At a time when working people are fighting defensive battles to preserve essential services at the state and national levels, it is all the more important that labor and community advocates are also building for the long term. Some of the best forward-looking policy making by progressives in the past decade has happened at the level of municipal regions – through a process I call regional power building.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, I served as president and CEO of the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council and as founder of an organization called Working Partnerships, USA. We worked closely with allies like the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), in Southern California, to build a model through which labor and community organizations could come together to make their metropolitan areas national leaders in the realms of living wage jobs, health care, sustainability, fair housing and public transportation.
Skeptics often respond that regional power building could be done in California, a progressive state, but could not be replicated elsewhere. My response is that not only can advocates in other states achieve impressive successes; they can win them far faster than we ever dreamed in California.
An important example of this comes from Colorado, long considered a rather conservative state. There, an organization called FRESC: Good Jobs, Strong Communities (formerly the Front Range Economic Strategy Center), whose work I have followed with interest for many years, has demonstrated what might be called the Denver Doctrine: when we document best practices from local campaigns and use them to advance our efforts in other parts of the country, we can make strides in half the time we might have otherwise.
Organizing on the Front Range
In 1998, a group of reform-minded labor leaders, many of whom had been involved in building Jobs with Justice in Colorado, supported a reform slate for leadership positions at the Denver Area Labor Federation (DALF). The new leadership transformed the previously rather lackluster federation into a base for regional work.
Self-consciously drawing from the California experience, the Denver activists implemented several of the key components of regional power building. In 2001, DALF helped establish the organization now known as FRESC, modeling it off of groups like LAANE and Working Partnerships. FRESC provided local advocates with a research, policy development and coalition support capacity. In three years, the nonprofit grew from one to six staff people and a budget of $450,000 by drawing on a mix of support that included national foundations, several regional funders and contributions from local unions. DALF and FRESC, in turn, established a formal labor-community coalition for influencing regional development projects – an alliance called the Campaign for Responsible Development.
As a first effort, this campaign launched what would become a grueling three-year battle to secure a community benefits agreement at a major development near downtown, the 50-acre Gates Rubber Factory redevelopment. The advocates first raised their public demands at a May 2003 Denver Planning Board meeting. Coalition members objected to the Gates redevelopment plan’s lack of clear commitment to affordable housing, high-paying jobs and neighborhood and park investments. In the end, the board voted to send the plans for a special “urban renewal district” to the city council in order to allow the developer to apply for tax subsidies. Although the council approved the district, the fact that there had been a public debate during what was normally a quiet, rubber-stamp process demonstrated that something new was afoot.
Over time, the new assertiveness produced results. In January 2006 – after three years of coalition building and growing political action by organized labor and its allies – the campaign secured a community benefits agreement (CBA) with the Gates developer. Under the agreement, Denver’s Living Wage Ordinance was extended to include the site’s parking lot attendants and security personnel. The plan secured prevailing wages on the publicly funded construction and the choice for a union construction manager and general contractor. The developer agreed to include 20 percent of rental units for lower-income, working families. The CBA also enhanced a “First Source” local hiring system that recruited local residents to fill new positions and, for the first time, prioritized immediately adjacent low-income neighborhoods. Most important, the hard-fought campaign’s victory set a precedent for negotiating tangible and binding community benefits on future public-supported development in the city of Denver.
Building on the Gates win, FRESC launched its second Campaign for Responsible Development in the fall of 2006 at Denver Union Station. The 20-acre, $8 billion development near a historic train station will serve as the hub of FasTracks, the region’s light rail expansion project. After working for over three years around the Union Station development, the campaign achieved prevailing and living wages for services workers, provisions to benefit locally owned small businesses, a commitment to green building standards and an on-the-job training and apprenticeship policy designed to help diversify and train the next generation of construction workers.
FRESC then turned to the issue of affordable housing. In the spring of 2010 it helped pass a law to allow the regional transit authority to jointly develop housing on its property – with a preference for mixed-income developments. This affordable housing policy is the basis for FRESC’s work with a coalition of local nonprofits, local funders and national funders to ensure that specific transit-oriented developments benefit working families. “The impact of this work is much broader than the specific development sites that FRESC and its coalition partners have targeted,” says Kevin Abels, FRESC’s executive director. “FRESC changed the public policy conversation and shifted the paradigm for what development in our region should look like. Public dollars must serve the public good.”
Reshaping Regional Politics
At the same time, DALF has led a revamping of organized labor’s political operations. Over time, DALF has been able to build from its core affiliate supporters a central role for itself in coordinating a more aggressive labor political action program that has impacted both regional and state politics. Because so much of the state’s population lives in the Denver region, this growing electoral clout impacted state politics and contributed to stunning Democratic victories in 2004.
In 2006, labor and community activists drew on their established bonds to advocate together for a statewide initiative that resulted in a $1.70 raise in Colorado’s minimum wage, boosting the minimum from $5.15 to $6.85 per hour. Because the wage floor is now indexed to inflation, the victory was a lasting one, producing on-going benefits for working people in the state.
During the national elections of 2008, FRESC and its allies fought against a slate of regressive ballot measures financed by the right wing, initiatives designed to undermine labor rights, reproductive rights and affirmative action. The progressives won on four out of five fights. Among them, they successfully defeated an effort to make Colorado a so-called “Right to Work” state. As Rev. Daniel Klawitter, FRESC’s religious outreach organizer, explains, “We reached more than 50,000 households over several months of canvassing, recruited 3,000 new members, spoke before 150 audiences and appeared in local and national television, radio and print media.” With several of the ballot measures, the margins of victory were extremely narrow. The field campaigns of FRESC and its allies undoubtedly made up the margin of difference in many cases between state-level defeat and victory.
Expanding the Doctrine
The essence of the Denver Doctrine is not that there is a cookie-cutter approach to regional power building that can be uniformly applied in all communities. Advocates in Colorado should be credited with skillful negotiation of the unique political circumstances in their state. At the same time, we should not allow distinctive conditions in a particular area to blind us to the many commonalities in the struggles that towns and metropolitan regions throughout America are facing. By borrowing lessons from successful campaigns that have gone before, we can expedite the process of building progressive infrastructure in an ever-greater number of localities.
Those who set out to revitalize DALF and found FRESC were able to secure impressive victories in a far shorter time than most outside observers thought possible. Models in places like California, from which advocates could draw insights into regional power building, were important in allowing the organizers to grow quickly – just as the Denver example is now proving helpful in other parts of the country. It is incumbent upon us to study these best practices for how progressives can build deep coalitions, step forward with their own public policy proposals and revitalize local electoral efforts. Because only by doing so can we combine the lessons of diverse local campaigns into a powerful strategy that, ultimately, can have national influence.
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