New York and Boston have elected mayors who have vowed liberal reforms. Two organizers discuss what it could take for social movements to turn such promises into reality.
It has become a cliché for progressives to vow that they’ll hold politicians accountable after they help get them elected. But if everyone knows the fight doesn’t end on Election Day, fewer people grasp what it actually means for social movements to push politicians to live up to their promises.
In 2014, this has become a critical issue at the municipal level. In November 2013, two major American cities – New York and Boston – elected mayors who campaigned as progressives. But if we don’t expect change to come from above without pressure, progressives must confront a number of strategic questions. Topping that list: What can we legitimately expect city hall to accomplish? And what must movements do for that to happen?
New York City: Increasing the Urgency of Organizing
“New Yorkers are feeling optimistic,” says veteran activist Matt Ryan, executive director of ALIGN New York (formerly New York Jobs with Justice). Of the grass-roots response to newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio – who won office with support of a broad-based coalition of community-based groups – Ryan explains, “We’ve seen an upsurge in enthusiasm and organizing so far. Some of the issues that people have, there’s a good chance they’re going to be acted on. People urgently want to bring those issues to the attention of City Hall.”
What are those issues? Universal pre-kindergarten, raising the minimum wage, affordable housing and preparing the city’s communities for climate change are among those Ryan hopes to see the de Blasio administration address. But this is not merely a process of change that comes from the inside; rather it requires the interplay of inside policy-making and outside heat. One example of this is already in evidence: The new mayor has announced his support for a measure that would provide mandatory paid sick days to workers throughout the five boroughs, giving an additional 335,000 workers a chance to stay home when they or a family member are sick. This is a policy change long championed by labor and community groups, and it’s one that they made into an issue in the last election. For Ryan, de Blasio’s support for it is an indication that, if progressive groups are able to put issues on the political map, City Hall will be more responsive than in the past to pressure – and that this can translate into measurable change.
Even with a friendlier City Hall, though, there are limitations in the system on what grass-roots groups may be able to accomplish. “We’ve got our work cut out for us no matter what,” Ryan said. “We have no illusion that we’re [not] still up against the giant Wall Street firms.”
The state government could be an additional impediment. De Blasio may be able to create some affordable housing, for instance, but when the city tries to make policy that impacts systems throughout the state, big business could thwart such efforts at the state level. For instance, when de Blasio approached Gov. Andrew Cuomo for permission to set a higher citywide minimum wage instead of waiting for the state to raise its wage, Cuomo balked. Cuomo isn’t the only obstacle to raising the wage; New York’s Republican state legislators have expressed unwillingness to raise it beyond the current plan, which will set the statewide minimum at $9 by 2015.
Ryan explained that it’s becoming increasingly clear to city-based organizing leaders “how critical Albany is going to be in addressing some of these issues around chronic inequality.” For example, “When it comes to universal pre-K and raising the minimum wage in New York, it requires New York City to get approvals from state government in order to move forward.”
Nevertheless, sometimes seemingly routine matters of urban policy that City Hall can control – such as how budgeted resources are allocated – can have a profound affect on communities. And that makes these decisions a site of struggle. As a workers-rights advocacy group, ALIGN is working to deepen its alliances with groups in the city and state that are pushing for an equitable process for job creation and community impact in the rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy. “Hurricane Sandy was a real wake-up call, that the impact of climate change is real in New York City, and it’s going to impact low-income communities and communities of color,” Ryan said.
Through strategic alliances such as the Alliance for a Just Rebuilding, a post-Sandy coalition of workers-rights, communities-of-color and faith-based organizing groups, ALIGN has been pushing de Blasio toward “creating good union jobs with post-Sandy recovery dollars,” Ryan said. On its website, the Alliance for Just Rebuilding explains that this effort involves making sure that money allocated for rebuilding is used equitably, that there is transparency in how it’s spent and that environmental sustainability is considered in how the rebuilding is done. “There’s an opportunity here with billions of Sandy recovery dollars not to have it tailored to recovery, but to have it build toward one New York with opportunity for all New Yorkers,” Ryan said.
Following the inside-outside model, Ryan sees a new openness at City Hall not as an excuse to ease off organizing but instead as a reason to ramp up efforts: “Sure, there’s an opportunity to find synchronicity and to partner with City Hall, but we have permanent priorities around the needs of working people. That doesn’t change whether we have Bill DeBlasio or anyone else as our mayor. If anything, my experience has been that it’s really increased the urgency behind the organizing since Mayor DeBlasio has taken office.”
Yet movement efforts do not operate in a vacuum. Changed rhetoric from elected officials at the city level can boost organizing campaigns, reinforcing a climate of change. “It’s extremely inspiring to have a new mayor talking about inequality as the primary priority,” says Ryan. “We’ve been organizing around this issue for decades and decades in New York City. We haven’t had a mayor who wanted to make this a priority in two decades.”
Boston: Prospects and Pitfalls of City Hall Access
In Boston, the election of Mayor Marty Walsh has similarly altered the landscape for local organizers. “It’s a big change for us,” says Lydia Lowe, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA). Lowe argues that, with Walsh in office, grass-roots organizers who have become accustomed to having to push hard on the door to City Hall just to open it a crack are finding themselves all the way inside – or, at least, with a direct line of communication to the mayor. “Our organization has never had access to the mayor,” she said.
Walsh ran on a platform that included investing in and improving the city’s unevenly resourced public school system; addressing the city’s housing crisis with a multifaceted approach (this plan included developing new housing and commercial real estate near existing public transit lines and using public lands to create affordable housing); and funding for the arts. Progressive groups and labor unions throughout the city endorsed him, including women’s rights groups, environmental organizations and the Legislature’s Progressive Caucus. However, as the Boston Globe noted in January, all of Walsh’s position papers on these and other issues – indeed, his entire policy platform – were removed from his campaign’s web site immediately after he took office. Although it is fairly common for politicians to take down their campaign web sites upon entering office, Walsh’s erasure of his platform from the internet could be a troubling sign – that his commitment to progressive policies is as impermanent as a web site.
CPA, a Chinatown-based group, is also a member of the larger Right to the City, a coalition representing communities of color throughout Boston. Lowe expects Walsh to do far more than his predecessors to secure long-term affordable housing in the city. “I think that he is going to put a higher priority than recently on low-income housing for working-class neighborhoods that are facing displacement,” she said. Equitable, local job creation is also a big concern for Right to the City and the CPA. With real estate development proceeding at a frenetic pace in the city, Lowe said that her group plans Walsh to “work to diversify and open up access to job opportunities from development for communities of color.”
So far, Lowe sees ground for cautious optimism, citing signs that Walsh may act on his promises. “Certainly during the campaign he talked about issues that are of concern in Chinatown,” she said. “But after he was elected, he came back to Chinatown.”
Despite such promise, Lowe is aware that with access to City Hall comes with a range of potential pitfalls – including the possibility that their newfound “insider” status could lead to backroom deals that harm groups’ credibility in the communities where they are based. However, she thinks that progressive groups’ access to the mayor’s office can be used strategically. “We’ve been outsiders for decades,” Lowe said. “So we’re used to being outsiders. We didn’t have any political clout, but it was easier because we didn’t have any options but to protest. So it’s more complicated now, but I think [access] is definitely important.”
“We’re in a position where we’re able to move real policies and real changes that we couldn’t have done before,” she adds. “We need to be sophisticated enough to learn how to make those real policies happen and continue to organize and build the movement for the long-term at the same time.”
Yet any hopes for progress at City Hall, Lowe believes, must be tempered by awareness of the pushback coming from city business leaders. Other organizers agree. As a possible portent of things to come, in November the outgoing Mayor Tom Menino hosted a luncheon for the newly elected Walsh to meet and mingle with leaders from Boston’s powerful business interests.
Lowe echoes the concern that Walsh may be subject to pressure from the business groups that have long worked to prevent communities from winning more affordable housing and good jobs. “The major revenue in the city comes from developers,” she said. “These forces have gentrified Chinatown. Walsh recognizes that, but at the same time, as mayor, there’s pressure to keep that development going. So we need to just keep organizing.”
Organizers in New York and Boston agree that inside bargaining should be coupled with continued outside activism. “We’re still doing marches and rallies; we’re still doing media,” Lowe said. “But until [Walsh] does something wrong, against us, we’re doing it in a friendly way.” Ryan agrees that the full array of activist tactics should remain on the table. “I don’t think anybody will be chaining themselves to City Hall anytime soon, but I won’t say it’s impossible either.”