…stories like the one Schakowsky told me next, sitting on her Michigan City porch, about how she became a warrior for justice in the first place, and how in the process she built an army.
It was 1969. Schakowsky was a housewife with two young children, and she was in a grocery store studying a package of rancid pepper steak. "I had to ask the butcher how old this thing they called 'pepper steak' was." He wouldn’t answer. "He told me I could go somewhere else." She left.
A week later, she heard a commotion around that same meat counter, the same butcher yelling the same thing at another young housewife. But that housewife, whose name was Jackie Kendall, did not budge. Schakowsky, impressed, joined forces with Kendall and together they started a new organization – they called it "National Consumers United" – and soon figured out what no one else had: that every packaged item in a supermarket had something called an "expiration date." Problem was, the expiration date was stamped on packages in code. Kendall and Schakowsky cracked the codes and published them all in a book; and then they moved out to the stores. "We would take the old stuff off the shelf. Oscar Meyer, the packaged meats – big offenders. And once we got the codes for baby food and infant formula – days, weeks, months, years behind the date." They would put the offending items in carts and wheel them up to the store manager, having stuck them with pencil holes so they couldn’t go back on the shelves.
Now, I guess it's possible they were inadvertently lending "legitimacy to those who have the power to satisfy the demands." The managers didn’t feel legitimated, though. They felt scared s--tless. So did their corporate overlords – especially when the women warriors started buying stock in the grocery chains and attending shareholder meetings. At one, held in a produce section in suburban Chicago, they inspired a stampede of stockholders demanding their proxy votes back. The CEO lost it: "I don’t know who you people are! You’re either Communists or spies from Jewel!" – the rival Midwestern grocery chain. They got on NBC Nightly News. Chains started stamping sell-by dates on their products. Oscar Meyer did so nationally. "Here we are, little nobodies, and the whole marketplace has changed! And it was like, whoa! What else can we do?"
Meat, modest meat – and a crucial opening salvo of the modern consumer’s movement, one of the most significant political developments of the 1970s. Demands were made; demands were satisfied. A popular movement grew. Citizens like Schakowsky and Jackie Kendall, who’d never fought the power before, consecrated their lives to activism – and stayed active, year after year after year.
One more story: It is 1989. Schakowsky, by then a professional troublemaker, is executive director of the Illinois State Council of Senior Citizens, looking out for the interests of the elderly. A new bill is passed in Washington, purportedly to fix Medicare’s deficiencies in handling catastrophic illness. But in a deal negotiated behind close doors between congressional power brokers and industry representatives (sound familiar?) it will be financed by a surtax on all Medicare recipients – giving poor seniors the highest effective tax rates in the nation. Schakowsky seeks a meeting with the most powerful powerbroker of them all, Chicago’s Dan Rostenkowski, then the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Reluctantly, he agrees to see them at a city facility for seniors in his working-class district – but only with her group’s leaders, not the 200 activists she has brought along. They would have to wait in another room – and he would only meet with the leaders if they promised not to "scream and yell."
"So we had a debate in the other rooms about screaming and yelling," Schakowsky chuckles. And they came up with, yes, a demand: They wouldn’t scream and yell, if he would at least show his face before the larger group.
He agreed. But in order to get to that larger group he had to walk through the senior center’s cafeteria. Which was where, entirely of their own accord, diners started booing him. He made for the exit. The codgers started chasing him. "And he walks a little faster. And a little faster. He’s finally galloping with all these seniors in tow behind him. Gets in the car. Now the cameras are there…he gets into his car, and the car is now surrounded by seniors. Including this woman, Leona Kozen, who’s in front of the car."
I looked up Leonia Kozien. I learned she briefly became a national hero. Here’s the Chicago Tribune’s account of what happened next:
"As Rostenkowski dashed through the crowd to a waiting car and locked himself inside, Kozen took up a position in front of the car, holding a sign that read: 'Seniors for Repeal of the Catastrophic Act.' After blowing the horn, Rostenkowski's driver edged the four-door sedan slowly forward, and Kozien was still on the hood, determinedly holding her sign only inches from the windshield. Except for the glass, she was virtually face-to-face with her congressman. 'I was a little nervous,' Kozien said later. 'But I could see through the car window that he looked more afraid than I was.'"
More afraid than she was. Because he was faced with a demand, backed with the power to make it stick – the power of a movement.
About a month later, the bill – a major piece of legislation! – was repealed, an extraordinarily rare accomplishment. And all because people, many of whom, like Kozien, had never protested anything before, made the right demand to the right person at the right time and in the right place. "Congressmen saw what happened," Shakowsky concludes triumphantly, "and said that if Dan Rostenkowski was vulnerable like that, they were vulnerable, too."
Visionary radicalism can be galvanizing. But it can be enervating, too. For here is something that is also radicalizing: a sense of accomplishment. Of momentum. Of changing the world – even if only, at first, a little bit. We need both, to the exclusion of neither. Otherwise, the 1% will keep winning the game.
We hope you can join us at this year's Ultimate Women's Power Lunch as we affirm our victories, plan our strategy to "Win with Women" and prepare to take message to women across the country about the GOP's obsession with controlling women's bodies. You may purchase tickets online here. If you have any questions, please call Sarah Gersten at 847-424-1998.
Ultimate Women's Power Lunch
Ultimate Women's Power Lunch
Featured Guest Speakers
U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar
12:00 PM on Friday, May 4, 2012
720 S. Michigan Avenue
Power Lunch Guest: $150