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Winning Marathons While Running Uphill

03/03/2015 10:25 am ET | Updated May 03, 2015
Muhammed Bilal Kenasari/Anadolu Agency/Getty

It is easy to get discouraged about the American political scene. Billionaires and big business keep spending absurd amounts on buying up politicians and making sure they win elections. Republicans keep moving more and more to the extreme edges of the right. A lot of Democrats are either bought off by Wall Street, ineffectual, or both. The Supreme Court is as conservative and pro-big-business as it has ever been. The media is cynical and all too often in bed with corporate interests. Gridlock reigns over all.

And yet, somehow, some way, progressives are breaking through and winning some really important victories. It is like running a marathon while having to go the entire way steeply uphill, yet still winning.

Let's start with the astonishing concession by Walmart to raise the minimum wage it pays its workers to $9 in April and $10 next year. Walmart is one of the richest and most powerful corporations in the history of the world. They have ruthlessly squashed every union-organizing drive ever mounted against them, and they are happy to buy off government officials around the world whenever they need to. The Walton family, the wealthiest in the world, are for the most part very right-wing, supporting politicians and organizations opposed to the minimum wage and any discussion of economic inequality. And with the Republican Party having swept the last election and in control of both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court, they certainly aren't feeling heat from the government to do more for their workers.

Beyond all that, Walmart's entire business model has always been about keeping the wages of their workers and the workers of their product suppliers as low as possible, both to keep their costs as low as possible and to drive down wages overall so that more people would need to shop for the low-cost goods they offer. Remember how Henry Ford doubled the wages of his workers so that they could afford to buy his cars? Walmart's philosophy has always been a sort of reverse-Fordism: Drive down wages so that the only place people can afford to shop is Walmart.

The bottom line here is that this wage concession is a huge change in the way they do business. Their ideology and entire business model scream against doing it; their history is to resist any such concession in the ugliest kind of way; their immense power and the electoral trends certainly don't suggest they would have had to do it. And needless to say, they aren't doing it out of the goodness of their collective corporate hearts. So what gives here? Well, simply put, the 99 percent are starting to rise up, and it is creating a very big problem for even a company as powerful as Walmart. The incredible organizing work of UFCW, Change to Win, the AFL-CIO, My Walmart, the Corporate Action Network, and the Netroots movement has lit a fire that continues to build. No matter how many times they were slammed down, no matter how many politicians sided with Walmart, no matter how many years Walmart tried to ignore them and brush them aside, the organizers of this movement didn't give up. And now with the media finally beginning to cover the issues of low-wage workers, with so much anger rising that even Republicans are starting to talk about the problems of low-wage work, the executives at Walmart saw the writing on the wall. Their brand was taking a beating; their workers were getting feistier and feistier. They had to do something to take the pressure off.

Let's be clear: This isn't nearly enough. Walmart wages and benefits are still way too low. And if the pressure doesn't stay on, Walmart will start looking to quietly roll back even these small increases. But this was still an important victory, and it shows what persistent, gutsy, creative organizing can do.

Let me add one final note before moving on to the next big victory: This was done without government's help. Reporters, pundits, and progressive-movement strategists themselves need to be very clear on the fact that the progressive movement's goal is not a bigger government or the electing of more progressive politicians. Instead, our goal is to improve the lives of everyday folks through collective action. We didn't get this victory because government passed a new law or regulation, or because politicians pressured them to do something. Government had nothing to do with this victory. We won because progressives and workers built a movement and sustained it through hard times over a long period. Would it be a good thing if government were actively on the side of Walmart's workers? Hell, yes. But even when they are not, progressive organizing can win improvements in people's lives. Many times over the last century, collective bargaining, civil disobedience, community organizing, consumer boycotts, and online pressure have won major concessions from the powers that be without the help of government, and until government starts being on the side of working people more aggressively again, that is how many of our victories will have to be won.

The second major victory for progressives of the last couple of weeks does have something to do with government, though. It is a simultaneous reminder of two things about political battles that progressives can never forget: that elections matter, and that elections are never enough. This last week, after nine years of running uphill, through many twists and turns and many dark days, the FCC passed a new measure on net neutrality that was pretty much everything progressives had wanted. We won in part because we elected a president who appointed decent FCC commissioners, but mostly we won because we kept fighting. How we got to this place is one of the most remarkable stories of policy making in recent history. And of course, it is not over. A policy battle like this, fighting opponents with the size and power of the telecom industry, is never over; there are court battles and legislative fights and new FCC appointments to worry about. But the victory is still one to savor, and to tell the story of, because the lessons here are important.

The battle was joined in 2006. Prior to that, the Internet, which had been created by the government, had always been neutral in terms of the speed by which you could get to any site you wanted. That meant that whether you were Google, a tiny start-up in someone's garage, or a blogger with no budget, anyone looking for you could find you just as quickly as they could find anyone else. The telecoms, though, knew that they could make a whole lot more money if they could charge companies big fees in exchange for putting them in a "fast lane," especially with all the new wireless devices that were about to come on line. But having a fast lane for the big-money guys would mean there was a slow lane for everyone else, and it would permanently change the way the Internet worked for everyone.

I was involved in this fight from the very beginning, so I had a bird's-eye view from the very start. In the early days of the battle, it actually looked like our side would win this battle in a rout, even though President George W. Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress were close to the telecom industry. People loved the Internet the way it was, and it was easy to get a mass outpouring of support for keeping it that way. And in that initial fight, a lot of the non-corporate right-wing groups like the Christian Coalition and Concerned Women for America were actually on our side, worried that the "liberal media" would take away their ability to organize over the net. 2006 was also the peak of the blogosphere's power to make a difference politically, and it drove both conversation and action about the issue. If the Republican leaders could have been forced to bring the issue to the floor, we easily would have won floor votes to write net neutrality into law.

But with the power and money of the telecoms, that early momentum didn't last long. The first thing the telecoms focused on was giving big contributions to conservative groups, which moved them permanently over to the other side; now Republicans call net neutrality "Obamacare for the Internet," and no one on the right contradicts them. They also spent a lot of money giving to the blue-dog and third-way Democrats, making this far more divisive inside the Democratic Party than it had been, so even though Obama said he was for it, net neutrality never came up for a vote once the Democrats took over Congress. Net-neutrality advocates had hopes, though, that given Obama's strong support for it in the campaign, and given his appointment of Julius Genachowski, a net-neutrality supporter, as FCC chair, the FCC would create good rules on the issue. Genachowski blinked in the face of industry pressure, though, and put a rule into effect that was structured so badly that the courts were almost certain to overturn it -- and they quickly did so. When Genachowski resigned and Obama appointed Tom Wheeler, a telecom-industry lobbyist, as FCC Chair, we feared the worst.

But the progressive advocates working on this never gave up. After Wheeler was appointed, we kept working on it. The outside organizing from the netroots world was extraordinary, and we kept working the inside as well. At one point I was talking to a White House aide working to put together some kind of really lame compromise on the issue, and they groused to me that net-neutrality advocates were the most demanding people he had ever met and just wouldn't accept any compromise. And I thought that was a great compliment given the nature of the issue and the stakes involved.

In the end Obama came through with the strongest possible support of net neutrality, and eventually the FCC did as well; Wheeler was convinced to side with the millions agitating for net neutrality rather than with his old employers. This fight isn't over, but we won a huge battle last week, and we have the high ground for a while to come. Progressive bloggers, MoveOn, Credo, DFA, PCCC, Color of Change, Free Press, the progressive blogosphere, and so many other great groups deserve so much credit for hanging in there through all the dark moments when it seemed like we were on the ropes.

These two victories came on top of stopping the Antonio Weiss Treasury nomination, winning the immigration executive order after many years of organizing, and winning on Cuba policy after six and a half decades of fighting that absurd, brain-dead policy, a Cold War relic. And these victories came at the same time that corporate Democrat Rahm Emanuel was forced into a runoff election for Mayor of Chicago after outspending his nearest opponent by 12 to 1. If progressives get the win there, it will send shock waves through the entire Democratic establishment and media punditry.

Being outspent the way we are by big-business fat cats, with the establishments of both parties frequently against us and the media punditry dismissive, many of these fights are long, long uphill runs. And there's nothing new about that. The abolitionist movement started in the 1820s but took four decades to realize its goals. The suffragist movement started in the 1830s but took almost 90 years to win victory. The NAACP was formed early in the 1900s, but the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act did not happen until the 1960s. Important fights frequently take many years, sometimes many decades, to win, and even then, the fights are frequently not over; look at the voting-rights struggles we are currently seeing 50 years after passing the Voting Rights Act. But even when we have bad elections, even being outspent overwhelmingly, progressive organizers who never give up and keep fighting and innovating in their organizing strategies can still win battles.

Republican Congress or not, big-money opposition or not, progressives can win victories over the next couple of years if they stay creative, stay aggressive, and never give up. The last couple of weeks have given proof enough of that reality.