Organizers Come Together To ‘Move from Checkers to Chess’

Sarah Jaffe

Members of National People's Action and the National Domestic Workers Alliance hold an action on Monday in General Electric's Washington, D.C. headquarters calling for the company to pay its taxes. (Sarah Jaffe)

With its glit­ter­ing chan­de­liers in the lob­by and $200-per-night room rate, the Omni Shore­ham hotel in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. seems like an incon­gru­ous place for a con­ven­tion of work­ing-class peo­ple talk­ing about tak­ing pow­er back from the 1 percent.

As Ai-Jen Poo, direc­tor of the Nation­al Domes­tic Work­ers Alliance (NDWA), points out when she takes the stage to address a crowd full of orga­niz­ers from around the coun­try, the peo­ple mak­ing deci­sions about the econ­o­my don’t look like the ones in this room.

But,” she declares over rau­cous cheers, They should.” 

About 1000 activists have con­gre­gat­ed for the joint con­ven­tion between NDWA and the com­mu­ni­ty-orga­niz­ing net­work Nation­al Peo­ple’s Action (NPA). NPA has been hold­ing such gath­er­ings, in which mem­bers from its affil­i­ate groups around the nation come togeth­er to share sto­ries, strate­gize, and raise a lit­tle hell in the streets of D.C., for 41 years. This year, it’s joined with NDWA in an attempt to build some­thing big­ger that can work for long-term suc­cess — what NPA direc­tor George Goehl calls in an inter­view mov­ing from check­ers to chess.”

As David Moberg report­ed for In These Times in Feb­ru­ary, under Goehl, NPA has shift­ed its for­mer com­mu­ni­ty-orga­niz­ing mod­el toward some­thing that looks a lot more like move­ment-build­ing. That includes team­ing up with groups like NDWA and oth­ers in order to add to their col­lec­tive strength and actu­al­ly build a strat­e­gy that won’t stop at win­ning neigh­bor­hood or even city­wide vic­to­ries. Ulti­mate­ly, the NPA and their allies hope to reshape the Amer­i­can econ­o­my so it actu­al­ly works for everyone.

Their plan for a peo­ple’s new econ­o­my” calls for demo­c­ra­t­ic con­trol of cap­i­tal, racial jus­tice, cor­po­ra­tions for the com­mon good, eco­log­i­cal sus­tain­abil­i­ty and real democ­ra­cy.” That’s not a small list of goals, but NPA isn’t inter­est­ed in small any longer. The phrase struc­tur­al trans­for­ma­tion” is fre­quent­ly invoked over the week­end. Orga­niz­ers repeat­ed­ly point out at ple­nary ses­sions and pan­el dis­cus­sions that inequal­i­ty was not an acci­dent — that it hap­pened by design as a result of delib­er­ate steps tak­en by the wealthy to con­sol­i­date their own pow­er — and that long-term plans will be need­ed to coun­ter­act it as well. 

We real­ized,” Goehl tells me, that we actu­al­ly had to fig­ure out how to do real strat­e­gy and put togeth­er a set of moves that were designed to con­test for pow­er — in the world of nar­ra­tive, in the world of elec­tions, and in terms of struc­tures — the kind of legal forms that dic­tate who has pow­er and who doesn’t.”

Pow­er. It’s a word being used a lot by orga­niz­ers in the post-Occu­py Wall Street moment. Goehl notes, I think that a lot of peo­ple thought if we could move that many peo­ple into the streets, that would maybe cre­ate some sort of tip­ping point and it would ush­er in a lot of change.” When it turned out that was­n’t enough, he says, instead of just being dis­il­lu­sioned, many orga­niz­ers did some reflect­ing and began think­ing about how to real­ly build power. 

That means con­tem­plat­ing the kinds of vic­to­ries that NPA’s affil­i­ates have won and want to win. The ques­tion, for Goehl, is how to turn short-term con­crete suc­cess­es that improve the lives of their mem­bers and make orga­ni­za­tions stronger into wins that do some­thing to change long-term rela­tions of pow­er. He points to the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act as an exam­ple of a tri­umph for work­ers’ orga­niz­ing that, in turn, was designed to then spur even more organizing.

Of course, the NLRA is a shad­ow of its for­mer self these days, and for many of the work­ers at the con­fer­ence, it nev­er applied in the first place. Martha Oje­da, cam­paign orga­niz­er at the Fe y Jus­ti­cia (Faith and Jus­tice) Work­er Cen­ter in Hous­ton, Texas, works with domes­tic work­ers who are try­ing to enforce their rights in a cli­mate where they have almost none. Many of those domes­tic work­ers are vic­tims of wage theft, par­tic­u­lar­ly when they live with the fam­i­lies that employ them. The work­er cen­ter’s indi­vid­ual cam­paigns to help, she says, were just putting a Band-Aid on things,” so they decid­ed to work on an ordi­nance at the munic­i­pal lev­el in order to stop wage theft.

They orga­nized City Coun­cil dis­trict by dis­trict, mobi­lized allies, and put pres­sure on the Coun­cil mem­bers and (Demo­c­ra­t­ic) May­or Annise Park­er, flood­ing Tues­day evening pub­lic hear­ings with work­ers telling their sto­ries of wage theft.

Every­one was say­ing what they were going through — I lost my car, I did­n’t have the mon­ey to make the pay­ment because this employ­er did not pay me’ — all these kinds of sto­ries of how it impact­ed them but also how [wage theft] impacts the econ­o­my,” she explains. If they did not have any mon­ey they were not able to go con­sume, to pay the gas, to pay the gro­ceries, to pay the rent.”

The bill passed unan­i­mous­ly. We were told that in Texas it was impos­si­ble because Texas is the state of the right-to-work, of the oil, of the cap­i­tal, so it’s impos­si­ble,” Oje­da says with a smile.

Yet now the prob­lem is enforc­ing the ordi­nance, and Oje­da says that the city focus­es more on tar­get­ing large employ­ers than indi­vid­ual employ­ers of domes­tic work­ers. As always, orga­niz­ing can’t sim­ply stop with one vic­to­ry, and so Fe y Jus­ti­cia is join­ing with oth­er groups to push for a Texas domes­tic work­er’s bill of rights like the ones passed in New York and oth­er states recently.

For Goehl, this kind of strug­gle is fur­ther evi­dence that a tru­ly trans­for­ma­tive move­ment must cen­ter the peo­ple, such as domes­tic work­ers, who have been left out of labor and oth­er pro­tec­tions. As he puts it, How do we build a move­ment that ensures, not just out of the good­ness of our heart, that the most invis­i­ble in our econ­o­my and our pol­i­tics are at the front, not out of just some lib­er­al idea but actu­al­ly because it’s right in terms of strat­e­gy and the ulti­mate impact?” After all, a labor rights régime that leaves out domes­tic work­ers has wound up putting more and more work­ers in the same pre­car­i­ous con­di­tions domes­tic work­ers have long faced.

As Toby Chow, an orga­niz­er with NPA affil­i­ate Illi­nois Indi­ana Region­al Orga­niz­ing Net­work (IIRON), says dur­ing a pan­el, The econ­o­my has to be for every­one. It’s not because it’s a nice idea, it’s because if the new econ­o­my does­n’t include every­one it’s not going to hap­pen for anyone.”

It’s work­ers like Patri­cia Fuller from NPA affil­i­ate Michi­gan Unit­ed in Detroit who are push­ing for those changes in the econ­o­my. Fuller works long hours for min­i­mum wage pack­ing auto parts; she once worked for Gen­er­al Motors for decent pay, but that plant closed down. But after her shifts are done, she spends a few hours can­vass­ing her neigh­bors for sig­na­tures to raise the min­i­mum wage in her state.

Most of them are very eager to sign, no expla­na­tion nec­es­sary,” she tells In These Times. All I have to do is ask Would you like to see the min­i­mum wage raise?’ and they’re like Sure, give me that, can he sign too?’ They’re eager. They want to see a change.”

And in Des Moines, Iowa, Nataly Espinoza joined the fight against low wages and wage theft after work­ing as in a ware­house for four years mak­ing $8.50 an hour—with no ben­e­fits—as a temp for Kel­ly Ser­vices. As part of Iowa Cit­i­zens for Com­mu­ni­ty Improve­ment, Espinoza began orga­niz­ing with fel­low temps and oth­er work­ers; Iowa CCI is now push­ing for­ward with a state bill to crack down on wage theft. 

For Fuller and Espinoza, as well as oth­er mem­bers of NPA and NDWA, inequal­i­ty is old news. Yet Goehl points out that for politi­cians and econ­o­mists every­where, inequal­i­ty” is now a hot-but­ton issue. That’s why it’s impor­tant, he says, to be sure nation­al­ly that we get the diag­no­sis right. There are deep struc­tur­al rea­sons why we have always had inequal­i­ty, why we have expand­ing inequal­i­ty now. And if we get that diag­no­sis wrong, the pre­scrip­tion will be wrong and we’ll fail. Or we’ll get a few reforms here and there and life might be a lit­tle less hate­ful for peo­ple, but we also won’t have changed the under­ly­ing struc­tures that cre­at­ed the situation.”

That diag­no­sis, Goehl and oth­ers say, has to include race, gen­der, sex­u­al­i­ty, abil­i­ty and more. At the con­fer­ence, more spe­cif­ic work sur­round­ing such a diag­no­sis includes issues of mass incar­cer­a­tion (a pan­el on the sub­ject is stand­ing-room-only and still over­flows into the hall) and fair hous­ing for peo­ple with HIV/AIDS, like the 30 per­cent-of-income rent cap NPA affil­i­ate VOCAL-New York just won.

As for the pre­scrip­tion, Goehl says, that includes inde­pen­dent polit­i­cal pow­er. (Moberg report­ed on the for­ma­tion of a sep­a­rate 501(c)(4) arm, called the Nation­al Peo­ple’s Action Cam­paign, to do more explic­it polit­i­cal work.) I think we look at the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty as a field of strug­gle in and of itself,” he says and There’s no path to trans­form­ing whom our econ­o­my serves that does­n’t include a lot of ten­sion with the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party.”

Sev­er­al of the work­ers who speak with In These Times plan to use upcom­ing elec­tions as points of lever­age to push would-be offi­cials to focus on their issues: Oje­da tells me about con­fronting Texas guber­na­to­r­i­al can­di­date Wendy Davis at a cam­paign stop to ask her if she would back a domes­tic work­ers’ bill of rights, and Espinoza looks for­ward to vis­its to Iowa by pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates so she can press them on prob­lems fac­ing low-wage workers.

That does­n’t mean they don’t have any Demo­c­ra­t­ic allies; at the Capi­tol Hill ral­ly con­clud­ing the con­fer­ence on Mon­day, Rep. Kei­th Elli­son (D‑Minnesota) address­es the crowd. When these cor­po­ra­tions, when they say they need a tax break, I’m going to tell you why they say they need a tax break,” he tells the assem­bled orga­niz­ers. They always say it’s for jobs. They go to Con­gress in your name and say Give us a tax break and we’ll kick the work­ers back.’ But they’re lying!” 

Yet the main atti­tude toward elect­ed offi­cials of any par­ty seems to be the one expressed by an orga­niz­er from Chicago’s ONE North­side at Sat­ur­day night’s open­ing ple­nary. When his group chal­lenged Demo­c­ra­t­ic Rep. Jan Schakowsky recent­ly, he says, some of their allies were con­cerned that they weren’t being nice enough to an elect­ed offi­cial who was most­ly on their side. Don’t be nice, be just,” he replied.

We’re ready for a pol­i­tics that puts peo­ple and a set of prin­ci­ples over polit­i­cal par­ties,” Goehl says, and our loy­al­ty is to peo­ple and a set of principles.” 

Sarah Jaffe is a for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of Nec­es­sary Trou­ble: Amer­i­cans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kel­ley called The most com­pelling social and polit­i­cal por­trait of our age.” You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @sarahljaffe.
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