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Now that We’ve Taken Back America, What Do We Do With It?

by Jo Freeman

The big story at the eighth annual conference of progressives is that it changed its name from "Take Back America" to the oxymoronic "America’s Future Now." Organizers of the Washington, DC meeting feel that with the election of Barack Obama and the return of Congress to the Democratic Party, progressives have taken back America. The next question is, what to do with it?

Those attending the June 1 — 3 conference heard a long wish list. At the top was passing the Employee Free Choice Act. Healthcare was a close second. However, the former was very explicit, whereas what to do about healthcare is still up for grabs. These and the other main issues also head the priority list of organized labor, which was a pervasive presence at this conference.

The Employee Free Choice Act (H.R. 1409 — S. 560) would allow workers who want to form unions to skip an official NLRB election. Also known as "card check,"it would require employers to recognize a union if a majority of employees sign cards stating that they want one.

With this, unions hope to end the long decline in union membership. Currently only 12 percent of American workers are represented by unions. In the 1950s it was 35 percent. The AFL-CIO argues that NLRB elections are a major barrier to organizing new unions because 46 percent of workers report management pressure to vote NO.

How to achieve affordable healthcare for all is a much more amorphous problem, and no one proposed a solution. Though the left favors single-payer, it was barely mentioned. "Public Option" is as far as anyone would go. The powers that be have decided that the public isn’t ready for single-payer.

Energy and immigration were high on the agenda. Culture war concerns — e.g. race and gender — got an honorable mention but not much more than that.

Panels on foreign policy and foreign wars weren’t among the missing, but they were in the background. Past conferences have railed against the US occupation of Iraq. That was fine when Bush was President. Obama is being given a pass while he tries to get rid of the Bush legacies.

Although progressives often see themselves as on the cutting edge, this year there was more interest in identifying what can be won. The parallel conference by Progressive Majority stressed concrete organizing skills — the kind of stuff that the right used to be so much better at than the left.

Unfortunately, not a lot of people came to hear the agenda or learn the skills of practical politics. This year’s conference was the smallest in years. The largest meetings — even the ones with food — barely had 400 people in attendance. Maybe a thousand people came for at least one event. The exhibits were demoted to an underground parking garage where young organizers sat wistfully behind tables longing for someone to talk to. Less than two dozen groups had tables, and those behind them said they had spoken to only 20-30 people in three days.

This was a striking contrast to the Conservative Political Action Conference held in this same hotel last February. Then the halls were filled with five to six thousand people, who happily cheered non-stop Obama bashing. The man had barely been in office a month and they were already condemning him to hell.

Winning isn’t always fun.


©2009 Jo Freeman for


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