De Blasio, Syria, AFL-CIO: A New Direction for America?

by Randy Shaw on September 13, 2013

This past week offered remarkable hope for progressive change. First, in New York City, Bill de Blasio won a striking victory in the Democratic mayoral primary by vowing to put workers interests ahead of Wall Street and the 1%. Second, public opposition to bombing Syria has so far worked, potentially creating new rules for American interventionism abroad. Third, the AFL-CIO voted at its Los Angeles convention to expand membership to non-union workers, as low-wage workers in the fast food industry and WalMart take to the streets. Finally, underlying growing people power is a new study released this week that reinforced progressive demands that actions be taken to address income inequality. It found the largest gap ever between rich and poor, with the richest 1 percent getting almost 20% of the nation’s income in 2012 and the top 10% receiving 50%. In light of this historic disparity, grassroots pressure is moving the nation in a new direction.

We may look back on the week of September 8-14 as a watershed for grassroots activism in America. In a single week, NYC voters repudiated Wall Street’s domination of city policies, public pressure halted the bombing of Syria, the AFL-CIO formally backed a long-discussed plan to expand beyond union members, and the underlying economic narrative of growing inequality was bolstered by a new study.

De Blasio’s Victory

Regardless of whether he will face a primary runoff (which is unlikely), Bill de Blasio will be New York City’s next mayor following the November election. And to say that he will enter office with an overflowing “to do” list is an understatement.

De Blasio’s victory has national importance because New York City’s mayor is the most high-profile locally elected position in the United States. And under Mayors’ Bloomberg and Guiliani, the dominant message has been that even “liberal” New Yorkers back pro-Wall Street political leaders who can “get the job done.”

Giuliani’s homeless policy became a national model of success even though it left more people without homes when he started as mayor than when he left. Bloomberg rezoned more than one-third of the entire city during his mayoralty, causing massive tenant displacement in Williamsburg and other hardships throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan.

De Blasio and his backers have an opportunity to provide a different model. And given the NYC mayor’s high profile, he could help rectify the unbalanced housing and economic policies that have plagued the city and nation.

Syria Bombing

From Vietnam to Iraq, anti-war activists long complained that their protests are ignored. But even without mass protests in the streets, Congress was not going to give Obama authority to bomb. And Obama’s requesting such authority is a huge victory for those battling the rise of the “imperial presidency” since the days of Nixon.

There are still twists and turns in the Syria story, but public and congressional opposition to bombing will not change. But given the outcry against even a proposed “targeting” bombing, it makes future military adventurism much more unlikely.

AFL-CIO Expanding Membership

After years of talking about expanding its membership to include workers who are not in unions but support the cause, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka announced such a plan during his keynote address Monday at the federation’s convention in Los Angeles.

Trumka stated, “We heard that we have to change to reflect the times. The AFL and the CIO merged over 50 years ago, before the jumbo jet, before the cell phone, before the internet. We need to organize ourselves in ways that fit with the jobs people do now and how our economy works now.”

Labor has backed fast food and WalMart workers in their struggles, and formally enlisting them in the labor movement is long overdue. And as has been pointed out, when a union loses a representation election 51%-49%, why should the 49% be denied the opportunity to pay dues and join the union?

Reading the AFL-CIO’s constant convention tweets, I sensed an almost apocalyptic tone. It was an expression of “I know we’ve talked about change before, but this time we either change or die.”

So while skepticism is appropriate, labor is on the march.

Collectively, grassroots activists have had quite a week. And those still on the sidelines should consider legendary organizer Fred Ross Sr.’s advice: “strike while the iron is hot!”

Randy Shaw analyzes rising grassroots activism in his new book, The Activist’s Handbook, Second Edition: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century. His previous books include Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century

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