Sometimes, despite seemingly impossible odds, David wins and Goliath falls. Sometimes, those on the margins of society rise up and change history.
Marshall Ganz, in his account of the rise of the United Farm Workers union (“Why David Sometimes Wins”), depicts how the UFW was able to organize and gain significant victories on behalf of some of the most marginalized populations despite repressive and even violent opposition from the most powerful segments of society.
How were these improbable victories achieved? Through a combination of fierce commitment to the cause, solidarity across a diverse base and a process of continuous learning. These three elements — commitment, solidarity and continuous learning — continue to empower improbable victories around the country and the world.
Recently, my wife and I had the good fortune to meet one of the leaders of the Tunisian revolution that used peaceful and courageous protest to overthrow the dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Dr. Sami Aouadi, secretary-general of the Federation of University Professors and Teachers of Tunisia, as part of a labor delegation hosted by the Sacramento Central Labor Council and California Labor Federation, visited the area to learn about organizing here and to solicit support for the democracy movement in Tunisia.
Dr. Aouadi described how, despite decades of dictatorship, once the flame was lit (literally, with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi) a series of general strikes and protests brought down the entrenched regime within a month. Once the people lost their fear, the seemingly impenetrable armor of the dictatorship was pierced, and there was no going back.
Beyond the ultimate sacrifice of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian revolution succeeded because of the broad-based mobilization of labor leaders such as Dr. Aouadi and those in related unions representing teachers, factory workers and public servants.
Likewise, it was the common people of Egypt — students, housewives, bus drivers, shop keepers, teachers — who created a new democratic vision of society in Tahrir Square so powerful that it toppled Hosni Mubarak’s regime
While not achieving the same revolutionary victory, the recent mass protests in Wisconsin against Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to unilaterally terminate collective bargaining rights for public servants demonstrate the power of a people united.
Labor leaders from unions representing the salt of earth — police, firefighters, teachers, nurses, sanitation workers andsteel workers — put their bodies on the line for weeks of civil disobedience to protect the rights of working people in the state and beyond.
Protesters in Wisconsin describes being inspired by the mobilizations in Egypt and Tunisia, and likewise, received messages of solidarity from their fellow activists in these counties.
Closer to home, still, a coalition of environmental justice organizations in California —representing farm workers, immigrants, low-income communities and people of color — has mobilized to demand that their concerns about air pollution be better addressed in the state’s climate change regulations.
Environmental justice advocates such as Communities for a Better Environment and the Center for Race Poverty and the Environment have sued the state and have achieved a court ruling ordering the state to reconsider its proposal to use a market-based “cap and trade” approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Without going into the technical details or taking sides on the regulations or the court case (for press coverage see: http://www.ejmatters.org/media.html), it is fair to say that this an example of the relatively powerless going up against the power of the government and winning.
It also demonstrates that if the will of people is thwarted in one venue (here, the decision of a state agency), this surge will find other outlets (here, the courts) to express itself.
For all its faults, our three-branch government — executive, legislative and judicial — provides for a range of venues for democratic voice.
Without public forums through which the those without the financial or political means to enforce their will can have their grievances heard and addressed — such as free elections, the courts and and unions with collective bargaining power — popular anger spills into the streets and builds potentially into revolutionary forms.
While the United States may not be ripe for the kinds of revolutions that are roiling the squares and streets of the Middle East and North Africa, we would do well to heed the lessons from these places.
And, while what has been termed the “vampire economy” — through which the super-rich are sucking the rest of us dry (http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/02/income-inequality-in-america-chart-graph) — may seem unassailable, a populist movement of “Davids” may be rising to take on this Goliath.
The example of the labor protests in Wisconsin and of the environmental justice climate change lawsuit may be just the start of something much bigger and more transformative. What might this look like in Davis? Which side will you be on?
— Jonathan London, Ph.D., is a Davis resident and parent. He shares this monthly column with Jann Murray-García. Reach him at [email protected]