Organizing Notes

Bruce Gagnon is coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space. He offers his own reflections on organizing and the state of America's declining empire....

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Location: Bath, Maine, United States

I grew up in a military family and joined the Air Force in 1971 during the Vietnam War. It was there that I became a peace activist.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Reflections on a hunger strike

I've had a request to share some words about my recent 37 day hunger strike.

I began the hunger strike on February 12, a few days after the first Taxation Committee work session on LD 1781.  I was laying in bed talking with MB and told her I had come back from Augusta so upset that I knew if I didn't calm down I was going to have a heart attack.  I knew the bill would be slow moving through the halls of the capital so I needed to do something.

Twice in the past I fasted for two weeks in solidarity with a hunger strike by Yang Yoon-Mo from Jeju Island, South Korea and another time in solidarity with friends in the Czech Republic who were opposing a US missile defense radar.  I always felt serene while doing them.  So the decision was made largely for that reason - to stay focused, sane and calm during this campaign.

I also knew that as an organizing strategy hunger striking can draw others closer to the effort which is something we needed to do if we hoped to have any impact.  When I worked for the United Farm Workers Union from 1978-1980 I learned how Cesar Chavez used fasting to drive the UFW's boycotts of grapes and lettuce across the nation.

When I first signed on to work with the UFW in Florida organizing fruit pickers I was sent to the union's headquarters in Keene, California for a month along with three other new staffers from Florida.  Cesar Chavez took an active role in our training while we were at La Paz and I've always remembered something he told us late one evening while in his office.

Cesar said, "We know our union is weak and that the agribusiness corporations know that the union is weak.  But none of that matters.  The only thing that matters is what does the public think about the way that farm workers are treated by the industry."  He said, we can beat them if we work hard at getting the public to listen to us and take our side in organizing campaigns against the corporations.

So it was the same with the bad corporate welfare bill for General Dynamics.

We didn't make threats or boasts that we could not deliver on.  We understood that the mainstream media would be reluctant to give us any coverage because of the power of BIW/GD.  So we had to find a way to get around the media blockage to reach the public.  We also knew that some number of workers at BIW were not happy with GD because of their last contract.  So that is where we began.

Another factor we discovered early on was that we were isolated within the 'progressive community' because of the fact that the bill was being sponsored and promoted by the Democratic party leadership.  Thus many liberal Democrats in Maine (including their activist groups like AFL-CIO, Maine People's Alliance, liberal churches and many environmental groups) were frozen because they would not go up against the Democrat's leadership. 

Instead we had to rely on the strong and widespread network of peace activists across Maine.  Because of our numerous peace walks over the years through the state we had friends from Presque Isle to Kittery - from Rangeley to Bath.  We reached out to all these folks and they began writing letters to local newspapers and before long others that we did not even know also began to write. (In the end we had at least 175 letters, Op-Eds, interviews, and articles in 35 different media outlets across Maine.  The letters to the editor are what really drove the issue home to the public and opened the door to other media.)

During the first two weeks of my hunger strike I went to BIW during the noon hour and at the 3:30 pm shift change to stand with my sign and hand out flyers.  Especially during lunch time I spoke with quite a few workers and began to hear their stories of frustration with GD.  As I started to weaken around the third week I stopped going to BIW at noon and just did the end of day shift change.  I noticed how at first some workers made snide comments but over time they became more subdued and respectful.  When I missed a day because I had to go to Augusta for another Taxation Committee work session some workers asked where I had been once I returned.  (Just yesterday when we were at BIW for the Lenten vigil during the noon shift change I saw one worker filming me with his phone as he walked out of the shipyard and heard him say, "This is the hunger striker" so I am certain that they were discussing my personal action as well as the bad bill during work hours.)

Along the way more than 30 others joined the hunger strike by fasting for a day or more.  Tom Ryan from Oquossoc fasted for 20 days and was a regular with us during the home stretch when we were spending so much time inside the state capital with our signs.

During the last two weeks of the hunger strike I stopped going to BIW because we were spending so much time in Augusta and I didn't have enough strength to do both.

People are surprised to hear that after the first week it was pretty easy for me to go without food.  MB kept me supplied with various fruit juices and fruit smoothies (twice a day) and friends were bringing me carrot juice and broths.  MB says I never got grumpy (I felt like I had one bad day during the hunger strike where I was impatient and such) but otherwise I was feeding on the collective spirit and energy of friends and supporters who were doing so much to help.  I was even amazed that after being in Augusta all day that when I came home I was eager to sit at the computer and blog about the day.

In the end our collective efforts made it possible for many in the public to consider taking a position against the powerful interests of BIW/GD.  We are increasingly finding in the US that the corporate agenda is dominating politics at the national, state and local levels.  We can't defeat that kind of power in one fell swoop so we have to be strategic about when and how we take these powers on.  I think our effort in Maine worked well for us - especially considering our weakness as compared to the money, political influence, and media power of BIW/GD.

I can't say enough how much I loved and appreciated the selfless efforts by so many Mainers who threw in with us on this campaign.  Thanks to all of you.

Determination and good spirit can take us a long way even when the odds are solidly against us.  We helped save Mainers $15 million (which isn't much to corporations like GD but to a struggling state like ours it is alot of money).

Keep the fires burning and always remember the most important job of a human being is to protect the future generations - our children, the animals, the plants, the waters, the air, the sacred lands.  Nothing could be more important especially as we increasingly face the coming ravages of climate change.

We've all got to find more courage to stand for what is right.  



Blogger joni said...

I'm so glad to hear your thoughts on this as well as some of your history and your experience and how it builds connections around needed change.
I'm definitely sharing!
Peace, Joni

4/1/18, 11:47 AM  
Blogger Lisa Savage said...

A beautiful reflection on organizing the struggle against the doom of corporate government. Thanks for sharing what you learned. I never met Chavez but his quote that sticks with me is his reply to the question of how he organized big movements: First I talk to a person. Then, I talk to another person.

4/2/18, 3:42 AM  

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