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We Need More Protest to Make Reform Possible | The Nation

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We Need More Protest to Make Reform Possible

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Making Obama "Do It"

FDR once met with a group of activists who sought his support for legislation. He listened to their arguments for some time and then said, "You've convinced me. Now go out and make me do it."

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Peter Dreier
Peter Dreier teaches Politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His...

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He understood that the more effectively people created a sense of urgency and crisis, the easier it would be for him to push for progressive legislation.

Having a president who inspires people to act collectively on their own behalf can make a difference. It gives people hope and courage to defy obstacles. Two recent union victories reflect this dynamic.

Last December, more than 200 members of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE) illegally occupied their Chicago factory after their employer, Republic Windows and Doors, abruptly told them that it was shutting down the plant. The UE members peacefully took over the plant, where some had worked for decades, and demanded that Republic Windows and Doors and the bank that refused to extend credit to the company, find a solution.

This was not a spontaneous protest. The UE leaders and organizers had been anticipating the need to engage in this kind of direct action. They had talked about it among themselves and prepared for it. The UE has a long history as a feisty progressive union. When the opportunity for direct action presented itself, the UE organizers and leaders were ready.

Although the workers were breaking the law, no politician called for the Chicago Police Department to arrest them--a sure sign that the UE action had become a symbol of working families' distress in the unraveling Bush economy.

Two days later, at a news conference to announce Obama's new secretary of veterans affairs, a reporter asked the president--who had not yet taken office--what he thought about the protest.

"When it comes to the situation here in Chicago with the workers who are asking for their benefits and payments they have earned," Obama said, "I think they are absolutely right. What's happening to them is reflective of what's happening across this economy."

With that statement, Obama used his bully pulpit to endorse the protest and to put pressure on Republic's management and the Bank of America (the company's lender, which was about to withhold further credit, thus precipitating the factory closure) to forge a solution. Representatives of the company, Bank of America and the union began meeting at the bank's office in Chicago. Congressman Luis Gutierrez moderated the talks. Another company agreed to purchase the factory, keep it open with current employees and honor the union contract. Obama's stimulus program helped create a growing demand for energy-saving building products, which guaranteed the company more consumers.

Obama's election had given the workers enough hope to try the impossible, and it worked. By quickly endorsing the workers' protest, Obama showed the kind of bold leadership that progressives had been hoping for.

That same month, after a brutal fifteen-year organizing battle, workers at the world's largest hog-killing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, voted to unionize. The 5,000 workers at the Smithfield Packing slaughterhouse--60 percent of whom are African-American--had rejected union membership in 1994 and 1997 after being subjected to the company's illegal harassment and intimidation in a state known for its antiunion climate.

The workers' vote in favor of the United Food and Commercial Workers was one of the largest private-sector union victories in many years and the biggest in the UFCW's history.

"It feels great," Wanda Blue, a hog cutter, told the New York Times. Blue, who is African-American, makes $11.90 an hour and has worked at Smithfield for five years. "It's like how Obama felt when he won. We made history."

For students of the Depression era, the dynamic was familiar. Obama's election gave the Smithfield workers hope. Their union staff and leaders took advantage of this new mood to re-energize the rank-and-file workers. After fifteen frustrating years of unsuccessful organizing, their work finally bore fruit.

Since Obama's election, however, we have not seen little of that kind of effective protest--the kind of bold action that would make the media take notice and perhaps help galvanize Americans to take action, even if of a less risky kind.

Like any successful politician, Obama is constantly evaluating the political climate and testing the nation's appetite for change. Like FDR, he will be bold when he thinks the political climate is ready for bold action. The unions, community organizing groups, netroots groups, environmental and gay rights groups need to create a climate that will make it easier for Obama and Congress to be bold. As FDR said, their job is to "go out and make me do it."

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