wage theft(Pictured: Interfaith Worker Justice’s fight against wage theft for day laborers.)

Cross-posted from the Dissent Magazine blog Arguing the World.

It is a tragic fact: progressives are notoriously bad at celebrating their victories. Tragic, because when it comes to motivating people to take action, keeping evidence that collective organizing efforts can produce real changes—some small, some groundbreaking—is far more important than producing lists of new outrages and fresh causes for alarm.

Even in times of setbacks and difficulties, there are signs of progress worth remembering. And this year was no exception. The Obama administration would like us to enshrine 2010 as the year it passed a landmark law overhauling health care in the United States. However, there were enough compromises in the health care deal and enough issues left unresolved that, as one friend of mine nicely put it, it’s probably better to consider that as not so much a victory as a work in progress.

Yet the year offered some more outright progressive wins. Two came quickly to mind for me. The first was an obvious choice since it was in the news in late December: the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.“ This affirmation of basic civil rights for gays and lesbians in the military was, of course, long overdue. But that in no way diminishes the victory.

The DADT repeal was one within a package of bills passed in quick succession during the lame duck session of Congress. Other fine components included a new START treaty controlling nuclear weapons and a 9/11 first responders bill, itself long overdue.

Also making the DADT win a little bit sweeter was this video. In it, a reporter for a conservative news network tries to pin Representative Barney Frank with a gotcha question based on the homophobic conservative talking point that, with DADT gone, “straight troops will now have to shower with gays.” (The horror!) Quick-witted and articulate as always, Frank succeeds in making an absolute fool of the guy. It is a pleasure to watch.

The second bit of progress that I thought of right away was the release of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma. Before being freed in November, the Nobel Peace Prize winner had spent the last seven years—and fifteen of the last twenty-one years—under house arrest, imposed by her country’s military junta. If there are any who deserve the label of democratic hero in the world today, Suu Kyi is among them. This year, for the first time in a decade, she was able to travel out of the country to reunite with her youngest son.

Such reunions were the subject of Amnesty International’s genuinely touching holiday e-card, which featured a video celebrating the return of several prominent human rights defenders to their families. It starts with Suu Kyi but includes others released in recent years after international advocacy campaigns, such as Sakit Zahidov, an opposition journalist, poet, and satirist in Azerbaijan. The stories and images pretty quickly punctured my cynicism.

Also good for keeping cynicism in check was the feedback I received when I asked friends and readers to send their picks for top progressive victories of 2010. The responses I got back were many and varied—and that ended up being quite heartwarming.

Highlights included the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, a precedent-setting measure passed in New York State that extends vital labor rights to more than 200,000 nannies and housekeepers.

In a similar vein, Danny Postel over at Interfaith Worker Justice mentioned victories in the fight against wage theft (the disturbingly common failure of business owners to pay money owed to day laborers and other low-wage workers) in New York State and in South Florida. Bolstered by these advances, the campaign to enact protections against wage theft at a national level continues.

Other scrappy and perseverant campaigners who had a good year were the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Prometheus Radio Project. Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel writes:

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) enjoyed a remarkable 2010, successfully obtaining penny per pound pay raises and code of conduct agreements for farm workers from the three largest food service companies and the growers who had blocked checks buyers cut directly to the workers so that millions of dollars languished in escrow. These agreements stand to increase workers’ annual earnings from about $10,000 to as much as $17,000. The State Department also recognized Laura Germino, CIW’s antislavery campaign coordinator, as an ‘anti-Trafficking Hero’ for her work helping the US Department of Justice prosecute seven slavery operations in Florida over the last fifteen years, resulting in the liberation of over 1,000 farm workers.

As for the Prometheus Radio Project (based in my newly adopted home of West Philadelphia), the advocates for grassroots, democratically controlled, low-power radio won a national victory with the passage of the Local Community Radio Act. As the organization noted over the popping of champagne corks,

In response to overwhelming grassroots pressure, Congress has given the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) a mandate to license thousands, of new community stations nationwide. This bill marks the first major legislative success for the growing movement for a more democratic media system in the United States….The bill repeals earlier legislation which had been backed by big broadcasters, including the National Association of Broadcasters.

Not all went wrong on the electoral front, either. California bucked national trends in a big way, with voters rejecting right-wing candidates and thwarting a business-backed ballot proposition to block regulation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that is far more aggressive than anything on offer at the national level. Time’s Ecocentric blog commented, “With a $1.7 trillion gross state product, California alone is the world’s eighth-largest economy, so even if it is acting alone while the rest of the country drags its feet on climate change, the state has a real chance to make a difference.”

And, speaking of large economies, the left-leaning Dilma Rousseff of the Brazilian Workers’ Party beat Jose Serra in elections this fall, a reflection of the region’s continued dissatisfaction with the legacy of neoliberal economic policy.

Reviewing this list put me in a pretty good mood. No doubt, there are things I would change about 2010 if I could. But these I’d keep.

Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the website Democracy Uprising.

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