Giving Thanks for the Occupation, Election, Demonstrations

Leo Gerard, United Steelworkers President

This week’s holiday mandates giving thanks. For many Americans, that is complicated by the harsh years since 2008.

There’s the bitterness of lost jobs, foreclosed homes and diminished opportunity. There’s the resentment over bailing out Wall Street, then watching banksters grant themselves sensational bonuses while denying Main Street loans to save businesses. There’s the fear generated by county club conservatives demanding draconian cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

It’s hard to muster gratitude while suffering, to feel appreciative while dreading a meaner future.

The past two months, though, produced glimmers of hope — the occupation, the election and the mid-November demonstrations. These events suggest empowerment of the 99 percent and emergence of change. They’re reason for thanks giving, especially by those formerly in the middle class who will for the first time experience this holiday without the traditional feast.

Change began in September with the launch of Occupy Wall Street. Previously, the disaffected had rallied and protested. The newly-homeless had held signs. The jobless had marched on Wall Street, the epicenter of the economy’s crash. But this was different. These rabble-rousers didn’t protest and go home. They dug in. They offered no end date for their cries for justice. Like the sit-down strikers who inhabited the General Motors plant in Flint, Mich. for 44 days in 1936 and 1937, these protesters are determined to stay as long as necessary.

The New York occupiers’ gumption and message – we are the 99 percent” — inspired a movement worldwide. Activists encamped in more than a 1,000 cities. And when police tried to rout them, the occupiers defied the official oppression, just as the sit-down strikers did. Emblematic is the 84-year-old Oakland, Calif., protester who said after police pepper sprayed her in the face that the experience energized her.

Before this movement began, country club conservatives had confined political discussion and concern to government deficits. No one acknowledged the unemployed, the impoverished or the foreclosed on – except to condemn them. The occupations changed this. Suddenly, the media talked of the problem of sharply higher income inequality and wrote about highly profitable corporations dodging taxes. Abruptly, politicians recalled the agony of joblessness and homelessness. Amazingly, there was new emphasis on polls showing massive majorities opposing austerity for the 99 percent and supporting higher taxes on the 1 percent.

For those of us in warm homes, Natalie Merchant’s words send a perfect message to those encamped:

For your kindness, I’m in debt to you,
And I could never have gone this far without you,
For everything you’ve done,
You know I’m bound – I’m bound to thank you for it.”

On Election Day, the majority put the 1 percent and their purchased politicians on notice. The problem for the 1 percent in a one-person-one-vote democracy is that they’re outnumbered. In referendums on Nov. 8, the majority rebuffed attempts to restrict the ability of citizens to vote and to collectively bargain.

Mainers reversed a Republican attempt to limit balloting. The majority there restored Election Day voter registration – a right they’d exercised without problem for 38 years before the state’s GOP-dominated legislature and GOP governor passed a law eliminating it. The 60 percent vote for reinstatement served as public censure to Republican lawmakers nationwide who have worked to suppress voting.

In Ohio, citizens reversed a Republican attempt to sharply constrict the right of public employees to collectively bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions. Ohio citizens affirmed their belief in unionization as a way to move workers into the middle class. The vote was 61 percent in favor of union rights, a margin that chastened country club conservatives, including Ohio’s GOP Gov. John Kasich, who said afterwards that he would pause” to reflect because: The people have spoken clearly. You don’t ignore the public.”

To the voters in Ohio and Maine:

Oh, I want to thank you for so many gifts…
I want to thank you for your generosity …
I want to thank you, show my gratitude…” ~Natalie Merchant

The following week, two demonstrations reinforced the election’s message of hope for the 99 percent. On Nov. 16, two dozen millionaires climbed up Capitol Hill and told Congress they wanted their taxes increased. Really. The following day, on the two-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street’s birth, activists and unionists took to bridges nationwide in demonstrations for jobs.

The rich guys, the Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength, told Congress to eliminate the Bush tax cuts for the rich to help balance the budget. This group of 200 members of the 1 percent offered a solution very different from the Republican austerity demand that had dominated discourse for months.

Similarly, the protesters who occupied bridges across America sought federal investment in infrastructure to create jobs, which would help relieve the recession. Jobs, not cuts.

To the Patriotic Millionaires and the protesters,

Oh, I want to thank you, thank you,
Thank you, thank you,
Thank you, thank you…” ~Natalie Merchant

Because of them, because of wise voters in Ohio and Maine, because of the Occupiers, there’s reason for gratitude this Thanksgiving.

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Leo Gerard is international president of the United Steelworkers Union, part of the AFL-CIO. The son of a union miner; Gerard started working at a nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario, at age 18, and rose through the union’s ranks to be appointed the seventh international president Feb. 28, 2001. For more information about Gerard, visit usw​.org.
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