Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement Rally, January 27th, 2007. (Photo: IowaPolitics.com) “We don't want just a seat at the table. We want to run the table,” Hugh Espey, the executive director of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, said to me. “We want to run the table in order to win policies that put people before profits, people before polluters and communities before corporations.” Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (CCI), founded in the mid-1970's, has grown over the past decades into one of the most thoughtful, aggressive, and innovative community-based organizations
Van Jones speaks at the “Save the American Dream” rally in Washington, DC, February 26th 2011. (Photo: markn3tel) In late June, Van Jones – a former “green jobs” czar in the Obama administration and currently a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress – officially launched a new organization known as Rebuild the Dream. The group's first mission is to help spark a new economic justice effort called the American Dream Movement, an alliance focused on economic justice fights across the country. Amid conservative efforts to divide Americans by blaming scapegoats such as immigrants and unionized teachers for our county's problems, the American Dream Movement instead seeks to recreate a politics of common purpose – one that advocates for broadly shared prosperity in our country, appeals to a set of common values and highlights the need for creating good jobs that will allow people to work with dignity.
Librarians recommend “The Recall of Scott Walker” during a demonstration in Madison, Wisconsin, on March 12, 2011. (Photo: Sue Peacock) Just a few months ago, conservatives had the momentum, emerging victorious from the midterm elections and claiming a sweeping mandate for their policies. In states across the country, newly elected Republican governors launched a radical drive to roll back workers' rights and gut social programs. While many states are still trying to stave off deep and harmful cuts to our social safety net, Republicans can no longer pretend that they are acting on the basis of popular will.
Richard Trumka at the Power Shift 2011 rally, April 19, 2011. In a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, Trumka called for a labor movement focused on workers and families, not political candidates. (Photo: linh.m.do) On May 20, American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) President Richard Trumka issued a warning to those Democratic candidates who rely on labor's resources when running for office but hold social movements at arm's length once in office: become champions for working families, he told them, or don't assume that unions will be there for you in the future. In a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, Trumka stated, “What workers want is an independent labor movement that builds the power of working people – in the workplace and in political life.” The role of this “independent” labor movement, he added, “is not to build the power of a political party or a candidate. It is to improve the lives of working families and strengthen our country.”
Denise Cardinal, executive director of Alliance for a Better Minnesota, speaks at the Bush Legacy Tour Press Conference in St. Paul on Wed, July 16. (Photo: aflcio) “Not everything that comes from D.C. is always better,” says Denise Cardinal. At a time when some of the most crucial political battles in America are taking place at the state level, we cannot wait for a progressive communications strategy to come down from national groups. Cardinal, who is executive director of both the Alliance for a Better Minnesota and ProgressNow, is among those working hard to promote an alternative approach. ProgressNow is a network of state-level organizations that, among other things, brings together labor, environmental and reproductive rights groups around a common communications agenda. They bear witness to the fact that when progressives work in isolation or try to import a communications strategy from Washington, their efforts rarely leave behind the kind of grassroots infrastructure in the states that we need to move beyond defensive battles and to build strength for the long term.
Power Shift March, New York Avenue at 14th Street, NW, Washington DC, April 17, 2011. (Photo: Elvert Xavier Barnes) Over the weekend of April 15, some 10,000 young organizers gathered in Washington, DC to build the movement to address climate change. The third Power Shift conference was overwhelmingly stocked with young people under the age of 30, and it offered a breath of fresh air for the wider progressive community. The conference participants combined work on forming an agenda for action, strengthening coalitions, and building skills for organizing with hands-on lobbying of elected officials. A group of participants even ended up meeting with President Obama. I think we need to take a page out of the book of the Power Shift youth – not just because they represent the next generation of organizers, but because I think they are being terribly smart about what they're doing. We can take three lessons from their experience.
Gates Rubber Factory, Denver, Colorado. (Photo: zenobia_joy) 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.
This week, as President Obama unveiled the federal budget and state legislatures across the country continued heated battles over their own financial crises, we are continuing to hear a single message from Republicans: that people want a smaller government, that they are fed up with public spending and that budgets must be cut. But there's a big problem with their story: it's not true. Blanket antigovernment rhetoric may fly with reference to Washington, but when it gets down to the state and local level, where government is closer to people, voters think about it differently. Faced with threats to essential public services, voters feel a common responsibility for the quality of life in their cities, towns and neighborhoods.