Now that President Obama and the Democratic Congress have passed their top legislative priority, activists working outside health care are lining up for action on their issues. A push for a real jobs bill will likely emerge as the next priority, along with major legislation addressing climate change and/or the environment. President Obama has publicly committed to press for immigration reform, and while crafty Congressmember George Miller got his landmark student aid reform bill attached to the health care reconciliation bill, Congress will be pushed to allocate funds to prevent massive teacher layoffs due to state budget deficits across the land. One clear impact of the health care victory: a deeply demoralized activist and progressive base has been reenergized. Activists who had lost faith in Obama’s ability to get things done now have evidence that candidate Obama’s “Yes We Can” spirit has not disappeared, a boost in enthusiasm that may have greater short-term significance than the substance of the health care bill.
During the post-victory House Leadership press conference, Congressmember Louise Slaughter said the health care bill showed the Democrats’ ability to get things done, and that the American people should bring their ideas forward on what else they should do. But there is already a long list, and activists now must ensure that the President and Congress feel compelled to act, rather than avoiding future conflicts in hopes of framing the November elections entirely around health care.
Activists’ Pre-November Agenda: Environment, Labor, Immigrant Rights
Grassroots activists outside health care primarily work on environmental, labor and immigrant rights issues. Many are acutely disappointed at their lack of progress since Obama took office, and are now looking to rebuild momentum.
Environmentalists have cheered the Obama Administration’s use of administrative rulings to reverse bad Bush policies, but still await passage of a single major environmental bill. Their disappointment increased after Obama implemented a nuclear power expansion that most environmental groups strongly opposed
The politics of passing a climate change bill are difficult, as affected industries impact such a broad range of congressional districts. And with opponents quick to cite the risk of lost jobs as a consequence of a climate change bill, the type of sweeping federal legislation that President Obama has endorsed has become even more difficult.
The most obvious solution is for the President and Democratic leaders to back environmentalists’ calls for drastically increased spending on high-speed rail and public transit. Local transit agencies are bleeding across the nation, and federal action is desperately needed to stem ongoing fare hikes and service cuts.
Since investing in public transit creates jobs, it also perfectly fits with the President’s top priority.
If environmentalists do not get a major federal climate change bill passed this year, then they might want to reconsider their overall political strategy. Constituencies cannot keep mobilizing for elections without getting results, and for all their money, clout and strategic savvy, the environmental movement is close to coming up empty in what many thought would be a banner first two years.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has continually pushed for a real jobs bill, and with action on labor law reform stalled, passing such a bill is critical for Democrats to get labor’s enthusiastic backing in November. But having invested an estimated $120-200 million in the November 2008 elections, labor unions have gotten relatively little in return, and the rank and file will need to see greater results before walking precincts for Democrats next fall.
At the recent AFL-CIO leadership meeting in Florida, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis reportedly intimated that Obama would make the recess appointments to the NLRB that labor asked him to make during the prior recess. But how any meaningful modification of the Employee Free Choice Act avoids a filibuster is unclear, which could mean that unions will have to win labor law reforms administratively.
There has been so much focus on SEIU’s raids on UNITE HERE, and its battles with NUHW in California, that labor’s failure to improve the NLRB election and representation system is often overlooked. But if labor cannot make it easier for workers to join unions during Obama’s first two years, then it is difficult to be optimistic about its winning such reforms in the future.
The Center for Community Change and other activists did a phenomenal turnout job for a Sunday march that had the misfortune of being largely eclipsed by the health care vote. But even without the competing coverage, the push for legalization of the eight to twelve million undocumented immigrants is not resonating with the broader progressive movement as it did in 2006.
Part of this is attributable to the near systemic ignoring of issues primarily affecting Latinos. Comprehensive reform may also have been out of the public spotlight for too long, as even since Obama took office, news stories about immigration tend to focus on ICE raids and greater enforcement, not the unfair plight of the undocumented.
Corporate America is said to be lukewarm over the Schumer-Graham immigration reform “blueprint,” which makes it hard to garner Republican support for a future bill. It would seem that immigrant rights activists have to unify the Democratic Congressional base, and then mount a major district by district, state by state campaign to avoid a Republican filibuster in the Senate.
This is a steep challenge. But President Obama has vowed to use all of his powers to enact immigration reform, and he has a mobilized base behind him. Republican losses in 2006 and 2008 over their hostility to Latino immigrants were apparently not enough to move the Party, and it may take further election reversals in 2010 to get the bipartisan support needed for Senate passage.
Many see financial reform as a great issue for grassroots mobilizing. The belief is that everyone – from Tea Party backers to the left – is angry at banks and other financial institutions, and that progressives can really put Republicans on the defensive over measures seeking greater financial regulations.
I get the idea of tapping populist anger, but suppose we win legislation banning large CEO bonuses, regulating derivatives, taking hedge fund salaries as income rather than capital gains, and sharply limit the activities of banks and investment houses. I’m not sure how such important measures immediately benefit working people, the struggling middle-class, students facing steep tuition hikes or homeowners fearing foreclosure, undocumented immigrants, workers effectively prevented from joining unions, public employees facing layoffs, or many other constituencies in crisis.
Activists will generate more media coverage by holding protests against popular targets like Goldman, Sachs, but it is through delivering more tangible benefits to constituencies that social movements are built.
The health care victory has re-energized the progressive base, but the time for capitalizing on this momentum is short. Activists have their work cut out for them, and it helps that many at the grassroots again believe that “Yes We Can.”
Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century