Despite Obama, “Yes We Can” Spirit Survives

Progressives are deflated after Martha Coakley’s defeat in blue-state Massachusetts. Many are also angry over the Obama Administration’s failure to address the populist anger that it rode to the White House in 2008, and its dissipating grassroots hopes for Change.

But Obama’s presidential campaign did not invent the “Yes We Can” spirit, and grassroots activism remained vibrant in the past year outside the Obama Administration. From the Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital workers in California who organized to win union representation, to the thousands of activists still fighting for real health care reform, to those working on climate change, the “Si Se Puede” spirit originally identified with Cesar Chavez and the UFW lived on in the past year — outside the electoral arena.

The past year has been a tale of two worlds.

In the Beltway, the Obama Administration frustrated key constituency groups and organizations by failing to push for transformative change.

In the world where most people live and work, activists were not deterred by Obama’s inaction and instead seized upon the “Si Se Puede” spirit to build successful campaigns for justice.

Rejuvenating Organized Labor
From a Beltway perspective, unions had a terrible year in 2009. The AFL-CIO and SEIU spent an estimated $120 million on the 2008 elections, but could not even get a Congressional vote on EFCA or immigration reform, and its health care campaigns focused on a public option missing from the final bill. Labor even had to fight with Obama to prevent a major excise tax on its members’ health plans, something that could still take effect if the House accepts the Senate bill in the wake of Coakley’s defeat.

But at the grassroots, workers’ Si Se Puede spirit remained strong.

You couldn’t find a more excited group of workers than those at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital casting ballots in mid-December to join NUHW. Rather than giving up in the face of massive employer and SEIU opposition to their struggle, the workers remained upbeat and prevailed in what has been a decade long battle to form a union.

And if you want to restore your faith in grassroots power, attend a protest by an affiliate of UNITE HERE. These largely immigrant workers have not been deterred by Obama’s inaction, and are taking on global hotel corporations with the same confidence that Chavez and the UFW once took on Gallo Wine and California agribusiness.

UNITE HERE Local 2 President Mike Casey feels the past year saw the emergence of a more democratic, worker-led labor movement, and that today’s labor’s struggles harken back to the passionate “which side are you on” days of the 1930’s. We may soon look at the past year as transformative for labor despite the failure to pass badly needed federal labor law reform.

Copenhagen Climate Summit
From one perspective, 50,000 activists showed up and, as Brian Tokar put it, “All they Got was a Lousy 3-Page Political Agreement.” But the convergence of such a broad array of climate change activists from around the world was an historic achievement. Activists strengthened working relationships, forced their agendas into the public agenda, and successfully exposed the hypocrisy of many leading industrial nations on the global warming issue.

In the United States, media coverage of Copenhagen focused on President Obama’s role, and of that of other major leaders. But the real forces for change were at the grassroots, and these activists were not deterred by the lack of action from political leaders.

The Health Care Struggle
While the outcome of the health care debate was disappointing, the “Yes We Can” spirit also drove the incredible commitment of thousands of activists trying to make real reform a reality. It was not easy to mobilize around an issue that lacked specific legislative language, but volunteers did so anyway, building broad public support that did not dissipate until the Democrats caved in to Joe Lieberman.

Many health care activists have not been dissuaded by the mess that was made in Washington, and seem more committed than ever to organize to enact single-payer. The irony of the health care debacle is that a legislative process designed to exclude single payer from the “reformed” system has likely done the opposite; there is clearly increased public, activist, and elected official support for this much simpler and more effective health care strategy.

The Origins of Si Se Puede
Cesar Chavez and the UFW adopted the “Si Se Puede” rallying cry after Dolores Huerta rebuffed an Arizona labor official who said that the UFW could not gather enough signatures to recall the state’s Governor. The UFW did gather sufficient signatures, but a politically motivated Attorney General rejected them.

Despite the recall’s failure, the UFW’s Arizona campaign soon resulted in the election of the state’s first Latino Governor. So while Obama’s inaction has left some deflated, lessons have been learned, and grassroots activism remains the chief force for progressive change as we enter Obama’s second year.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the author of the new book, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (University of California Press). Randy discusses how to keep politicians accountable in The Activist’s Handbook

Republished with permission from Beyond Chron

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