President Barack Obama’s re-election is a huge relief — we dodged the Romney/Ryan bullet.
However, that’s not the same as winning a better future. If Obama’s first term is a prologue to the second, we should not expect to see much progress in strengthening the rights or bargaining ability of workers. Therefore, in Obama’s second term, we need to be:
• Smarter about the policies we advocate.
• Selective about the candidates we endorse.
• More disciplined about building a strong social movement.
Progressives need to recognize where the real fight is happening. Congress is still firmly under Republican control — or, at least, under threat of a Republican veto that can stop any worthwhile federal legislation. Since progress won’t happen in Washington, we must work for it at the state and local level. We are already seeing some of the most exciting innovations take shape in cities and metropolitan regions. Urban labor-community coalitions are making respect for collective bargaining a precondition for businesses to receive public support. They are also approaching politics in a new way. In exchange for supporting candidates, these coalitions are ensuring that politicians use the bully pulpit to defend workers and denounce union-busting. In San Jose, Calif., student, labor and faith groups demanded that local politicians back an across-the-board minimum wage increase that passed on Election Day. And in Long Beach, Calif., a coalition of LGBT activists, labor and faith groups got city council members to endorse a ballot measure for hotel housekeepers to get a raise, which passed.
Such coalitions must evaluate elected officials on whether or not they understand that their success in pushing legislation forward is directly linked to the strength of social movements. As Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) told me earlier this year in an interview for The American Prospect, “Sympathetic members of Congress have the power to draft, introduce and vote on legislation. But leaders in the progressive community … have the ability to mobilize, educate and organize all across America. We need each other to be successful.” We can no longer afford to invest in politicians who do not understand this.
Most candidates favored by Democratic Party powerbrokers are unable to grasp this concept. The few who do have social-movement roots, such as Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.). Consequently, a long-term electoral strategy must involve cultivating candidates directly from the ranks of social movements and then fighting for them in the primaries.
As Obama begins his second term, Republican obstructionism cannot be an excuse for inaction — particularly when it comes to the president’s use of his bully pulpit.
During the recent attacks on collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin and Ohio, and during the teachers’ strike in Chicago, White House leadership was nowhere to be found. Obama once promised, “If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain when I’m in the White House, I’ll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself. I’ll walk on that picket line with you as President of the United States of America.”
The President seems to have misplaced his walking shoes. We should send him a new pair — and make sure that no future candidates we endorse have any excuse for losing theirs.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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