5. Response to the Crisis

The response of the US working class to the continuation of the wars and to the crisis has been weak, uneven and sporadic. We do not see a strong social movement in any sector of society – not in labor, not in the anti-war movement, not among people of color or immigrants. While there has been activity around the gay marriage issue, largely in response to denial of the right to marry, the GLBTQ movement has otherwise not been particularly active. The lack of response is a result partly of the Obama honeymoon factor and secondly of the cautious reaction to the economic crisis.

The Anti-War Movement’s Response

The anti-war movement, already disheartened by its inability to move the Bush presidency despite massive demonstrations in the early years of the Iraq War, has now been largely demobilized by the Obama presidency. Many believed that Obama would carry out his campaign promises to end the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, MoveOn.org, which claims after ten years to now have 4.2 million members, has said it will give Obama “the benefit of the doubt,” an attitude calculated to encourage passivity. While the two other largest anti-war organizing centers, United For Peace and Justice (UFPJ) and the ANSWER Coalition, have not adopted that position and continue to call for an end to the wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, they have not been able to overcome the current malaise of the movement.

In 2008, there was a small uptick of antiwar activity (most notably IVAW’s Winter Soldier hearings) around the country. Despite this, there was no national (or coordinated regional) mobilization to mark the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War. Since then, many people have come to believe both that “the surge” has worked and that Obama will be ending the war in Iraq. People have also become consumed with the fallout over the economic crisis. As a result, antiwar activity has plummeted and the antiwar movement threatens to virtually disappear. Unlike 2008, however, the anniversary of the war in Iraq in 2009 was marked by two mass demonstrations.

UfPJ felt pressured to have an event around the 6th anniversary, initially calling for a week of actions in DC, abandoned after ANSWER responded by calling for a march in DC on the 21st.

The ANSWER demonstration involved about 8,000 people in a march past the Pentagon and office buildings and converged on Halliburton and General Dynamics. There was a small but spirited Campus Anti-War Network (CAN) contingent. The demonstration, made up of a young, diverse and energetic crowd, had a clear “Out Now” message, strong support for Palestine, and an anti-imperialist sentiment. Unfortunately, its numbers did not exceed 10,000 and it had been organized largely by ANSWER with its typical lack of transparency. Many of those participating were members of left groups.

UFPJ ended up calling a national march in Lower Manhattan on April 4th. The march as made up of about 5,000 people with visible minorities of youth and people of color, well as a U.S. Labor Against the War contingent of some 100s (USLAW continues to organize, including doing real solidarity work with the Iraqi labor movement, but on a smaller scale than before) – but it was mostly white and older “Vietnam Anti-War Movement” generation folks.

The event was called “Beyond War: A New Economy is Possible” and it tried to make linkages between the economic crisis and the money being spent on the war. While attempts were made to link the economic crisis to the wars, it did not have a clear “Out Now” message, Palestine was not mentioned (despite the largest-ever Palestine solidarity demonstrations erupting earlier in 2009 in response to the murderous siege on Gaza), there was no criticism of Obama, and the march was disappointingly small.

These demonstrations suggest that the antiwar movement is at a very low level and needs to be rebuilt from the bottom up.

Labor’s Response

The response to the crisis by organized labor has been extremely slow and the levels of activity have been low. The AFL-CIO and Change to Win bureaucracies put enormous amounts of the unions’ staff, money, time and energy into the Obama campaign, but little has gone into organizing to resist the effects of the recession. The UAW has worked closely with the Democratic Party in dealing with potential bankruptcy of General Motors and Chrysler, attempting to mitigate the damage of layoffs and concessions, though not mobilizing the members to fight against them. Most other union bureaucracies have simply functioned as ushers to maintain order as their members walked the plank of unemployment and fell into the sea of poverty and despair.

A few unions have made token responses. SEIU organized demonstrations of 10,000 members at the banks in more than 30 states to protest the bonus scandals at AIG. The United Electrical Workers led a small, but heroic strike and factory occupation by 260 workers at the Republic Window plant in Chicago which save their jobs. The United Steel Workers (USW) has organized an important campaign in defense of industrial jobs based in the US. Most unions, however, have failed to mobilize their members in defense of jobs and contracts, and at the same time there is no evidence that workers themselves have been prepared to act. Throughout the month of March 2009 there were no strikes of more than 1,000 workers, continuing a long term trend of union passivity.

Jobs with Justice and Labor Notes have been among the organizations which have attempted to offer leadership where the labor bureaucracy has failed. Jobs with Justice (JwJ) has held town hall meetings on the crisis in various cities, most notably in Portland, Orgeon where 800 people attended such a conference, but also smaller events such as in Dayton, Ohio where 50 gathered to discuss the situation. JwJ seems to have focused its activities on pushing for the Employee Free Choice Act and health care reform with an emphasis on single payer. Labor Notes, the newspaper and organizing center, has held a series of Troublemakers Schools to prepare workers to meet the crisis that have been attended by a few hundred union activists.

The U.S. working class will be tremendously weakened by the closing of unionized auto plants. The UAW, even with its bureaucratic leadership, has been a bulwark of labor and liberal causes, providing support over the decades for movements such as Students for a Democratic Society (sds), the United Farm Workers (UFW), and the civil rights movement. The UAW represented the heart of the liberal-labor left in the Democratic Party nationally, and UAW members formed the core of Democratic Party politics in many cities and towns in states such as Michigan, northern Ohio, northern Indiana, and Illinois, and at one time too in New Jersey and Los Angeles. While the UAW did not often mobilize its own members, the officials used the bureaucracy and the union’s resources to support its limited version of social democratic politics within the Democratic Party. As the UAW crumbles away, it will weaken the forces that elected Obama and the Democratic Party. More important, as the cadres of engineers, skilled workers, and experience production workers who formed the core of the union dissipates, local federations and groups such as Jobs with Justice will be weakened.

One bright spot is the continuing organizing for single-payer. Despite the capitulation of most of the labor movement tops in supporting whatever the Obama administration is proposing for health care reform (currently the notion that some form of a public option – inevitably compromised and constrained by “centrist” Democratic legislators, and by an Obama administration that doesn’t want to alienate the insurance and pharmaceutical industries – will solve the health care crisis) hundreds of union organizations, including 39 State Federations and numerous CLC’s, have endorsed HR 676, and many have and continue to vigorously advocate for its enactment. To some degree this widespread sentiment is crystallized in the Labor Campaign for Single-Payer Healthcare, a small but important core of activists – nurses chief among them.

Despite a great deal of pressure to limit their organizing to what’s “politically possible,” i.e. acceptable to the Democratic Party, there is ongoing organizing with significant rallies held in places including Vermont, California, Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington. On May 30th a National Day of Action for Single Payer Health Care saw protests in more than 50 cities with some 3,500 people marching in Seattle. While there is a danger that Obama’s health reform may result in passing something that discredits universal health care reform and undermines organizing for a national solution, the fight will now move to winning single-payer on a state level.

Foreclosures and Housing Struggles

Looking at movements around housing, ACORN has mobilized its members around the country, many of them low income urban African Americans with large number of women activists, to participate in its Campaign to Stop Foreclosures. ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, claims 400,000 member families organized into more than 1,200 neighborhood chapters in 110 cities and 40 states across the country. ACORN members have participated in protests at foreclosures and evictions, and have been training their members to take more aggressive action through civil disobedience. While ACORN has attempted to take leadership on this issue and has used its resources to build its campaign, the results so far have been rather limited, with perhaps a few thousand involved in the protests around the country. ACORN announced a national “broad civil disobedience campaign,” but there has not yet been any serious, consistent action to back up this claim.

ACORN has been the most visible organization among many. There are also decentralized activities around the U.S.– “a budding resistance movement,” as the New York Times called it in February 2009. Local movements challenging foreclosures and evictions have sprouted in Miami, Baltimore, Philadelphia, the Twin Cities, and a host of other cities. One of the largest and most successful local campaigns has been conducted by City Life/Vida Urbana in Boston. Their confrontational, direct action tactics have succeeded in delaying several foreclosures.  

There is little national coherence to this “movement.” It is fragmentary and decentralized, shaped primarily by local circumstances and actors. Local movements are usually composed of some combination of non-profits, local activists, community members, city government allies, leftists, and tenants and homeowners facing eviction. The main rhetoric and demands of the movements revolve around two ideas. The first is “bail out the people, not the banks;” the second is some variant of a call for a foreclosure moratorium. 

The movement has two constituencies: homeowners facing eviction and tenants facing eviction because their landlord was foreclosed. Local campaigns tactics include: protests at statehouses, direct actions attempting to blockade threatened homes, legislation-oriented advocacy, squatting in vacant homes, and pickets in front of homes facing foreclosure or in front of bailed-out banks that are kicking people out of their homes. Most local movements have aimed for legislation that will stop or slow down foreclosures and evictions. One popular legislative demand has been for “Just Cause” law which allows tenants in good standing to remain in their foreclosed homes until they are sold. 

The movement has made some gains. In cities around the nation, activists have successfully pressured local government and the mortgage industry to make concessions—some real, some rhetorical—on foreclosure policy and deal with homeowners/tenants for sensitively. Local movements have provided tenants and homeowners with lawyers and educated them about their legal rights.  Protests have kept the plight of the victims in the local media. Moreover, small layers of tenants and homeowners have been empowered by the actions.

Immigrant Rights Movement

Latino immigrants, representing the largest segment of all immigrants, have been at the forefront of the immigrant rights movement. In 2006, led by the Latinos, immigrants carried out demonstrations that put hundreds of thousands on the streets in the nation’s largest cities with perhaps a million out in both Chicago and Los Angeles. Many smaller cities and towns also had demonstrations of thousands or hundreds in what were the largest social movement protests in U.S. history. In the largest cities, May Day became in effect a virtual one-day general strike, as many factories closed and shops shut down. Since then, the immigrant community has seen immigration reform stall, workplaces and neighborhoods raided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and experienced the recession, all of which have had a devastating impact. This year it appears that despite the Obama and united labor calls for immigration reform, the movement is deeply divided and the demonstrations will be smaller. May Day 2009 found the immigrant rights movement still demoralized and divided and demonstrations were much smaller than at the high tide of 2006.

So it appears that working people will continue to absorb the shock of the recession for some time longer. If, as some analysts now predict, the recession is over at the end of 2009 or in 2010, we may never see a response to it, though it is possible that when employment renews, workers will be more willing to struggle.

Student Activism

Student and campus activism mirrored the general momentum of other movements during the election cycle and into the first 100 days of the new administration. Many student activists were won to the dynamism of the Obama campaign: both those who had experience with broader social or off-campus solidarity campaigns (environment, antiwar, labor support, anti-racism or GLBTQ rights), with specifically student issues such as tuition and access to higher education, as well as thousands of previously inactive students. Some participated directly in the campaign through Students for Obama or Young Democrats, others joined “fronts” like Power Vote or worked on voter registration and canvassing.

Since the election, student activism has slumped, with the Obama campaign apparatus having collapsed (by design) post-election. Obama’s proposed solution to the student debt crisis, an anemic expansion of the federal Pell Grant program, may not pass the Congress but the proposed $200 expansion would not make a dent in rising tuition costs anyway. Students in many states have mobilized against spiraling student fees and university cuts. Thus far, this patchwork phenomenon does not see itself as a nationally coordinated movement, in part due to the varied circumstances of higher education state-by-state. Other programs designed to increase access to higher education, such as the DREAM Act for undocumented students, have been re-introduced in congress with no decisive action in Obama’s first 100 days.
In the spring, Powershift drew around ten thousand students to DC for a weekend conference on environmental topics spanning from direct action campaigns against coal power and environmental justice alliances to “green capitalism” and lobbying. Other mainstays of broader political campaigns such as action against the wars and in support of worker organizing on campus and internationally have been harmed by the downturn in those movements.

United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), one of the longest-lived and healthiest independent student activist networks, has faced difficulties in obtaining the union funding that has enabled a national staff and tempo of regular conferences. Another recent development, the “new” SDS, has faced its own difficulties in the past year – a combination of its being drawn into the Obama campaign, combined with a move to adventurist actions by some remaining students, as well as ongoing sectarian fights between anarchists and Marxists.