Activist talks history of social movements


As a part of the University’s Tent State Program, students and community activists learned about the power of social movements to change electoral politics from guest speaker Frances Fox Piven, who is widely known for her efforts in pressuring Congress to make voter registration easier in the 1980s.

Piven began her talk by explaining the history of social movements and their role in American history. She talked about how during the Revolutionary War period, farmers and laborers played a major role in the struggle for independence.

“Those who we would call the founding fathers, they would not have picked up muskets and fought in the frozen fields,” Piven said. “They needed someone who would fight the war, and the farmers were the ones who would fight.”

Piven also said the American Revolution was not only about fighting against England for independence, but also about creating a democratic society in the former colonies.

“For example, the [first] state constitution in Pennsylvania originally had universal male suffrage and a unicameral legislature, so there was no upper house that would favor propertied interests,” she said. “However, that was reversed, because there was a lot of pushback by wealthy and propertied interests.”

Afterward, Piven talked about the effect of labor movements against major corporations in the Industrial Revolution. She told the story of how workers managed to shut down a rubber factory in Akron, Ohio, by organizing a sit-down strike. She also discussed the impact of similar actions on labor rights in America.

In addition, Piven explained how the success of the labor movement was possible after a long, hard fight.

“Only in 1935, through the National Labor Relations Act, did workers begin to gain the right to organize unions,” she said. “Before then, unions were in a precarious legal status, and our courts used the Master-Servant doctrine to have the strikes declared illegal.”

Piven said this doctrine basically held that workers could not withdraw their services under any circumstances, no matter how unfairly employers may treat them.

Also, Piven discussed the concept of disruptive power, which she said was when the public simply stops cooperating with a system they view as unjust to change it.

“You know that universities do not run unless students come to school and pay their tuition, and that factories do not run unless people come to work,” she said.

Another topic Piven touched upon was how protest movements and electoral politics are connected, and that both are needed to create truly successful change. She said this is because our current electoral system is skewed against ordinary people

“You can change movements through movements or through organizing for electoral victory,” Piven said. “The problem [with electoral politics] is that there a distortions built into the system, such as gerrymandering.”

William Kramer, a climate activist who taught a course on agrarian and farmers movements at the University as a visiting scholar from 2006-2011, questioned Piven on why the United States does not seem to have an effective climate movement.

Kramer also asked why President Barack Obama has not acted more aggressively against climate change, despite promises to.

Piven replied that as president, Obama must have a different temperament than grassroots activists, but people can still apply pressure on him.

Nat Sowinski, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, said she learned about the connection between grassroots activism and legislative politics through Piven’s talk.

“We as a university are working on in state tuition for undocumented immigrants,” she said. “It is grassroots coupled with legislative tactics,” Sowinski said. “I feel like Frances Fox Piven did a really good job connecting the grassroots movement to the greater legislative sphere.”

Francis Lawrence, a University alumnus, said he attended the event hoping to learn how social movements are connected to electoral politics

“I wanted to see Piven speak because she is the person who speaks at the Occupy and other populist movements, and explains the interplay between electoral and grassroots politics,” Lawrence said. “She has the historical perspective and the practical experience to speak about these issues.”


By Wilson Conde

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