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The Poor People’s Campaign: Building Power Beyond the Fight for $15

Income inequality is rooted in power inequality.

McDonald's workers strike for higher wages on July 31, 2013, in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo: Steve Rhodes)

There’s no question that the Fight for $15 has been transformative: In the last five years, more than 19 million US workers have won a total of $62 billion in raises. In Ontario, Canada, another 1.7 million workers just saw pay boosts of up to 21 percent.

That’s great, but consider this: Trump’s December tax bill enriched the wealthiest 1 percent of US households by $1.2 trillion. In one fell swoop, Congress and Trump offset, by a multiple of 20, the income wrested from corporations by low-wage US workers through years of struggle, walkouts, civil disobedience, marches, organizing and political advocacy.

The bravery and success of Fight-for-$15 workers have inspired millions in these challenging times. But wage fights are not nearly enough. Wealth inequality is getting much worse, not better. Further, the $15 benchmark is not even a living wage in most metropolitan areas.

And where wages rise, the vultures of capitalist exploitation congregate. In my hometown of Seattle, where workers have mobilized and won city-mandated raises of more than $4 an hour in the minimum wage during the last four years, landlords have taken most — about 81 percent — of those pay gains through higher rents.

As welcome as the fight against income inequality is, and as much as it relieves the worst of soul-crushing poverty while inspiring people to take civic action, it’s an inadequate vision for those invested in building a just society. It treats a fever with an aspirin — temporarily knocking down the illness — without going after the underlying disease.

That’s because at the root, the problem isn’t income inequality; it’s power inequality under capitalism — the yawning gap in political, economic, and cultural authority and control maintained by big business and finance elites at the expense of the rest of us.

Trump’s tax bill offset, by a multiple of 20, the income wrested from corporations by low-wage US workers through years of struggle, walkouts, civil disobedience, marches, organizing and political advocacy.

Mainstream political pundits are downright allergic to talking about this power imbalance. In February, The New York Times reviewed the latest corporate windfall and asked the question, “Where Did Your Pay Raise Go?” In a 1,500-word article, the Times could barely manage a peep about how declining worker power just might be a factor.

Why, indeed, are the 1 percent not sharing their largesse with the masses? I’ll tell you in a lot less than 1,500 words: Because they don’t have to.

The Collapsing Power of Unions

When US unions were stronger, they forced employers to grant wage and benefit concessions through contract negotiations, job actions and strikes. At the high-water mark of union strength in the years after World War II, unions negotiated for 33 percent of workers, concentrated in core production industries. The rising standards for those workers tended to push up standards in industries not covered by union contracts. Union power throughout the economy served as an overall brake against unbridled corporate greed.

Those days are over.

The unraveling began in the 1950s and gained speed in the 1970s, as emboldened employers, aided by leaders from both major political parties, quickened the pace of union-busting, outsourcing, renunciation of contracts and pension obligations, and offshoring jobs to low-wage regions and countries.

Today’s mainstream punditocracy tends to describe these last decades as a period of growing income inequality. This superficial analysis short-circuits a deeper exploration of the forces that produced record levels of inequality in the first place. Fundamentally, what was developing in this period was a tilting of power — political, economic and cultural — away from working people and democratic institutions and toward the 1 percent. The power shift was a precondition for the financial raid.

Fight for $15 is insufficient to counter the decades-long assault on working people and our democratic institutions.

During this period, most union leaders hunkered down, seeking to protect wage and benefit standards they had achieved for their dues-paying members, instead of fighting for the interests of the whole working class. Too many relied upon the Democratic Party to rescue them, only to be disappointed time and again as Democrats promoted job-killing trade agreements, failed to pass modest labor law reform or stood on the sidelines while employers busted unions.

The result? Today, barely 1 in 10 workers belongs to a union.

Fight for $15: Good, but Not Enough

The Fight for $15, conceived and funded by the Service Employees International Union, represents a welcome break from the narrow-minded approach of the past decades. It’s a class-based campaign, not limited to a narrow band of workers. But as the Trump tax heist painfully underscores, the Fight for $15 campaign is not nearly enough. That’s because Fight for $15 is largely focused on an economic policy goal — a worthy one, to be sure, but insufficient to counter the decades-long assault on working people and our democratic institutions.

What’s needed is a much more radical and visionary movement. Yes, the movement must embrace campaigns like Fight for $15, but it also must go far beyond it to challenge the 1 percent’s dominant vision. We need a movement that offers a fundamentally different vision of society based on the needs of working people, students and seniors; a movement that makes demands rooted in radical change.

This is an alarming idea to many — especially leaders of organizations on the left and others who counsel patience or urge that we trust the political establishment to make things right. It’s hard for them to accept the call for radical change because it means facing up to the fact that we must drastically re-make unions and other vehicles of social justice. We need to break ingrained habits and shed counterproductive political alliances. This radical vision is especially daunting because it has no measurable timetable; it’s not about the next election cycle or contract negotiation. And it requires raising expectations for what people deserve, as we move from a mindset of reform to one of social transformation.

Reviving the Radical Vision

The emergence last year of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival offers real hope to drive this needed change. It was born out of the Moral Mondays movement, a clergy-led drive that, beginning in 2013 in North Carolina, united faith leaders, union members, LGBT activists and immigrant rights advocates in mass marches and civil disobedience to fight right-wing state legislatures that were moving rapidly to strip voting and civil rights laws, slash education and social programs, cut environmental protections and attack abortion rights laws. Scenes of clergy and activists regularly being arrested at the North Carolina state capitol and elsewhere brought national attention to the burgeoning Moral Mondays movement.

The Poor People’s Campaign builds on the Moral Mondays experience and draws inspiration from the last major campaign conceived by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Exactly 50 years ago, Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference united workers of all races under the banner of a Poor People’s Campaign to fight the entwined evils of poverty, racism and militarism. They began gearing up for a spring 1968 mass convergence on Washington, DC, with three central claims to the US government. Their demands were not half-measures: Tens of billions annually for anti-poverty programs, full employment and guaranteed income legislation, and construction of half a million homes per year.

King and his allies envisioned three initial stages to the campaign: Occupation of the National Mall by working people from all over the country, followed by mass nonviolent civil disobedience actions, and then a nationwide boycott of major industries and businesses to pressure Congress into meeting their demands.

Unfortunately, the campaign was fatally undercut by the April 1968 assassination of King, but the themes, boldness, passion and urgency of the 1968 campaign have now been revived by today’s Poor People’s Campaign — led by the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, former head of the North Carolina NAACP and founder of Moral Mondays, and the Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice. The campaign declares that 50 years after King’s campaign, “The twin forces of white supremacy and unchecked corporate greed continue to gain more power and influence, both in statehouses across this nation and at the highest levels of our federal government. Today, one in every two Americans are poor or low-income while millions of children and adults continue to live without access to healthcare, housing, clean water, or good jobs.”

By many measures, US poverty is worse today than it was 50 years ago. The Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), in an analysis prepared for the campaign, found that 60 percent more Americans are living below the poverty line today than in 1968, and the criminalization of poverty and biased sentencing “have driven the number of prison inmates up eightfold since 1968, with the share who are people of color increasing from less than half to 66 percent.” The IPS study notes that the rise of white supremacy groups — reinforced with racist voter-suppression laws — parallels political tactics in 1968 that aimed to stir up white resentment.

The leaders of today’s Poor People’s Campaign are quick to emphasize the need to build unity across race, gender and gender identity, and immigration status — similar to 1968, when Dr. King saw an imperative to unite poor whites, Blacks, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans in the Poor People’s Campaign. Today, Rev. Barber told YES! Magazine recently, “We have to begin by refusing the labels that have been used to divide us. The key to helping poor white people see through the lie is to show them how the politicians who play to their racial fears actually hurt them the most.”

He and Rev. Theoharis note that the states that have enacted racist voter suppression laws are the same states that have the highest overall poverty rates, the fewest protections for members of the LGBT community and the worst health care benefits for poor people.

Over the last year, Reverends Barber and Theoharis have been leading mass meetings and trainings in 32 states in advance of launching the 2018 Poor People’s Campaign, with plans this spring for 40 days of mass actions and civil disobedience beginning on May 13, Mother’s Day, in state capitals around the country.

Now, the Poor People’s Campaign is joining up with Fight for $15. On February 12, the Poor People’s Campaign and Fight for $15 united in rallies and marches in 30 different cities, including walkouts by fast food workers in the South and Midwest. In Memphis, Tennessee, hundreds of fast-food workers, clergy and allies marched to City Hall, retracing the steps that sanitation workers took 50 years ago during their historic strike — Dr. King’s last campaign.

What distinguishes the Poor People’s Campaign from most contemporary efforts is that its architects recognize up front that it is not merely a campaign for the present. In training thousands of activists around the country in the last year, Reverends Barber and Theoharis repeatedly declare that, “We are building a movement, not a moment.”

And in returning to the themes of Dr. King’s original Poor People’s Campaign, the clergy dismiss the conventional lionizing of King as a preacher of love and nonviolence to emphasize that in the last year of his life, King began calling for the sort of fundamental societal change that is so desperately needed today.

At a fall 2017 training of dozens of clergy and faith leaders in Seattle, I heard Rev. Barber recite what Dr. King told his staff in 1967, as they brought their Poor People’s Campaign into focus:

We have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights, an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society….

We have been in a reform movement, but after Selma and the voting rights bill, we moved into a new era, which must be the era of revolution. We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power.

No, this is not the lofty, feel-good, “I have a dream” rhetoric we hear every January in schools and legislative halls. Nor is it the sort of thing we hear from enough union and social change organization leaders, most of whom are uncomfortable going beyond the tempered language of reform. It’s a bold call for urgently needed transformation. In embracing today’s Poor People’s Campaign, we can live up to King’s call for a radical movement, a struggle to redistribute not just goods, but power.

Ultimately, efforts like Fight for $15 will be successful to the extent that they shed the ideology of reform and the misconception that justice can be achieved solely by working within the existing political and economic system. Yes, we have to organize day-to-day within the current legal and political landscape. And yes, individual wage victories are crucial steppingstones, building vital worker confidence to press onward. But we must wage these battles while embracing the larger, radical movement vision of societal transformation that King articulated 50 years ago.

For activists searching for how to revive unions, rebuild worker power and democracy, defend human rights and win $15 an hour — and a lot more — the Poor People’s Campaign offers a beacon of hope.