Wednesday Jun 19

EXCERPT - Igniting Justice and Progressive Power: The Partnership for Working Families Cities

Introducing the Regional Movement to Transform America

Years ago, when folk singer Odetta toured the United States she would pause the tempo of her concert, gaze out carefully into the audience, and explain “these are fearful yet exciting times!”  A truer statement could not be said today.  The fearful signs are obvious.  The political right seems triumphant across the country both nationally and in state after state…However, there are signs for excitement.  The ideas of a Green New Deal raised the call for a fundamentally more just and sustainable America.  Starting with Occupy Wall Street, the last decade has seen the wide-ranging rise of protest movements from Black Lives Matter to #Me Too.  Led by teacher walkouts, worker strikes appear to have made a comeback.  In 2016, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders demonstrated that progressive candidates can raise enough money through small grassroots donations to be competitive with corporate-backed candidates.  The 2020 Democratic Presidential primary witnessed a clear battle between progressive and establishment candidates.  And while a centrist secured the nomination and eventually the presidency, across the country progressives won seats stretching from Congress through state legislatures to city councils to local prosecutors…

The deeper story of patient, often behind the scenes, progressive work is the focus of this book. The last two decades have seen the emergence of systematic and sustained efforts to build a unified and power-winning progressive political movement starting in the nation’s metropolitan areas.   Major change in the United States has never begun in Washington D.C.  Many of the ideas which became the New Deal, for example, developed through grassroots activism and changes enacted first at city and state levels.  Even in the face of courts striking down reforms like the minimum wage or the 40-hour work week, the sustained momentum to push such ideas into reality came from the bottom up.  The same is true today.  If we want to understand the future possibilities for a more progressive nation, we have to look at the deep transformation going on today inside the country’s cities and regions. 

Twenty-one affiliate organizations of the Partnership for Working Families (PWF) are now known as Power Shift Action.  Located across the United States these “think and act” organization operate at the forefront of regional change.   These groups organize around economic, racial and environmental justice challenges, equitable development, and other critical issues.  At their core they bring together labor, community, environmental, and faith-based organizations.  They have developed coalitions and campaigns that have won and continue to win substantial victories for their communities.  Thanks in part to the pioneering work of PWF affiliates Living Wage campaigns, Community Benefits Agreements, Construction Career Pathways, and urban climate justice initiatives became common progressive organizing tools across the country.  Regions with well-established PWF power-building work have seen increasing union membership and growing grassroots community organizations.  PWF affiliates focus not simply on core cities but organize for regional transformation and state-level change.  Most important, by combining coalition-building, policy development, and leadership cultivation with aggressive political action through allied c4 and other groups these projects aim to not simply win reforms, but to achieve actual governing power.  Progressive governance combines legislative majorities and transformed executive branches with mobilized low and middle-income communities that get candidates elected and then support and hold them accountable once in office.  Furthermore, actual governance means translating progressive values into concrete policies that are both doable, meaningful, and which get implemented.  Progressive governance changes the very nature of government and redefines the meaning of democratic participation.

Together the experiences of the PWF affiliates demonstrate that real change is possible. Strategic coalition building, long-range planning, careful research and policy creation, leadership development and electoral mobilization can combine into effective regional movements for real power.  That change has already begun to flow from the regional to state level.  These are the building blocks of a new America….

What the Experiences of the PWF Affiliates Tells Us About How to Transform America

At the outset, we would like to identify four key strategic insights that undergirds PWF affiliate work.

  1. Broad Tent Coalitions, Strategic Partnerships, and a Uniting Strategic Focus:

The rise of the right-wing, the transformation of the U.S. economy, and the shift of power away from the left has helped foster within a wide range of progressive groups a sense that they can “not go it alone.”   

The PWF affiliates build coalition campaigns around a wide range of issues from immigrant rights to school funding, from affordable housing to affordable healthcare, from job access in construction to living wages.  This organizing brings them into partnership with a wide range of groups.  However, the affiliates also foster deeper, more long term, and strategical-oriented relationship among a core of partners.  Typically, these core groups include those “on-the-ground” membership organizations, such as unions and low-income neighborhood groups, that bring everyday people together to engage in democratic action.  The core partners share the goal of not simply making change on the immediate issue at hand, but of using specific campaigns to strategically build for real power over the long-term.  As such their relationship moves beyond traditional transactional relationships (I will support your issues if you support mine) to transformational ones (we come together to change the rules of the game).

While these core partners may focus on many particular issues the glue bringing and keeping them together over the long term is the founding motivation of the PFW affiliates:  reversing the forty-year decline in living standards in the United States.  To put it in terms of a more forward-looking direction, the core partners share the determination to build an economy in their region that works for everyone, not just those at the top.  All of the specific campaigns pursued by PWF affiliates relate either directly or indirectly to establishing this shared-prosperity economy with rising living standards and economic security, especially of those at the bottom. 

  1. The Centrality of Communities of Color:

Neo-liberalism in the United States intimately intertwines with institutional racism.  This reality places communities of color at the forefront of both the suffering caused by neo-liberalism and the organizing to fight back against it.  The work of PWF affiliates is thus deeply embedded in communities of color and ultimately envisions powerful multi-racial regional alliances with strong leadership from people of color.

The spread of voter suppression tactics, which target people of color, to many parts of the country is evidence of the right-wing’s appreciation of the growing electoral importance of communities of color.   Current population predictions have the United States becoming a “majority minority” nation by mid-century.  For states such as Texas and California this has already happened….

While the stagnation and fall of living standards in the U.S. touches at least eighty percent of the population, communities of color have been particularly hard hit.  The PWF experience suggests that these communities are particularly receptive to a progressive change agenda.  Furthermore, understanding the realities of these communities captures the deep underlying economic and power issues that affect most of the U.S. population.  Developing solutions addressed to people of color thus offers an agenda for improving the lives of the vast majority of Americans.

A basic tenant of grassroots organizing is that the organizing/leadership team has to look like the people you are trying to organize.  Leadership diversity has emerged over time.  PWF affiliates may have begun with diverse staff.  However, even those who began whiter, and at times male, have clearly seen the active cultivation of staff and leaders of color so that today the collective core personnel that support and lead the PWF movement look like the diverse nation that America is and is more so becoming.  In many cases, women leaders of color have transformed the practice and culture of regional power building.

  1. Elections and Legislative Advocacy Matter

Together the research, campaign, and agenda-developing work by PWF affiliates combines with the voter mobilization work of them and their allies to seek to decisively shift the political conversation from the currently dominant pessimistic narratives of austerity, limited government, and at best maintaining the status quo to instead growing a bold and optimistic vision of shared prosperity, active government, organized citizens, and effective problem-solving.  Such a transformation involves new approaches to elections and to policy work.

The PWF affiliates go beyond the single-issue policy campaign.  Neo-liberalism is a comprehensive approach that embeds specific policy prescriptions within a coherent world view, vision of the future, and policy questions to be addressed.  The PWF affiliates work to offer a counter world view and vision and to redefine the questions that local government should be addressing.  Individual policy campaigns thus link to broader change in the expectations of what local and regional government is about. 

Implementing real change requires having champions in office and the leverage of mobilized people to back up demands.  While some PWF coalition partners, such as unions, may have always been involved in electoral politics, others may have kept it as arms-length – preferring to protest and agitate from the outside rather than get compromised and risk potential “sell outs” from the inside.  While  501c3 PWF affiliates cannot participate in elections, they can promote non-partisan voter participation.  Many of their coalition partners have come to place a strong emphasis on not just electoral politics, but a new kind of aggressive political action.  Together these partners have formed new partisan c4 and other mobilization efforts.

In part, this new electoral action emphasizes sustained work to raise voter turnout and political participation, especially among communities with traditionally lower turnout rates.  In doing so they often mobilize in the same types of communities of color that the right-wing has sought to suppress at the polls.  This political work goes beyond traditional Get Out the Vote strategies to focus on a much deeper and more sustained mobilization.  The Marguerite Casey Foundation describes the difference as follows:

Integrated voter engagement is a strategy that evolved out of traditional get-out-the-vote (GOTV) work. Whereas GOTV efforts are time-limited, focused on registration and mobilization and, typically, are driven by immediate election issues, IVE strives to engage communities to participate not only in the elections, but in organizing and advocacy work between elections as well. It emphasizes leadership development and increasingly includes the use of technology to reach and educate communities about issues that affect them and engage them in the solutions.

Between elections organizers engage people in the issue campaigns that grow out of the research, issue development and coalition-building of PWF affiliates. 

This connects to another aspect of aggressive political action.  The goals reach beyond traditional access to office holders to ultimately aim for governing majorities with real power backed up by mobilized grassroots.  The PWF affiliates’ policy work develops the powerful progressive reform agenda that is both doable using the powers of local and regional government while connecting to the deep core issues affecting people’s standard of living.  Aggressive political action by allies develops activist candidates from within progressive ranks and educates existing politicians to build a core of committed champions prepared to govern effectively and to remain true to the grassroots that got them in power in the first place.  In addition, PWF affiliates have fostered leadership development programs that not only train grassroots activists and would-be elected officials, but also build cadres of skilled leaders capable of serving in the many staff and appointed positions critical to running effective regional government.

  1. Cities, Regions and States Matter

The resource support that today is increasingly going into aggressive regional and local political action reflects a growing appreciation that the building blocks of national change lie at this level….

The New Right realized -- much earlier than the left -- that the key to national transformation lay outside Washington D.C.  The loss by the Democrats of over 1700 state legislative seats between 2010 and 2018 reflected the New Right’s appreciation of the power of state governments.  State governments run our nation’s election system.  They draw the U.S. House of Representatives districts.  They can challenge national policy with their own laws.  Through their Attorney Generals they can directly counter Federal action. 

For progressives the path to reshaping states begins at the local level.  Cities offer the most readily available building-blocks of new majority-seeking coalitions.  Already by the 2000 census, fully eighty percent of Americans lived in either core cities or their surrounding suburbs.  In many parts of the country, a state’s major metropolitan areas collectively hold the voters for majorities in state governments and state Congressional delegations.  As chapter three will detail cities have extensive powers that can make real changes in the lives of working people and the behavior of corporations and businesses.  Therefore, they can demonstrate through real life action the power of the broader progressive agenda for fundamental change. Furthermore, the progressive organizing and activist infrastructure is generally strongest in core cities.  Communities of color are also central to most core cities – both in terms of population and actualized or potential political power.  Thus, core cities, even in very red states, offer the most promising starting point for building a sustained progressive movement for long-term change.

Organizing in core cities alone, however, is not enough.  While thirty percent of the U.S. population lives in core cities, fully half live in the surrounding suburbs.  The deterioration that afflicted many core cities in the second half of the twentieth century has now spread to many inner ring suburbs, even as energy returns to targeted areas of central cities.  Furthermore, core city revitalization can mean gentrification that pushes poorer residents out into the suburbs.  The work of PWF affiliates spans regions and specifically targets working-class, often heavily minority, suburbs for progressive activism.  A regional focus also reflects the latest business and academic thinking about how economies actually work on the ground.[1]  In an age of “globalization” regions provide the actual physical units of the global economy.  Corporations do not move and invest randomly but do so region by region.  The rise of Silicon Valley offers a modern American “poster child” for how regions can compete successfully in the global economy.  It is also clear that a region’s economic fate overall is intimately tied in with the fate of the region’s core city – ultimately they sink or swim together.  In addition, it is also the regional voting base, not the core city alone, that provides the key to state power.  Not surprisingly, therefore, the Partnership for Working Families’ affiliates provide some of the best examples of regional activism in the country.  Indeed, this is why we refer to PWF work as “regional power building.”

The lesson is clear.  By building regional power, PWF affiliates across the country are at the forefront of efforts to put states and our nation on a different, more life-sustaining path.


David Reynolds is with the Center for Labor and Community Studies at the University of Michigan/ Dearborn.

Louise Simmons is a Professor of Community Organization at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work in Hartford.

Igniting Justice and Progressive Power is available from Taylor & Francis Group at www.taylorf rancis.com


[1] For a more detailed summary of the importance of regions economically and to progressive power building see Amy Dean and David Reynolds A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape The American Labor Movement (Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press, 2009) chapter one.