In my Texas politicking period, I was able to score a couple of underdog victories for statewide office simply by going down the road. Instead of another high-tech, made-for-television campaign, I crisscrossed this far-flung state with high-touch populist politics, visiting with folks in just about every place that has a ZIP code.
By getting out to where the workaday people actually were--in chat & chew cafes and inner-city churches, union halls and community colleges, kitchens and bars--not only did I gain support but, more important, I learned what ordinary people were doing and thinking, and I began to see the possibilities for building progressive majorities.
While most Texans who rallied behind my campaigns would not call themselves progressive, neither were they the bland bunch of corporate conservatives, compliant workers and contented consumers pictured by the pundits and consultants. At their core, I found grassroots Texans to be anti-establishment mavericks--and a whole lot more savvy, activist, progressive and politically exciting than the Powers That Be could ever imagine.
Since those days, I've continued going down the road, working with grassroots groups all across our country--and absorbing the phenomenal energy and rebellious spirit that is steadily spreading across our land, albeit mostly beneath the radar of the cognoscenti holed up in the power centers. Trying to judge America's political possibilities by focusing on the dismal waltz of the dead in Washington is like a cat watching the wrong mousehole. Our future is out here, where we can build on the work of hundreds of thousands of unsung people who daily are taking on the corporate greedheads and political boneheads. These people are lighting prairie fires of rebellion against the way things are, and from them, we can learn how to put progress back in progressive.
Winning Against Wal-Mart
I've learned that progress crops up in unexpected places, such as in hard-core conservative Arizona. I recently traveled there for a meeting of Local 99 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), where I met a scrappy and happy group of veterans from the Wal-Mart wars. They've been forging alliances with local businesses, neighborhood groups and just plain folks, and in the past three years these coalitions have stunned the company by stopping ten new Wal-Mart stores.
Why single out Wal-Mart? Because it's a hog. Despite the homespun image it cultivates in its ads, it operates with an arrogance and avarice that would make Enron blush and John D. Rockefeller envious. It's the world's biggest retail corporation and America's largest private employer; Sam Robson Walton, a member of the ruling family, is one of the richest people on earth.
Wal-Mart and the Waltons got to the top the old-fashioned way: by roughing people up. Their low, low prices are the product of two ruthless commandments: Extract the last penny possible from human toil and squeeze the last dime from its thousands of suppliers, who are left with no profit margin unless they adopt the Wal-Mart model of using nonunion labor and shipping production to low-wage hellholes abroad.
Wal-Mart always expects to get its way, whether confronting suppliers, competitors, workers, governments--or the people of Glendale, Arizona. A developer in this middle-class suburb of Phoenix had announced plans to build a neighborhood shopping center, promising it would be a visual oasis. The City Council OK'd the plan and all was well--until word got out that the real occupier of this oasis was to be Wal-Mart. Indeed, Wal-Mart on steroids: a round-the-clock SuperCenter bigger than four football fields. It would crush neighborhood businesses and supplant good local jobs, remaking another community in Wal-Mart's image. Except that Kathleen Lewis and Bill McDonough stood up.
Bill, who was president of Local 99, already had some victories against Wal-Mart, and knowing that the company would resort to union-baiting, he reached out for allies in the larger community. One who reached back was Lewis, whose Headlines Styling & Barbering Service became the headquarters of the neighborhood rebellion against the invading hog. Around kitchen tables, she and other mad-as-hellers organized a citizens' group that dared to challenge the mighty Wal-Mart. Few of these middle-class folks had ever thought of themselves as rebels, but the realization that a global behemoth could bull into their lives without so much as a pretty-please ignited the latent American radicalism within them.
The fight was on. The City Council, deceived by the developers, withdrew its approval of the zoning for the shopping center. The Wal-Mart side, squawking like stuck pigs, launched a citywide referendum on the project, dumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into it. Against this, Lewis's group spent a whopping $8,600 running their kitchen-table campaign. UFCW, operating separately, went door-to-door, engaging thousands of families.
Finally came the vote. The turnout was more than double that in the previous election, and by a resounding 60-40, Glendalers refused to be Wal-Marted.
The significance is not that one Arizona SuperCenter was defeated--or even sixteen--but that regular people like Kathleen Lewis and her citizens' crew are finding that the Wal-Martization of our society and culture is not inevitable, and that they share some common ground with organized labor. Like dozens of other Wal-Mart wars (www.walmartyrs.org and www.walmartwatch.com), the Arizona phenomenon represents an incremental rise in a simmering grassroots rebellion by America's middle class against the corporate order. "We did what had to be done," said Lewis. For labor, UFCW is showing that it can turn up the heat on the biggest of the big, energize its own middle-class members, forge winning coalitions--and begin to realize its own strength. As Bill McDonough put it after the Glendale victory, "When we prevail, it demonstrates that it can be done. Local 99 is a core army of 16,000 members, with reserves ten times that or more if we use the people close to us to help. The same tactic should be employed across the nation. When and if that happens, you'd be talking about an army of 150 million."
Jim Hightower has been called America's favorite populist. He's been editor of The Texas Observer, president of the Texas Consumer Association, Texas Agriculture Commissioner, host of a radio show. Nowadays he broadcasts daily radio commentaries, publishes a monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown (jimhightower.com) and makes more than 100 speeches a year. With groups like ACORN and Public Citizen he's organizing the Rolling Thunder Chautauqua Tour, a series of political/cultural festivals around the country (rollingthundertour.org). He'll be traveling through America talking to people engaged in grassroots work and new political movements for working people.
© 2002 The Nation Company, L.P.