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 regime 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 Type Media Center Fellow, co-host (with Michelle Chen) of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, and a columnist at The New Republic and New Labor Forum. She was formerly a staff writer at In These Times and the labor editor at AlterNet. Her previous book is 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.