2011 will be remembered as the year the world woke up and began to fight back against a tiny minority that had held on to control—of money, of political power—for far too long.
Time Magazine named “The Protester” its person of the year, but the story is much deeper than that. Here in the US, the year began with despondency—a new class of Tea Party-supported legislators and governors were taking office around the country, and taking immediate steps to impose their anti-worker austerity agenda.
But the austerity class met resistance—first in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker moved to take away workers' right to collective bargaining. The people in Wisconsin responded by occupying their Capitol building, kicking off a movement which spread through Ohio and Indiana, then seemed to subside before erupting in the fall with Occupy Wall Street.
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But throughout the year, organizers were working around the country, fighting the power of Wall Street, big business, and the right-wing governors who do their bidding. We asked ten of them to talk about the moments that stood out for them this year, the moments that gave them hope. Some are moments you've heard of, some might have slipped past you. But all of them were signs of long-overdue change.
1. Melissa Ryan, New Media Director at New Organizing Institute – Wisconsin Leads the Fight Back
“For Wisconsin I think the big moment was when the 14 Democratic State Senators left the state [to avoid a vote on Walker's collective bargaining bill]. I really think that's what triggered the energy around the recall of the Senators, really triggered the energy around the recall of Walker. It changed from people taking to the streets because they didn't know what to do to really having the energy to change something.
All these years when we've been begging Democrats to stand up, and here were 14 people who not only not caved but who put everything on the line to defend worker's rights. It's been a year of moments, really in Wisconsin, but that's something that still inspires me a year later.
To me that was the lightning rod for everything.”
2. Nelini Stamp, Working Families Party/Occupy Wall Street
“On September 16th I was in a meeting for a couple of hours about how the progressive left can change the narrative from cuts to economic inequality. The next day, little did I realize while I was sleeping on cardboard at Liberty Plaza, the national narrative would change. Occupy Wall Street has changed the narrative for the millions all over the country who have been suffering for a very long time.”
3. Karen Nussbaum, Executive Director, Working America – New Hampshire's Win Against Anti-Union “Right-to-Work” legislation
“When Republicans took over state legislatures in 2010, we all worried that they'd quickly move to attack workers' rights. Fortunately, in New Hampshire, we were able to turn back one of those attacks.
New Hampshire's Republican-controlled state legislature passed so-called right-to-work legislation that would undermine the right to collectively bargain—but thanks to the efforts of people like our members, they did not override Gov. Lynch's veto of the bill. Working people won this vote despite underhanded tactics by state House leaders and big-money lobbying from out-of-state interests.
This wasn't just a victory for people who are in unions. Working America members, who don't have a union at work, wrote hundreds of letters to their state legislators asking them to uphold the veto and protect the freedom to have a union. As they did in Wisconsin and Ohio, working people in New Hampshire—union and non-union alike—stood up in support of basic workers’ rights.
We preserved good jobs with fair wages and benefits and struck a blow against the anti-worker agenda.”
4. Olivia Leirer, New York Communities for Change– Supermarket Workers in Brooklyn Win Union Contract
“NYCC organized low-wage immigrant workers at Master Foods (3008 Church Ave) in Flatbush. The workers are mostly from Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala and the West Indies.
Workers filed a lawsuit for back wages, won $300,000 in back wages and won paid vacation, sick days, raises, grievance procedures, funeral leave and a union contract with RWDSU (Retail, Wholesale, Department Store Union)/UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers) Local 338.
They used community, press, elected officials and lawsuits to win. It was the first of a broader campaign to organize low-wage workers in supermarkets, car washes and more, and represents a new model for organizing low wage immigrant workers. It goes outside the National Labor Relations Board and uses wage and hour lawsuits and protest to win the contract.”
“In February when the horribly offensive and racist anti-abortion billboard went up in Soho, I was moved and inspired by the swift response of several groups of women of color organizers (Sistersong NY, Trust Black Women, The Women of Color Policy Network at NYU and many others) who got the billboard taken down in ONE DAY. It was a victory and a testament to the power of women's organizing. From the letter from NYU WOC Network:
'It is with great joy that I write to report that Lamar Outdoor Advertising has agreed to pull the billboard on 6th Ave and Watts depicting an African-American girl with the disturbing tagline “The most dangerous place for African Americans is in the Womb” TODAY.
Following a letter to Peter Costanza, Vice President and General Manager of LaMar Billboards, written by the Women of Color Policy Network, NYU Wagner, Mr. Costanza responded affirmatively that they would remove the billboard. I truly believe that our collective quick action, phone calls and letters to the company are directly responsible for their decision to pull the ad.'”
6. Rose Ann DeMoro, Executive Director, National Nurses United – International Coalition Builds to Tax Wall Street
“We think it's one of the best years of our lives. What we saw was a movement born that was long overdue in this country to actually confront the power of Wall Street. What we've done, at NNU, is to forge international solidarity on the financial transaction tax and actually have been pretty vocal representatives of the US in the global fight for the financial transaction tax. We went to France, to confront the G-20 on the transaction tax. It's been an incredible experience.
We're very hopeful because of the global movement and the unified global vision of these groups to actually hold Wall Street and their counterparts in other countries accountable. From what I understand we had the first tent at Occupy Wall Street—they said no tents, so we put up a First Aid station. That was born from our earlier work—we had a campaign in Wisconsin about Tax Wall Street, No Concessions for Workers.
We then did a protest on Wall Street in June, we had a couple of thousand people there, we protested at the Chamber of Commerce in Washington, DC, which Ralph Nader says was the first big protest at that place.
We feel like we've opened a door that won't be closed again, for our own organization, and in terms of having a different voice from America, a progressive voice, a voice that's very loud, very articulate, extremely vocal, the voice of the nurse, in terms of fighting against Wall Street and for a fairer, better world.”
7. Matt Browner Hamlin, organizer with OccupyOurHomes.org, Victory for Veteran Facing Foreclosure in Atlanta.
Brigitte Walker, a decorated veteran of the Iraq War pushed into medical retirement from the army after the shock from a mortar round crushed her spine, was able to negotiate a principal reduction on her mortgage from Chase Bank after Occupy Atlanta defended her home from foreclosure.
“The Occupy Our Homes victory in Atlanta this week with Brigitte Walker is incredibly inspiring and shows yet again that when people take the fight to the banks, the 99% can win. Banks just don't like their dirty business being put out in public and that's what Occupy Our Homes and the communities rallying around these housing activists are doing.”
8. Roberto Lovato, Writer, Co-Founder of Presente.org – International Movements Connect to One Another
“I think the most important victory for working people in the US – and the world — is the building out of the matrix of intersecting and increasingly interconnected movements—the Arab Spring, the Indignados in Spain, ongoing Latin American mobilizations and the most recent, Occupy in the US, among others—transforming the global web of politics.
Thanks to the vision and continued mobilization of working peoples around the world, there's a new day on the planet, one that previews the millenial movements needed to literally 'save the planet' from the physical, economic and spiritual toxicity of “hope”-killing capitalism. Thanks to working people struggling around the world for clearing the air of barriers to real Hope.”
9. Charles Monaco, Progressive States Network – Ohio's Defeat of Anti-Union Legislation
“Exactly one year after the tea party takeover of Congress, and following months of sustained attacks on workers and the 99% in statehouses, voters in every corner of the nation sent a striking and direct message on Election Day 2011, rejecting the overreach of right-wing state legislatures and governors on a wide range of issues.
Nowhere was that message voiced louder than in Ohio, where Senate Bill 5 — a law signed by Gov. John Kasich in the spring that would have stripped law enforcement officers, firefighters, and other public employees of fundamental collective bargaining rights — ended the year going down in flames. After consistent polling that saw the bill broadly unpopular with voters, a grassroots effort that gathered 1.3 million signatures to put it on the ballot, and a campaign that saw corporate interests flood the state with money in attempt to save it, the measure was decisively rejected by a 22-point margin and by majorities of voters in 82 of the state’s 88 counties.
Even without a statewide electoral race on the ballot this year, a quarter million more Ohioans voted to repeal the bill than had voted for Gov. Kasich a year earlier — a level of intensity that should worry any governor or lawmaker in any state considering more economically destructive attacks on workers in 2012.”
10. Leo Gerard, President, United Steelworkers – Occupy Wall Street
“A seminal event for all working people in 2011 was the birth of the Occupy Movement with the first encampment at Wall Street and those that followed across the country and around the world.
This protest of the economic and social injustice created by corporate greed and by the barons of finance diverted the focus of public dialogue from deficits to the needs of working, poor and marginalized people — the 99 percenters.
Although some occupiers have been evicted and their encampments destroyed, the protesters are right when they say: no mayor or police force or 1 percenter can destroy an idea whose time has come.”