We have incredible contributions from: Jonathan Kissam, Vermont Workers Center; Michael Leon Guerrero, Grassroots Global Justice; Terry Marshall, Healthcare Education Project (SEIU); Jennifer Flynn, Health GAP; Trishul Siddharthan, Medical Student and Community Activist with Power U and Miami Workers Center; and Randy Jackson, consultant with movement-based organizations.
What should we talk about next month? Got something you think people need to hear? Email us: [email protected]
Jonathan Kissam is a rank-and-file member of UE Local 203 in Burlington, Vermont, and a member of the Vermont Workers’ Center/Jobs with Justice. More information about the Healthcare Is a Human Right campaign can be found here.
Well-organized right-wing crowds disrupted most of the healthcare town halls that took place across the country in recent months. But the August 15th healthcare town hall in Rutland, Vermont was different. The red placards and t-shirts of the “Healthcare Is a Human Right” campaign of the Vermont Workers’ Center/Jobs with Justice (VWC/JwJ) dominated the audience and the media coverage of this town hall. Anti-reform speakers got their share of time at the microphone, but they were unable to be disruptive because of the large VWC mobilization. Independent Senator Bernie Sanders – a long-time supporter of a single-payer healthcare – remained in control of the room and was able to challenge the lies that came from some of the right-wing speakers. Media reports attributed the lack of disruption to Vermont’s tradition of civil debate, but the real reason was good old-fashioned grassroots organizing: dozens of volunteers making hundreds of calls to a base built over more than a year of our Healthcare Is a Human Right campaign. The VWC/JwJ believes that there are important lessons to be learned from our success in turning back the right wing:
Putting policy reforms in the context of a values-based campaign: We built our campaign based on the idea that health care is a human right. Basing our campaign on a commitment to this basic value allowed us to build a larger and more engaged base than a narrow policy-based campaign could have. While many of the people we turned out to the town hall meetings may not have understood the ins-and-outs of health care policy, they were committed to the notion that healthcare is a human right.
Understanding that this is a struggle over power, not a debate over policy: Throughout our campaign, we have been clear that only serious struggle from the grassroots can win real healthcare reform. While our campaign is focused on state heath care legislation, we mobilized our base for these town halls because we saw the federal debate as a critical battle in which our opposition has access to friendly media and unlimited resources from the insurance companies.
Placing the voices of people most affected front and center: At hearings that we held around the state, a wide spectrum of Vermonters shared their stories about the broken healthcare system, from union members with “good” health insurance who had been denied care to uninsured loggers who live with daily fear of accidents to women who stayed with abusive husbands out of fear of losing health insurance to the nurses who see needless suffering everyday. In the town hall meetings, this kind of powerful personal testimony stood in sharp contrast to the shrill rhetoric of the right wing.
Leadership development: Too often, campaigns are so focused on winning policy goals that we neglect to develop the skills and leadership potential of the people who we are organizing. During the course of this campaign, the VWC held organizer trainings around the state. As a result, campaign leaders were prepared to speak up at the town hall meetings and to represent the powerful voices of the people who have suffered under the current system.
Taking on right-wing beliefs about government: VWC/JwJ chose healthcare as our major campaign not only because it is an issue that affects all sectors of the working class, but also because it offered an opportunity to engage people in a discussion about social values and a vision for a different society. We don’t believe that progressive forces can win policy debates if we accept the values framework of neoliberal capitalism, that markets are inherently more efficient than government and that individuals are on their own to provide for their own welfare. By challenging these values with a vision of a caring society, in which communities take collective responsibility for the general welfare, we hope to contribute to building a movement than can win universal healthcare and a just society.
The Battle of Ideas: The Right engaged in the battle of ideas in the health care fight. They utilized basic military strategic principles: set the stage for where your battles take place, and you will win. They are trying to shift the battlefield about the role of government by framing government as an enemy that will control our lives. We need to fight on this terrain as well: take on right-wing beliefs about government and put forward our own visions. If we focus only on narrow policy issues, we are missing the broader struggle. Winning ground at the ideological level can create space for us to win more concessions on policy and implementation. We should not focus on pressuring the Obama administration. Instead we should work to open political space for the administration to win its more progressive reforms and position ourselves to push for more progressive policy later. Our messages should target our real adversaries, including (1) the people who benefit from regressive policies, like health insurance companies and bankers, (2) figureheads in the Right, like Dick Armey and Rush Limbaugh, who are promoting the regressive agenda and (3) conservative policy-makers.
Provocative Tactics: The Right has succeeded by using a provocative agitational and direct action strategy, including carrying automatic weapons to Obama town hall meetings and drawing on Saul Alinsky’s tactics. Even though the people who disrupted the healthcare town halls acted crazy, polls showed that their strategy worked. The Obama administration went on the defensive and is prepared to cave in on key aspects of healthcare reform. Recently, a confidential memo from the American Petroleum Institute (API) surfaced which called for a similar strategy in the upcoming climate policy debates. The memo called on “member companies to ‘move aggressively’ to stage public meetings, similar to the recent protests against [Obama’s] healthcare plans.” Although this plan backfired and caused a split within the API, it suggests that we have not seen the last of the disruptive tactics of the Right. We need to plan ahead and develop our own agitational strategies to sharpen the debate about the role of government and the economy. Our strategies should focus on direct action – including rallies, town hall meetings, days of action and civil disobedience – and be coupled with an aggressive communications plan to promote our values to a wide audience.
Take Advantage of the Moment: There are key political moments – like the 2006 immigrants rights mobilizations and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina – when we need to carve out time and take on issues that are not currently part of our work-plans. This is one of those moments. If the most progressive aspects of the healthcare reform are gutted and we lose more ground on energy policy, then the window of opportunity for progressive policy may close soon. We need to act decisively and aggressively this year. What happens in the next six months will set the political tone for the next decade of our work.
Terry Marshall has been involved in youth and social justice struggles for the past 13 years. In 2005 he founded the Hip-Hop Media Lab, an intermediary that uses culture and new media to organize social networks. Today Terry is the Lead Youth Organizer for the Healthcare Education Project (1199SEIU), a Blogger for octavianprinciple.wordpress.com and enjoys being a heretic of the Left
The left has largely been absent from the fight over healthcare. There have been many important political developments that evolved out of this fight, and we need to understand and analyze them if we are going to develop an effective left strategy for our current moment. One of the most important developments has been the resurgence of the grassroots Right and the return of red-baiting.
Obama’s election victory has revitalized the mostly Christian and white grassroots base of the Right in this country. Where did this resurgence come from? These people have seen the privileges they gained from being white within the American Empire wither away. They see the election of the first Black president as the final closing of the door on the America they imagine and love. Talking heads, such as Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh, speak to the fears of white middle class and working class people. They have played on those fears to go on the attack and push back the possibility for progressive gains that came with Obama’s election.
The fight around healthcare is the first major policy battle where these groups came into play. These forces became the shock-troops of the resistance to healthcare reform. The funding for that resistance came from the big health insurance companies, but the interests of the grassroots base and big corporations do not actually always align. We need to be clear where their interests actually diverge. Even with all of their red baiting, their confused rants and their racist attacks, we have to remember that these social forces are actually “up for grabs” by the Left. We need to learn how to win some of these forces over to a Left progressive agenda. We need to develop mechanisms that can speak to their issues and clear up the confusion promoted by the Right. It won’t be easy, but it is absolutely necessary.
There are other valuable lessons that the Left can draw from this fight.
First, we need to move beyond critique. The Obama administration did blind side the single payer movement with his “public option.” But we were reeling from that for far too long. Most of the left stayed stuck in critiquing Obama and didn’t move to develop a plan on what to do about it. The Left needs to move through our critiques and concentrate on laying out a plan for how to actually move our agendas through the Obama administration.
Second, we need to move faster. The Left jumped in the game far too late. Many of our organizations move at a glacial pace, even in the face of major crises and significant political shifts. We get caught up in our “three-year strategic plans” and such. We need a more flexible strategic orientation that can allow us to make fast decisions without losing our long-term focus.
This leads into the final lesson: we need new organizational forms. A large section of the left today is trapped in non-profit structures, and we suffer from the limits of that organizational form. Many people have talked about the need to develop cadre structures, but we also need other intermediary forms. Some people have formed volunteer collectives outside of non-profits. Some progressive staff and members who work at nonprofits have formed volunteer groups to do actions that they could not do within the limitations of non-profit structures. Some examples have been the Community Avengers in Miami and Young Voices Nation in NYC.
The Left needs to learn these lesson fast enough to be able to weigh in on the other upcoming battles: the fights over climate change and energy policy, education and immigration reform. Training season is coming to an end. It’s time to get off the sidelines and into the game!
Jennifer Flynn was the co-founder and director of NYC AIDS Housing Network and is a current board member. She is the Managing Director for Health GAP (Global Access Project) and writes about organizing, social justice, AIDS and healthcare issues for numerous outlets.
My job at Health GAP, an international AIDS advocacy and organizing group, meant that I spent a lot of time on the campaign trail during the 2008 Presidential campaign. I heard the stump speech from every candidate at countless town halls and foru