99% Spring Training Is Mixed Bag, But Has Potential for Inspiring New Activists
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, is a small suburb to the north of Philadelphia, home to the regional headquarters of the United Automobile Workers. The venerable union hosted the last 99% Spring training in the Philly metropolitan area last Monday. The 99% Spring campaign has gained a lot of press in progressive circles, either as a hopeful sign of Occupy Wall Street’s influence, or as a harbinger of imminent co-option by the Democratic Party. The Fort Washington training was underwhelming, but nationwide there is much more evidence of the former than the latter.
The 99% Spring was organized by a broad array of progressive groups to train thousands of participants in direct-action tactics. The most active groups include the UAW, Jobs With Justice, MoveOn, National People’s Action, Greenpeace and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Dozens of other organizations have proclaimed their support too. Signatories include representatives from the direct action-devotees of the Ruckus Society to progressive establishment bedrocks like the National Education Association.
This is unusual. The larger unions, not to mention MoveOn, generally do not devote their time, funds and energy to non-electoral strategy, particularly in a presidential election year. The very fact that the 99% Spring is as much their work as it is, say, National People’s Action's is unusual, if not unprecedented, in recent years.
“Within the current margins of our politics you are not going to truly address the political and economic inequality just through elections,” said George Gohel, executive director of National People’s Action, an innovative and confrontational nonviolent activist group. “The missing ingredient is not that there isn’t enough energy or noise around elections, it’s this other piece that’s been missing. The primary goal of the 99% Spring is to equip more people to engage in nonviolent direct action and to inspire and move more nonviolent direct action.”
The Fort Washington training was housed in a nondescript building shared by the UAW and the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 54. The 50-plus-person crowd was mostly silver-haired, which made sense considering the Monday morning meeting time, with younger to-middle-aged attendees comprising a quarter of the crowd. The hall buzzed with talk of the Koch brothers, upstate fracking and the future of Medicaid. The opening introductions revealed a mix of retired autoworkers, MoveOn members, representatives from Communications Workers of America (CWA), and a couple occupiers. The Saturday meeting in downtown Philadelphia, led by Greenpeace, numbered approximately 100, also with an average age well above last year’s Occupy Philly encampment.
Neither the Fort Washington nor downtown trainings attracted as many adherents as organizers had hoped. But the campaign comprises 981 trainings in 49 states, and organizers for National People’s Action and the National Alliance of Domestic Workers held events in Chicago, New York, Iowa, and Michigan that were filled to capacity. The UAW organizers leading the Fort Washington training, who had just returned from upstate New York, told me they had 60 attendees in Buffalo, and 40 in Syracuse.
“We hear every day that trainings have had to be moved because they’ve outgrown the spaces they were originally scheduled for,” said Ai-jen Poo, director of National Domestic Workers Alliance, citing tiny Vashon Island off the coast of Seattle as an example. “We are reaching remote places where this kind of activism isn’t necessarily a big part of the culture.”
I sat next to two disabled, bearded Vietnam veterans with faded tattoos and canes. We perused the literature provided by the UAW organizers: copies of Martin Luther King’s famed “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and Daniel Hunter’s “The Power of Nonviolent Direct Action,” which defines the strategy as apart from, if complementary to, such activities as voting or taking a case to court. “People turn to nonviolent direct action after the institutional modes fail,” Hunter writes.
The attendees of the Fort Washington meeting seemed ready for new modes of action. We broke into groups of four to learn each other’s stories and get motivated. Almost everyone in my group was unemployed and over 50. The one woman with a job said she’s the only employed member of her family of five and is afraid of relying on “welfare.” Everyone had stories of lost jobs, evaporated 401(k)s and spiraling healthcare costs. Tales of high suicide rates, mass layoffs and bankruptcy abounded -- the human cost of austerity.
“It was a really good opportunity to talk to people about the personal impact of the economy…That was really inspiring,” said Kate Goodman, a member of Occupy Philly. “It seemed like a lot of the people there had mostly only been involved in Internet activism before, so just getting everyone in the room was a great start.”
The group stories were energizing, and we headed into the lunch hour (pizza fuels the revolution) with high expectations for the training to come. But the post-lunch session only featured excerpts from the mass-circulated (though well-executed) 99% Spring training video, including a short film on the history of direct-action tactics in 20th-century America and a walk through of a mass “Move Your Money” action. The video instructed us to take time to practice this action ourselves, by splitting into groups and practicing nonviolent tactics in the face of confrontation. But the UAW trainers just turned off the video and told us to grab some more pizza on the way out. (Also, to “buy American!”)
The brief question-and-answer session consisted of the organizers telling us to attend Fight for Philly’s Tax Day Action the next day: a march on the Comcast building (one of the many Pennsylvania corporations that pay no income tax).
“This material [the video and instruction manuals] looks like it’s well-constructed, a step above what we normally see,” John Petrini, one of the Communications Workers of America representatives, said in the parking lot after the training. “But I was a little disappointed in the execution.”
Jim Pyrne, another CWA rep, agreed: “Wasn’t there supposed to be an action plan?”
As Gohel and other NPA organizers explain, yes. Admittedly, from a strategic standpoint, the Fort Washington Office Park’s sprawling, isolated layout is almost perfectly constructed to discourage mass action (although the union-busting Honeywell has offices there). The Fort Washington organizers’ muted endorsement of the Tax Day action -- with no discussion of what to do once we got there, or what strategy to use -- did not constitute an action plan.
But other reports suggest the 99% Spring should not be condemned based on one dud training. As you might expect with any endeavor on this scale, the quality of the trainings, and their outcomes, will vary. While my subdued Fort Washington experience could only loosely be described as training, others did go through with the full instruction course. The Saturday training in downtown Philadelphia, for instance, put attendees through a full day’s training, while maintaining a sizeable crowd throughout. A minority of training sessions even resulted in immediate direct actions.
Following a Michigan Organizing Project and Alliance for Immigrants' Rights training, 200 attendees marched against the Mastronardi Fruit packing plant, a Trader Joe’s supplier, to demand an end to wage theft and employer abuse at the facility. Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement organizers immediately bused training participants to the home of Wells Fargo Home Mortgage president, Michael Heid, where they protested his bank’s egregious behavior -- on his lawn.
In New York City, a session led by Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES) and supported by MoveOn, trained 180 people. A hundred participants promptly formed an action targeting Bank of America’s New York headquarters, personally delivering letters of condemnation, telling their stories of abuse in front of the skyscraper, and demanding a meeting with the bank’s chief operating officer, Thomas Montag (total compensation: more than $14 million).
“The action -- how well it was organized -- showed that we can organize peacefully but still be very impactful,” Anthony Feliciano, GOLES member and Lower East Side training participant, told me in an email message. “[The training] was a chance for me to learn and understand how we got here in the first place and to connect to other people from different socio-economic backgrounds.”
The Fort Washington participants seemed ready for something more. “When wealth gets concentrated, you get corrupt government,” said attendee Jane Washington, a Peace Corps veteran. “That’s the way it was in Guatemala. I just feel I have to do something.”
“I’m still looking for a place to plug in,” another woman interjected.
Some of the more overbearingly dogmatic occupiers have been wailing and gnashing their teeth about the 99% Spring’s “co-option” of the movement. But if executed well, a 99% Spring event connects people with like-minded citizens, and possibly, a local activist community group. From what I’ve seen and heard, the 99% Spring seems to draw a different, older demographic than Occupy. The Iowa training, for example, included a contingent of over-50 farmers. If organizers are actually invested in the campaign, a 99% Spring event gives people “a place to plug in,” along with direct-action training. (Also, there seems to be little electoral boosting -- a big fear among occupiers -- although one UAW organizer did have some choice words about Mitt Romney and Republicans generally.)
“This particularly training wasn’t as in-depth as I would have hoped,” Goodman said the next day at the Tax Day march on Comcast. “But I’m happy to see the UAW and other unions willing to try new tactics and work with community groups and the occupy movement.”
The anti-Comcast action the next day did not attract many of the Fort Washington trainees. I only recognized three, including Goodman and one of the UAW trainees. The 60 or 70 protesters were mostly from Philly community groups and the Service Employees International Union, which has a strong track record of putting boots on the ground. If individual organizers aren’t invested heavily enough in the 99% Spring, it won’t work; pizza and a video won’t be enough to inspire action among trainees.
But if the actions in Iowa, Michigan and NYC are any indication, the 99% Spring has plenty to offer, if individual organizers are passionate enough and take advantage of participants' eagerness to be involved.