Sometimes it feels like elections are an exercise in futility. We live in a mirage democracy in which major party candidates are vetted by the corporate machine before they get on the ballot and third party candidates who represent the values of the movement are undercut by actions in which the major parties collude against them.
History instructs that in this environment, it is important to build the movement and use what tools are available to shift power to the people. San Francisco-based lawyer-activist Randy Shaw writes in his new edition of The Activist’s Handbook “that neither politicians nor political parties are the prime movers for progressive change.”
The elections this week provide many lessons for the movement. Third party candidates built their bases and honed the skills of their campaign teams so they can try again next time. The greatest successes and lessons from failures were in the area of direct democracy through voter initiatives.
Voter Initiatives Solve Critical Problems
We may be at the beginning of the end of poverty wages for workers. Two votes showed progress in the minimum wage battle in Washington State and in New Jersey. South Dakota, Alaska and Idaho will likely be voting on raising the minimum wage in upcoming elections.
It is urgent that the race to the bottom in wages ends. A report this week showed that 40 percent of Americans earn under $25,000 annually. In this 40 percent the average income is $17,500. Fifty percent of Americans earn under $30,000. The U.S. has become a nation of poverty-wage workers, rather than one with a vibrant middle class.
Even worse, as the Economic Policy Institute put it this week, “Low-wage workers are robbed far more often than banks, gas stations and convenience stores combined” by their employers who ignore minimum wage laws. And now, due to cuts in food stamps, we expect the situation to deteriorate. Josh Eidelson reports that hunger is a spark for riots.
Votes on the minimum wage were empowered by the actions of low wage workers and the highlighting of the wealth divide by the Occupy movement. This week in Los Angeles, Walmart workers went on strike with the support of hundreds of community members standing in solidarity with them. Workers and their allies escalated to nonviolent resistance actions, resulting in more than 50 arrests. In Las Vegas, culinary workers went on strike and were arrested when they held a sit-in at the Cosmopolitan casino. In these insecure economic times, it takes great courage for low-wage workers to stand up to big corporations. Communities should stand with them and realize that their success is good for all of us.
The vibrant movement against hydro-fracking also had significant success at the polls with bans on hyrdro-fracking enacted in Colorado and Ohio. And the community in Boulder, CO cleared a final significant hurdle in their campaign to end the use of coal and transition to renewable energy. Despite the massive amounts of money spent by Xcel Energy and its fake front group that pushed a harmful voter initiative, Boulder voted to create a municipal energy utility that will shift to clean, sustainable energy. Now, the activists in Boulder are prepared to help other communities municipalize their energy and transition to a carbon-free, nuclear-free energy economy.
Time to End the Drug War and Police Brutality
Progress continues to be made in ending the war on marijuana. Portland, Maine became the first state in the Northeast to legalize the use of marijuana in a landslide vote; and three cities in Michigan also voted to legalize marijuana use. These votes come at a time when a recent Gallup poll showed 58% of the public supports marijuana legalization. In addition to Colorado and Washington, 20 other states allow medical use of marijuana.
Legalizing marijuana will make a huge difference in ending mass incarceration and police abuse which continues to run rampant. Protests are ongoing in Santa Rosa, CA where a police officer shot and killed a 13 year old, Andy Lopez. And this week in Baltimore, parents spoke out against police brutality in the city. In New York City, there is hope that stop and frisk policies will end. The judge who was removed from the case after her decision to end stop and frisk was suspended is fighting back and calling for a hearing on her removal. Moms for Marijuana showed this week that the war on families is also caused by Child Protective Services taking children out of their homes.
Learning From Our Losses
Not all of the election news was good news. In South Portland, Maine, a local zoning ordinance that sought to stop the building of a tar sands pipeline terminal was thrown out by voters in a close 51-49 vote (less than 200 votes). The industry front group, Save Our Working Waterfront, received most of its $600,000 from the Maine Energy Marketers Association (or MEMA) and oil giants Citgo, Irving, and the American Petroleum Institute. The group trying to prevent the tar sands terminal, Protect South Portland, raised $42,000.
It also looks like there will be bad news in Washington on the labeling of GMO foods. The campaign for labeling has not conceded defeat yet, waiting for a count of all the mailed in ballots, but is down by ten points. Big money poured in and the “No on 522” campaign spent $22 million to prevent labeling. Almost all of the money came from out of state from big agribusiness corporations and industry lobbyists, especially the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
What are the lessons to learn from these victories and defeats? All of the initiatives had movements supporting them, indeed came out of resistance movements. The two that lost involved tremendous spending by corporate interests, but there was corporate money in many of the campaigns that were won as well. Some of the issues that won were supported by campaigns that have been going on for a decade or more. It is important to be persistent. We hope for further analysis, so we can all have a better understanding of the dynamics involved.
Movements Matter More Than Who Is In Office
There seems to be excitement about the landslide victory of Bill de Blasio. De Blasio distinguished himself by using strong rhetoric on the immense wealth divide in New York and putting forward a proposal to tax the wealth in order to pay for education. He will remove Police Commissioner Ray Kelly who has managed the racially unfair stop and frisk program.
We understand the hope of many about de Blasio but there are also concerning signs that he may be another corporate Democrat who knows what issues can be used to win elections. He was campaign manager for Hillary Clinton and was endorsed by President Obama. His tax proposal may turn out to be a mirage because it requires legislation from the state government to raise taxes in the city.
Randy Shaw writes that it is important to establish “fear-and-loathing relationships with elected officials” in order to make them act in the interest of the public. If the labor and social and economic justice movements realize that it is their job to push de Blasio, then there are reasons to be hopeful.
The other races we were most excited about were local races of two socialists and Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins. None of them won, but they all came close. The Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant in Seattle and Ty Moore in Minneapolis, both first time candidates, lost in close races. Both say they will run again. Hawkins seemed in striking distance of winning a city council seat in Syracuse, NY. At the end of the campaign, rather than supporting Hawkins, whose agenda is more consistent with what they say is on their agenda, the Working Families Party ran a door-to-door campaign pushing to support the Democratic incumbent.
Important Next Steps to Weaken Corporate Power and Protect the Planet
Until the next round, it is important to use the tools we have to continue to build a broad and diverse movement and to challenge corporate power. As we have written numerous times, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), if passed, would be a huge corporate power grab. Communities are starting to pass resolutions saying that they will not obey if the TPP is passed and prohibits them from acting in their best interests. A global day of action against toxic trade agreements is being planned for December 3. Read about the initiatives and day of action here.
Another example of corporate influence causing harm to the public is the ongoing disaster at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. Tokyo Power & Electric Company (TEPCO) has demonstrated that it is incapable of handling the crises and the bodies that should be intervening are corrupted by the nuclear industry. This week, activists delivered petitions and letters signed by people and organizations all over the world calling for independent expert and civilian oversight and access to accurate information. Monday, Nov. 11, will be a day of fasting and reflection on the apocalyptic potential for catastrophe if another natural or man-made event causes a massive release of radiation.
It is clear that the current political and economic systems are incapable of protecting people and the planet. It is up to us to take action in whatever way we can using the many nonviolent tactics at our disposal to build people power, resist corporate power and create a more just and sustainable world.