Progressives won big in four arenas over the past two weeks. They played key roles in stopping a military strike on Syria, defeating Larry Summers’s bid to head the Fed, winning basic protections for 1.9 million home health care workers, and forcing companies to disclose the gap between their CEO and worker pay.
Were the stars just aligned for once? Or are there some lessons here for future fights? Here are some thoughts from four Institute for Policy Studies analysts and activists.
1. Stopping U.S. military strikes on Syria
It is a huge victory that the United States is not bombing Syria right now. If not for the huge mobilization of anti-war pressure on the president and especially on Congress, things would have turned out very differently. It was what the Washington Post called a “test of the strength of the anti-war movement in the Obama era.” We’ve failed earlier tests – Guantanamo, Afghanistan, the expanded drone war, Libya… But this time, yes – we passed the test.
First the British parliament, facing a cavalcade of protest from our friends in the Stop the War coalition and beyond, unexpectedly stood up to pressure from their conservative prime minister, voting against a US strike. That turned everything around. Suddenly President Obama – who had been prepared to go to war illegally without the UN, without NATO, without the Arab League – was apparently not quite ready to go to war without the Brits. His decision to ask Congress for authorization to use military force against Syria set the stage for a resurgent anti-war movement that cohered quickly, re-energizing long-time peace activists and pulling in new constituencies from those mobilizing for economic justice, women’s rights, immigration, labor and beyond.
We were everywhere – and we kept the focus on Congress. We were inside and outside the Capitol, in raucous protests outside and in one-on-one meetings with Members, in church basements and on world-wide television. We didn’t worry about organizational forms or creating new coalitions. We just went to work. Organizing groups like Peace Action,Grassroots Global Justice, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Code Pink, Win Without War, MoveOn, Just Foreign Policy, and others led campaigns that were agile and focused. Analysts from IPS and other groups helped frame the debate through media work, talking points, statements, and teach-ins.
The overall strategy was go broad, keep the inside and outside work coherent, don’t spent a lot of time trying to organize big demonstrations, and keep the focus on Congress. And it worked. Our pressure made Congress scared of antagonizing their anti-war base – and thus unwilling to support military strikes. The White House has enormous power to shape the narrative, to control the media, and to bully Congress. They tried to do all that, but they failed.
Celebrations should perhaps be muted – the threat of US military strikes remains, and Syria's brutal civil war is far from over. But this is an extraordinary, unforeseen victory for the global anti-war movement.
2. Defeating Larry Summers
The victory in knocking Larry Summers out of the running for Fed chair is connected to the Syria victory. Summers saw the writing on the wall when Obama couldn’t line up progressive Democrats behind a Syria attack. How could the president possibly hold the party line on an unpopular Fed nomination?
But the fact that at least five key Democratic Senators were reportedly prepared to vote against a former top advisor to both Presidents Clinton and Obama was the culmination of years of work by various segments of the progressive movement.
Over two decades, Summers received regular job promotions despite his knack for offending women’s, environmental, racial justice, global poverty — well, pretty much every group on the progressive side. Many of these groups were involved in petitions and other tactics to squash Summers’s nomination.
For the Senate Democrats, though, most damning was Summers’s role in the 1990s financial deregulation. According to former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind, the former Treasury Secretary used his well-developed intimidation skills to make sure no one in the current administration admitted that Clinton era mistakes had contributed to the 2008 crisis. But nervy progressive leaders refused to let Summers get away with burying his past — even if speaking out might mean fewer invitations to meetings at the White House and Treasury.
Public Citizen set up a bare-knuckled attack site (ForgetLarry.Org) and generated thousands of petition signatures against his nomination. Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, churned out a relentless stream of criticism, from Summers’s mishandling of the 1990s global financial crisis to his failure to spot the $8 trillion housing bubble. Baker and more than 500 other economists signed an Institute for Women’s Policy Research letter supporting alternative candidate Janet Yellen.
Obama claimed such attacks were biased. “Don’t believe everything you read in the Huffington Post,” he reportedly toldmembers of Congress. In the end, though, it seemed the message got through. The office of Montana Democrat Jon Tester (by no means the most radical member of the Senate Banking Committee) echoed long-time progressive critics in astatement explaining his opposition: “Senator Tester is concerned about Mr. Summers's history of helping to deregulate financial markets.”
3. Advancing 1.9 million workers’ rights
On September 17, President Obama and Labor Secretary Tom Perez announced that in-home care workers will no longer be excluded from minimum wage and overtime protections.
This is not only a victory for the millions of hardworking caregivers, mostly women, who are struggling to get by. It’s also a victory for families. Every eight seconds another American turns 65. By improving job quality, these new protections will reduce turnover and lead to improved care for seniors and people with disabilities, allowing more of them to remain in their homes and communities, rather than institutions.
The Obama administration was able to make this happen through regulatory action, specifically by closing the “companionship exemption” loophole in the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. But even though Congressional approval was not needed, victory had still been elusive. President Obama announced his intention to correct this unfair carve-out in 2011, but it still took relentless advocacy on the part of home care workers and their allies to keep the momentum going.
Home care agencies mobilized employer opposition during the public comment period after the Labor Department released the proposed rule. But progressive groups, particularly the broad coalition Caring Across Generations (spearheaded by the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Jobs with Justice), countered by organizing high-road employers who supported the rule because of the long-term benefits it will bring. The Labor Department received more than 26,000 public comments on the proposed regulations and a whopping 80 percent were in favor.
The final rule issued this week allows employers to put off implementation until January 2015. That’s a long time to wait for the right to basic labor protections, but this is still a major victory for progressives, workers, and families.
4. Forcing Corporations to disclose their CEO-worker pay ratio
The Securities and Exchange Commission has just formally proposed a new rule that requires America’s top firms to annually reveal the ratio between what they pay their CEOs and what they pay their most typical workers.
That pay gap has exploded over the past three decades. Big-time CEOs made 40 times average U.S. worker pay in 1980. The current gap: 354 times. But the new SEC rule now gives shareholders, consumers, and workers what they’ve never had: the ability to compare individual corporations by their level of CEO greed and grasping. More important still: This disclosure sets the foundation for follow-up action. With ratio disclosure in effect, for instance, lawmakers could offer corporations with narrow pay gaps preferential treatment on taxes and government contracts.
America’s corporate power suits, naturally, have opposed pay ratio disclosure ever since analysts at IPS and other groupsfirst began pushing for it. But in 2010 corporate lobbyists let down their guard, at the eleventh hour, and let slip into the massive Dodd-Frank financial reform bill a provision that mandated disclosure. Corporate America immediately began a full-court press on the SEC, demanding watered-down regulations that would leave the mandate an effective dead-letter.
But labor and public interest groups pushed back. The SEC received over 20,000 public comment letters and coalition representatives from Americans for Financial Reform met with SEC officials to give this citizen pressure a human face.
In the end, the rule the SEC adopted reflected almost all the key recommendations advanced by the AFL-CIO, Public Citizen, and other reform-minded groups. The SEC must by law hold another round of public comment — but we can take lessons from the victory so far. The most important: Progressive Americans can shove egalitarian policy options onto the nation’s political center stage. In this case, the shoving included 20 years of annual reports on executive pay from IPS and allied groups, extensive handholding to help mainstream reporters understand why corporate pay gaps matter so deeply, and constant outreach to identify and support sympathetic legislative and regulatory officials.
Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She is the author of "Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the UN Defy U.S. Power" (Interlink Publishing, October 2005).
Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies and is a co-author of the Institute's 20th anniversary Executive Excess report, Bailed Out, Booted, and Busted.
Sam Pizzigati is the editor of the online weekly Too Much, and an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.