The week of Thanksgiving offers the perfect opportunity for to give thanks and appreciation for those in 2009 who have worked for social and economic justice. The year began with activists heading to Washington DC for the most emotional presidential inauguration of our lives, and by February thousands had embarked on the broadest range of progressive national campaigns that we had seen since the 1960’s.
In recent weeks UNITE HERE workers held vigils across the nation for non-union housekeepers fired by the Hyatt Corp., activists travelled great distances to help save a gay marriage law in Maine, and students across California rallied and even occupied buildings in resistance to an outrageous 32% tuition hike. But there is one group of activists that demonstrated that progressive change is rarely won quickly or easily, and whose tireless work deserves far greater acclaim: the activists battling for universal health care. Let us now praise them for putting a top progressive priority since the 1940s on the verge of being achieved.
2009 has been an extraordinary year for activists. The grassroots movement that elected Barack Obama launched a powerful and broad pro-active agenda, laying the groundwork for key gains in 2010.
Of course, the inability of Congress to address the breadth of what progressives sought beyond health care – climate change legislation, immigration reform, EFCA, massive new judicial and federal agency appointments, banking and financial services reforms, jobs programs, and an entirely new foreign policy – has left many feeling disappointed. And for the vast majority of activists who were not politically involved the last time Congress was pushed to adopt widespread progressive legislation – which was in 1965, when Obama turned four – 2009 offered a civics lesson in how the United States Government is structured to limit wholesale change.
Health Care Activists: In for the Long Haul
The widespread sense that the hoped for “CHANGE” did not materialize in 2009 is one reason why health care activists deserve so much of our thanks.
Since April, activists have had many opportunities to just throw up their hands and let the White House, Congress and DC lobbyists cut a deal for “landmark” health care legislation. And given the incredible complexity of health care reform, activists could easily have sold defeat as victory, with the public not figuring out the truth until sometime after implementation in 2013.
But too many health care activists had worked far too long — consider that The Nation magazine had a front page article in its June 23, 1945 edition titled “Who Fights Health Insurance” — to accept a hollow “victory.”
So in the face of predictions of failure from the doom and gloom crowd on the Left, the traditional media in the “center”, and the Republican Party on the right, activists kept making phone calls and mobilizing people around a strong public option and universal health care.
At times, it appeared as if President Obama lacked the courage of his own convictions, and was rumored to be willing to accept a health care deal at any price. How troubling this must have felt to the young activists who got their political start working on Obama’s 2008 campaign, as well as to the veterans of health care fights who truly believed Obama’s repeated campaign pledge that “this time would be different.”
Doubts about Obama coincided with the August tea parties, inflated and distorted by a traditional media eager to promote a progressive v. conservative fight. Had it not been for progressive online political sites maintaining activist confidence by constantly exposing the media’s fraudulent coverage, its quite possible that the public option would not have survived past August, and that Obama would not have given his September speech that reframed the entire debate.
The Fall Offensive
Obama’s speech rejuvenated activists, quieting fears that he was not on their side. Progressives proceeded to out-organize, out-work, out-strategize, and out-pressure health reform opponents, making the August teabagger rallies seem like a relic of the Bush Administration.
For all the credit Nancy Pelosi has gotten for shepherding health care through the House – and she deserves all of it – let us not forget that activists gave her the political base she needed to push forward. The standing ovations she received at the San Francisco Labor Council’s Labor Day Breakfast may have done as much as anything to send a message to the House Speaker that her core supporters had her back.
The support given to Pelosi was mirrored across the nation, as groups like Democracy for America, MoveOn, and labor unions staunchly backed efforts by their political allies to strengthen the bill while solidifying shaky votes.
And while Obama’s Organizing for America (OFA) did not replicate the historic UFW organizing model and hire hundreds of young, fulltime organizers for the health care campaign – a strategy for building the next generation of organizers that is even more imperative with ACORN’s fall – OFA deserves credit for its efforts. While I prefer the more targeted field approach that leaves no doubt whether activism secured a politician’s vote, the sheer volume of OFA’s contacts made a difference.
Health Care Key to 2010
By persevering to secure health reform, activists enable progressives to enter 2010 with a full head of steam. The opposition will be just as fierce, but with a huge victory under their belts progressives will confront a public far more likely to believe that meaningful progressive change can get through Congress and become law.
In his campaign, Barack Obama described this as instilling hope. And thanks to the nation’s health care activists, progressives enter 2010 with a public less skeptical, and far more hopeful, about the future.
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
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