the national political radar screen, with it being entirely ignored
in all three presidential debates. And while Hurricane Sandy and the lack of snow at elite ski resorts across the nation would seem to create momentum for legislative action, House Republicans will be hard to move.
This leaves EPA administrative actions as the best if not only course of action.
The big enviro issue in 2013 will be stopping the Keystone Pipeline. Bill McKibben, 350.org and other groups have never stopped organizing around this issue, and the lesson they learned from 2012 is to keep doing what they’ve been doing
: Labor activists may have learned more lessons in 2012 than anyone.
First, they relearned that labor does best when identified as a social movement rather than as a guild solely concerned with its own members interests.
Second, they learned that Walmart must be challenged outside the typical union organizing, shop by shop strategy. Labor had talked about a grassroots worker campaign against Walmart for years, and in 2012 they finally implemented it and saw results.
Third, labor learned that they were politically weaker in states like Wisconsin and Michigan than they realized. Labor took to the streets and used all of their political power to stop attacks in both states, yet failed to stop anti-union legislation.
Fourth, labor was reminded by these attacks just how badly its leadership bungled chances in 2009 to pass federal legislation that would have increased union power and possibly even made it much harder to attack unions since 2011. How unions invested over $200 million in the 2008 Obama campaign and got no new legislation stands in stark contrast to what Republicans quickly accomplished for labor’s opponents in Michigan in 2012 and in Wisconsin in 2011.
Finally, there is one lesson that many labor and workers rights activists did not learn in 2012: media coverage of struggles is not equivalent to progress. Reading activists’ excitement over 200 fast food workers in New York City conducting a one-day strike, one would think that there was actually a serious plan to invest millions of dollars in a real union organizing drive at McDonalds or another of the nation’s major fast food chains.
There is no such plan. This excitement appears to be due to the high-profile coverage of the action in the New York Times, whose November 29 story described the action
as “the biggest wave of job actions in the history of America’s fast-food industry.”
That a strike by only 200 workers in a city of eight million people and tens of thousands of fast food workers is the “biggest” in the industry’s history reflects the many impediments to such organizing drives, which is why they have not happened. I understand activists’ excitement over seeing McDonalds’ workers “rising up” in protest, but, unlike the effective Walmart actions, this appears to be a one-day news story rather than the kickoff of a well-funded, sustained campaign.
: 2012 began with billionaires and right-wing interests primed to weaken teachers unions, their chief adversary in the campaign to privatize public schools. But we learned in 2012 what many of us already knew: the public does not accept that teachers are to blame for school problems.
This became clear from the strong parent support for the September Chicago Teachers strike
, and from teachers mobilizing against the Republican Party’s attempt to turn them into the Willie Hortons of the 2012 campaign. Teachers are showing all activists the importance of aggressively challenging the corporate framing of social problems, and while the struggle continues, 2012 showed progress.
: Before November 2012, it was said that marriage equality could not win a popular vote. Four victories later, the tide has turned, with polls for the first time showing a majority of Americans backing marriage equality. Much has been written about this dramatic shift, but I want to emphasize one particular lesson: not giving up after defeat. The folks in Maine lost an election, and then came back and won in 2012. And if the Supreme Court upholds Prop 8, marriage equality will win on the California ballot in November 2014.
Activists learn from defeats, but as 2012 showed, it’s more rewarding to learn from victories.
Randy Shaw is the author of The Activist’s Handbook
and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century