Dennis Vegas is an unlikely campaigner against corporate excess.
Even decked out in casual Friday attire, he still looks like what he used to be -- a vice president for marketing of the seventh largest company in the United States.
But here he is in the parking lot of the Texas AFL-CIO headquarters, echoing the call of his new friend Jim Hightower for a grassroots movement to take on the corporate plutocrats.
What gives? Vegas used to work for Enron, the energy trading giant that collapsed in spectacular fashion last fall -- leaving more than 5,000 Texas workers without jobs, health insurance or retirement plans. "I had some time on my hands," says Vegas. "I decided to do something useful with it."
So Vegas took his place Friday beside a giant wood chipper -- billed the "world's largest paper shredder and emblazoned with the words "Enron Democracy Shredder" -- and helped kick off the Rolling Thunder Down-Home Democracy Tour. The tour is the brainchild of Hightower, whose rabblerousing stint as Texas' elected Commissioner of Agriculture in the 1980s identified him in the eyes of many as the nation's most aggressive progressive.
Set to launch Saturday in the Texas populist's hometown of Austin, the Down-Home Democracy Tour is a cross between teach-in and county fair. The point is to rent a big venue and invite everyone in town to hear speechifying by some of the nation's most outspoken agitators -- Austin headliners included filmmaker and author Michael Moore, columnist Molly Ivins and US Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. -- eat lots of good food and enjoymusic from the likes of Michelle Shocked and Marcia Ball.
Organizer Mike Dolan, a veteran of the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle, says the goal is to "put the party back into politics."
At a kickoff rally outside the AFL-CIO headquarters here, Hightower and his crew explained that they will move a traveling roadshow of radicalism from town to town over the coming months, linking national "stars" up with local activists in order to, first, have a good time and, second, start building bigger, better coalitions for change. Ultimately,Hightower, who regularly writes for The Nation about grassroots organizing, hopes to bridge divisions between labor and environmental groups, family farmers and factory workers, aging veterans of the distant political wars and fresh-from-Seattle anti-corporate campaigners into local coalitions that become part of a cohesive quilt of national activism. The point, he says, is to start "taking power back at the grassroots level so that we can take the democracy back from the plutocracy."
With support from more than 40 national groups ranging from the National Council of Churches to the Ruckus Society and including the Service Employees International Union, United Students Against Sweatshops, ACORN and the Organic Consumers Association, as well as prominent figures such as Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's ice cream fame, US Sen. Paul Wellstone, US Rep. Barbara Lee and political thinker and organizer Joel Rogers, the coalition building seems well on its way. In Austin, dozens of local groups have signed on to support the first "real folks, real fun, real change" gathering at the local fairground where thousands were expected to attend Saturday's event.
Chaotic as the task of pulling together so ambitious an endeavor has been -- volunteers were still working late Friday to turn the hogwashing area at the fairgrounds into a backstage for bands -- the Texas organizing has been given focus in part by the collapse of Enron and a growing disgust even in the business-friendly Lone Star State with corporate excess. The Enron collapse hit Texas hard, and Hightower argues that it has changed the way many people think about issues of corporate power and democracy.
Vegas counts himself in that group. He admits that a year ago he wouldn't have been all that enthusiastic about a "down-home democracy tour. I didn't take projects like this very seriously before. Even though I worked for a big corporation, I didn't understand the issues." Pointing to Hightower and other organizers, Vegas explains, "These people were prophetic. I got a personal lesson about just how prophetic they were."
So Vegas is telling not just out-of-work Enron employees but employees of other companies that they had better start taking seriously the threat posed by corporations so powerful and -- thanks to campaign contributions -- so influential that they think they are above the law. Hailing the logic of the Down-Home Democracy Tour's plan to start in Texas and then take the show on the road to Georgia, Illinois, Pennsylvania and other states, Vegas says, "The situation that took place with Enron is a wakeup call for workers across the country. Don't think there aren't other corporations doing exactly what Enron did. And don't think we don't need to be organized if we are going to stop them from doing what Enron did to thousands of people.