Articles and Essays by Mark Engler

    Activism’s Autumn Harvest

    Just when we need some good news, those of us concerned with social and economic justice can see several of our efforts bear fruit.

    Some people believe that social movements are fueled by misery — that communities only start standing up for themselves when things get really bad. It’s an appealing thought in difficult times. However, fear is historically a lousy engine of solidarity. Progress and optimism go hand in hand. When people are hopeful about the future, they are inclined to demand positive change.

    But if the misery theory is wrong, so is the belief that activism dies when the going gets tough. Few progressives doubt that the past two years have been the most politically trying in recent memory. Nevertheless, union members, globalization activists, immigrant rights advocates, and anti-war groups have persevered. This fall, just when we need some good news, those of us concerned with social and economic justice can see a remarkable number of our efforts bear fruit.

    In September, the labor movement scored a significant victory at Yale University, the Ivy League giant with perhaps the worst record of worker relations in all of academia. The university’s clerical, maintenance and service workers went on strike starting last August to protest miserly wages and pensions. Community support heated up as six Yale retirees returned to their former workplace to stage a 29-hour sit-in at the University Investment Office. Supportive faculty members moved more than 300 classes off campus, respecting the union picket lines. Finally, at a 10,000-person solidarity rally on September 13th, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney was arrested in an act of civil disobedience, along with some 150 other union leaders, students, strikers, and New Haven community activists.

    It worked. After three weeks on strike, the Yale unions reached a settlement with the university that, for custodial workers, will mean a 32.3 percent raise over the life of the eight-year contract. Clerical employees will get even bigger raises, and long-term workers in both union locals will see their previously pathetic pensions nearly double.

    The global justice movement has also seen some impressive accomplishments of late. Those who think the movement has disappeared would have to turn a blind eye to over 100,000 French activists who gathered in August for a three-day rally on their country’s Larzac plateau. These crowds combined their expressions of international concern with planning for a campaign against rollbacks in public services.

    This was merely a prelude to Cancun, where protesters bolstered resistance to an embattled World Trade Organization. Those who follow trade negotiations already knew that the Bush administration’s fervent unilateralism defines even its view of global economics, and that American rigidity alone probably would have caused the Cancun negotiations to collapse. But vocal resistance on the part of civil society nonetheless helped poorer countries defend their interests with new force.

    In this case, that meant the formation of the “Group of 22” developing nations, which represents over half the human population. With the progressive Brazilian government among its leaders, this bloc has the potential to reshape future trade talks in ways that may anger both multinational CEOs and Bush administration nationalists. Stay tuned for the upcoming Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) negotiations, scheduled for November in Miami, where the fight against destructive “neoliberal” economics will continue.

    In a third success, activists in New York City pressured Mayor Michael Bloomberg to reverse a stance that would have endangered immigrant communities. This May, Bloomberg revised a long-standing policy banning city employees from reporting undocumented immigrants to federal authorities. Under the Mayor’s executive order, nonresident citizens would have had reason to fear reporting crimes to the police and seeking emergency services.

    Fortunately, an outcry from community groups and legal advocates persuaded Bloomberg to backtrack from his own position and instead enact the strong “Access Without Fear” confidentiality guidelines promoted by progressive members of the City Council. The new policy safeguards not only the immigration status of New Yorkers, but also other personal information such as tax records, sexual orientation, and welfare status. In a time of continued federal pressure to turn city workers into extensions of the border patrol, this local insistence on upholding protections for non-citizens represents an important step in the opposite direction.

    This month’s Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride, which crossed the nation to promote amnesty for undocumented workers in the United States pushed for an even larger step, defying the Ashcroftian culture of scapegoating and fear to advance the rights of immigrants.

    What is important about many of these campaigns is that they show activists on the offensive. Instead of merely fending off a new attack on civil liberties or a fresh move to cut taxes for the wealthy, social movements are exhibiting their vision and creativity. While we too often devote ourselves exclusively to denouncing things that we don’t want, activists are giving voice to changes that we do.

    This is not to say that beating back Bush is a bad thing. The Senate’s move to rebuke the Administration’s attempts to relax rules against corporate monopolization of the media certainly qualifies as a win, as does its vote against cutting overtime pay for millions of American workers. And, yes, it is gratifying to note that the President’s approval ratings have fallen to their lowest levels since 9/11.

    Yet even in the darkest days of this ever-dismal presidency, there’s more to life than George W.’s political cravings. This fall, as we reap the harvest of activism, we should take time to appreciate the efforts that have kept our agenda alive. And we should draw hope from them. Because it’s hope, after all, that will sow the victories of seasons yet to come.

    — Mark Engler is a writer based in Philadelphia, an editorial board member at Dissent, and co-author of "This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-first Century" (Nation Books). He can be reached via the website Research assistance for this article provided by Jason Rowe.