05/21/2013 03:07 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Inspiring Each Other Forward

When I was writing my book on the history of American political debate and change - The Progressive Revolution: How The Best In America Came To Be - in 2008, I was doing some research on the sequence of events in the 1960s, I was struck by the fact that so many big things happened so close together. As I wrote in my book:

"The civil rights movement inspired other progressives not only to help in the civil rights cause but also to come together around a range of other issues and constituencies. A renewed wave of feminism was sparked in great part by Betty Friedan's influential book The Feminine Mystique. The environmental movement gained broad public appeal when Rachel Carson's Silent Spring became a best seller. Students began to organize themselves. The Port Huron statement, written by Tom Hayden and others, prompted young people to get involved in politics through the student and antiwar movements. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was founded. Cesar Chavez used many of King's organizing tactics, as well as new ones of his own, to unionize farm workers in the agricultural fields of California. And as the 1960s wore on, progressives of all stripes looked with growing concern at the Vietnam War and began to protest in earnest against it.

What is truly astounding is how many of these movements were created in exactly the same window of time: the publication of Silent Spring and The Feminine Mystique, the Port Huron statement and the founding of SDS, and King's "I Have A Dream" speech all happened in a two-year period during 1962 and 1963. Chavez's organizing also began in the early 1960s. It was a flash-point moment in American history, as movements and leaders inspired one another, and pent-up frustrations over injustice came spilling out. It was no accident that the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, the War on Poverty, the Fair Housing Act, the Clean Air Act and the clean Water Act, Head Start, the creation of legal services for the poor, the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, the Roe v. Wade decision, and the end of the Vietnam War all happened in the decade that the Roe v. Wade decision, and the end of the Vietnam War all happened in the decade that followed."

I feel like we are living in such a moment in history right now, that organizers and activists are sparking off each other and inspiring each other, that there is something building out there that will bring bigger change down the road. And just as it took several years for the seeds planted in those 18 months in the early '60s to take root and begin to bring about the changes of the years to come in terms of civil rights, women's rights, and the environment, it will take several years for the seeds being planted now to fully take root. But I believe more and more that it will happen.
Yesterday, homeowners who have been royally screwed over by big Wall Street banks risked not only arrest but worse in demonstrations at the Department of Justice (capitalize) demanding that DOJ start prosecuting bankers rather than the people ripped off by them. Look at this horrific video of a completely peaceful protester being tased:

The protests are continuing today, tomorrow, and maybe beyond.
Meanwhile, low wage workers who work for federal contractors are doing some protests of their own. Check out this excerpt from the news release announcing this action:

Washington - Hundreds of low-wage workers employed under federal contracts, concessions, and leases went on strike today in several federally owned buildings asking their employers and President Obama to take action and improve their wages and working conditions. These low-wage workers are part of a hidden army of nearly two million low-wage workers across the country employed by private businesses on behalf of the U.S. government to serve the American public--working in the food courts at government buildings like Union Station and the Ronald Reagan Building, greeting visitors and selling memorabilia at the Smithsonian Museums, driving trucks hauling federally-owned loads and making military uniforms for our troops. Earlier this month, the workers announced the launch of their organization, Good Jobs Nation, and called on President Obama to ensure contractors pay a living wage and improve working conditions for all those employed by federal dollars.

Today's strikes come on the heels of combined fast-food and retail worker strikes in Milwaukee and the largest-ever fast food strikes in Detroit, as well as recent strikes in New York City, St. Louis and Chicago and the nationwide walkout by Wal-Mart associates on Black Friday. Labor unrest is spreading as workers in low-paying jobs are fed up with stagnant wages and a lack of economic opportunity.

"All I want is to be able to support my family, but I can't even afford to pay my rent on $9.00an hour," said Ana Salvador, who has worked doing a myriad of tasks at the McDonald's at the National Air and Space Museum for 10 years. "The company I work for makes big profits thanks to taxpayers. It's not right that I work hard every day to serve the public, and I have to choose between taking the Metro to work and paying the electric bill. I'm asking President Obama to act so I can provide for my family."

Low-wage jobs have accounted for the bulk of new jobs added in the recovery, but a recent Demos report found that the federal government is the largest low-wage job creator - with nearly 2 million low-wage workers employed under government contracts, loans and leases, including nearly 100,000 working under federal contracts in the DC area alone. A growing coalition of community organizations, clergy, and labor groups, including Empower DC, the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, Change to Win, OUR DC, and Jobs with Justice, have voiced their support for the workers' efforts...

Federal contracts, grants, loans, concession agreements, and property leases worth hundreds of billions of dollars go to large, profitable corporations that pay their CEOs millions in salaries and bonuses but pay their workers such low wages that they are unable to afford basic necessities like food, clothing, and rent. Instead of strengthening our economy, taxpayer dollars are being used to pad corporate profits and bonuses, while leaving workers unable to shop at local businesses and reliant on public assistance to provide for their families...

Congressional Hearing

Following the strikes, congressional leaders, including Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN-5), Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ-7), Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), held a Congressional hearing to investigate and improve working conditions for the nation's largest low-wage workforce.

Federal procurement doubled in the years between 1996 and 2009, and continues to represent an enormous and profitable industry. In 2012, the U.S. government paid private companies $446.5 billion to provide goods and services in the United States, according to Concessions agreements, leases, and grants awarded to private business are worth additional hundreds of billions dollars. Because the federal government sets standards on these contracts and awards, the government is in a position to require that wealthy employers pay frontline workers higher wages that will allow them to afford basic necessities like food, clothing, and rent.

The workers striking are literally risking their desperately needed jobs while doing so. Just like the people at DOJ risking arrest and being tased, these workers are on the frontlines, showing enormous courage and grit under fire. It is a shame that some of our political leaders couldn't do the same.

Like the non-violent warriors of the early 1960s who fed off each other, these kinds of demonstrations are inspiring and sparking each other. These last few years have seen environmental, immigration, and LGBT activists chaining themselves to the White House gates and pushing back hard against the administration, to great effect; they saw the birth of the Occupy movement, which started in NYC and spread to demonstrations around the globe; they saw the birth of the brave homeowners at Home Defenders League literally occupying each other's homes to keep families from being foreclosed on; they saw one day strikes at Wal-Marts and fast food chains spreading all over the country. And now in one week, we are seeing low wage workers and homeowners getting squeezed stand up and fight back against the wealthy companies that are treating them poorly. And all these sets of demonstrations and movements are sparking and inspiring each other.

The powers that be are wealthy beyond measure, and are used to getting their own way, so they are bending all their power to keep a lid on all of this. But people are rising up, and in the years to come, we are going to see some real changes.