Symposium | The New Supply-Side Progressivism

Giving Communities the Power

By Lauren Jacobs

Tagged Biden AdministrationInequalityJobsLaborprogressivism

The emergent political economy that progressives are trying to build exists in contention with the hyper-extractive, markets-first approach that has defined—and confined—U.S. policymaking for decades. This new approach, as economist Dani Rodrik has written, “gives governments and community organizations greater responsibility to shape investment and production.” This responsibility, in turn, calls for multiracial feminist democracy—a democracy that has full enfranchisement of all people across lines of race, gender, and more; that centers the industrial and socially reproductive sectors of the economy; and that rejects any singular charismatic figure (most often a cisgender white man) as the maker of history and instead sees the collective as the primary historical subject. Across the country, local movements and campaigns are demonstrating what it means to practice this framework of radical inclusion, self-determination, and an abundance of people power and material resources—and further revealing the governance structures we’ll need to truly realize it.

Consider these conflicting vignettes. When Harris County, Texas, received federal COVID relief funds, workers there successfully advocated for money to train more than 1,500 residents through union apprenticeship programs. Union leaders declared it the largest investment in jobs and workers in the county’s history. These apprenticeship programs are preparing people—particularly women and folks of color—for high-quality union jobs maintaining new electric buses, running tech for concerts, and building future infrastructure. The federal dollars are both supporting pathways to good, community-sustaining jobs and growing the labor movement, one of the key bastions of grassroots power in our country.

By contrast, in Alabama, legislators chose incarceration over workers, diverting $400 million of their federal funds away from public programs and into state prisons. They took money intended to help communities recover from the pandemic and instead used it to lock up more Black and brown people. “Unfortunately, [they] chose to line the pockets of prison construction companies instead of putting Alabamians first,” said Katie Glenn, a policy associate at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

These two stories demonstrate the peril and potential of the billions in federal dollars currently flowing to cities and states. With our economic and political systems so skewed toward the interests of big business, there’s great risk that corporate lobbyists will siphon off these dollars to increase Wall Street’s profits and tilt power even further toward CEOs and investors.

We also risk the total entrenchment of an insurgent authoritarian movement that wields broad power and can only be stopped by multiracial feminist democracy. This is because reshaping who holds power in our economy and society necessitates a transformation in how we see each other and how we come together across overlapping needs and shared interests.

Government spending, even generous government spending, isn’t enough. For public investment to truly benefit working people, their families, and our communities, we need to shift power so that we can collectively decide how public dollars are best used. That means shaping rules and growing institutions that advance multiracial feminist democracy, starting at the local level.

Starting in the 1970s and trickling down from corporate-funded think tanks and Ronald Reagan’s Oval Office, neoliberalism eventually made its way to town halls and kitchen tables. For almost half a century, the lie of “free markets” became the dominant worldview, pushing the public sector to serve private interests.

Today, we live under a government not of the people but for big business. The consolidation of corporate power and the erosion of workers’ rights—made possible by lobbyist-led actions including mass deregulation, wage suppression, and anti-union legislation—have increasingly entrenched the government’s subservience to the wealthy. To see how the many are excluded from making the decisions that shape our everyday lives, look no further than today’s CEOs, who take home record-high compensation and whose corporations receive billions in subsidies and tax breaks from the government while everyone else fights for a living wage and struggles to pay for their needs amid rampant price gouging. In America, bankers take home bonuses while their bets risk crashing our economy—and the federal government is expected to bail them out when their bets go wrong.

And by design, the consequences of corporate rule have harmed women, people of color, and other historically marginalized people the most, not just by worsening inequities but also by turning people against one another. Racism and neoliberal capitalism are mutually reinforcing. For a handful of wealthy elites to maintain their grasp on power, they need to keep the rest of us divided, whether by pitting oil industry workers against communities on the front lines of climate disaster or seeking to split Black and Asian communities to maintain an oppressive police state.

As the failures of neoliberalism have become ever starker, more and more people have taken up a different worldview. In Washington, the Biden Administration has been making the case that robust public investment is crucial to economic growth and social well-being. Between the American Rescue Plan Act, the Inflation Reduction Act, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and the CHIPS and Science Act, billions of public dollars are now flowing to cities, counties, and states. At the same time, working people all across the country are standing up to demand better. From Amazon to Starbucks and beyond, workers have been pushed to the breaking point by corporate bosses intent on extracting maximum profits from their labor—and they aren’t taking it anymore. Unions are regaining public attention and support, and the number of strikes has skyrocketed.

These are both promising trends, but to truly turn the tide and shift governing power away from corporations and back to our communities, we need to see public investment and grassroots organizing as interconnected—lest we risk losing the potential of both.

If we simply channel more money to state and local governments that have been captured by corporate interests and neoliberal worldviews, we know what we’ll end up with. We’ll see more police who protect private property instead of providing justice. We’ll see more tax giveaways to tech giants that promise good jobs and community benefits only to renege on those commitments. In short, we’ll end up with more resources serving those corporate interests, and a justified skepticism in our communities—particularly in Black and brown ones—that government dollars do much good.

And if we cheer on the surge in workers organizing without thinking strategically about how we use every available lever to support them, there’s a good chance this momentum will burn out. Corporations like Starbucks and Amazon have shown they will spend millions and violate the law to crush organizing. They will fly in managers and union-busting consultants, call the police on organizers, and retaliate against and fire worker leaders. How long will this public energy last if these aggressive tactics turn hope into despair?

To prevent these scenarios, we should leverage each trend to reinforce the other. We should use the power of organized people to guide public investments so that they go toward community priorities. And we should think about ways that public dollars can help expand people power.

As we reimagine what public investment can do, we must go beyond thinking about what dollars are spent on and instead focus on how funding decisions are made and who has the power to shape those choices.

In 2019, leaders from our network of grassroots power-building organizations visited Spain to experience a transformative approach to community governance. We learned about Barcelona en Comú, a community-developed policy platform that became a reluctant political party when candidates running on the platform won control of the municipal government.

Recognizing feminist politics as a transformational trigger, they’re challenging traditional, top-down norms and growing a movement that empowers leadership at all levels. Through this lens, they’ve been creating new ways for people to participate in civic life, from digital tools that let people submit policy ideas to street closures that create car-free spaces where people can gather and build relationships with their neighbors. And crucially, movement organizations in Barcelona didn’t stop their activism after candidates aligned with them won office.

With this combination of values-aligned elected leaders, active movement groups, and structures that put everyday people in the driver’s seat, Barcelonians have been able to take major steps to address local needs, from quadrupling the public housing budget to establishing a public renewable energy firm.

Our network has been working to apply lessons from Barcelona here in the United States. In campaigns ranging from shaping municipal budgets to putting communities in control of their energy systems, we’ve been exploring structures that promote deep community governance. In Boston, our affiliate Community Labor United has been organizing with residents of working-class neighborhoods, which are often the first to suffer in a climate disaster. They’re piloting green electricity “microgrids” in which buildings are equipped with solar panels, generators, and batteries that can be switched on when there’s a problem with the wider grid. This system will both make the communities more resilient during citywide power outages and promote energy democracy. Rather than decisions about power being made by a big private utility company, the microgrids are being designed with community governance structures so that residents make the decisions, such as which buildings get prioritized in an emergency.

Similarly, another affiliate, the Center on Policy Initiatives (CPI) in San Diego, has been working to shape city and county budgets. In many cities, the budget-making process is one of the primary ways corporations capture public resources. Between midday downtown hearings without child care and dense, jargon-filled documents, budget processes favor paid lobbyists over working-class residents and people of color. That’s why CPI has brought together labor unions, neighborhood groups, environmental justice advocates, and faith leaders to fight for “people’s budgets” that address community needs. Among their many wins over the past few years is the creation of a new city agency dedicated to protecting workers’ rights—a step that will both help ensure people are paid properly for all the work they do and make it harder for abusive employers to retaliate against workers who organize.

It’s no accident that all of these examples are from cities. While our movements must fight for power at all levels of government, it is at the local level that organized people can often have the most direct impact—and most clearly see how organizing can lead to tangible benefits in their daily lives.

So how do we create more examples of organized people having the power to govern public investments? While there are many pieces to the puzzle, I would point to two approaches: growing civic organizations and shaping rules to shift power.

Growing Civic Organizations

Organizing is a collective activity, and governing is no easy task. We need civic organizations where people can come together and practice the skills of governance. Such organizations also provide a structure to sustain power building over the long haul, even as individual leaders may cycle in or out.

Historically, labor unions have been among the strongest of such structures. Unions are where people from diverse backgrounds come together, learn from each other, and experience their power in numbers. Equally important is that, through the collective bargaining process, union members consider one another’s needs and decide what issues to focus on. This collective decision-making for the common good is the practice of democracy.

More recently, tenant unions have emerged as another key set of civic institutions. In Massachusetts, the grassroots organizing group City Life/Vida Urbana has been helping renters—primarily working-class people of color—join together with their neighbors to fight rent hikes and unjust evictions. These tenant unions have been winning collective bargaining agreements with their landlords that set limits on rent increases and provide other protections. As more tenant unions sprout up across the country, the home can join the workplace as another site where people build the muscle to govern our society.

Groups like these provide the common spaces where people can cross boundaries and find connections. When neighbors and coworkers go from passing one another in hallways to negotiating with their landlords and bosses, they’re establishing not just lasting relationships but real-life experience with governing.

Shaping Rules to Shift Power

We should also be thinking about the rules that determine how public dollars can be spent. Do these rules encourage community governance, or do they favor corporate interests? The Biden Administration has already taken positive steps toward making choices with—not for—communities, such as the Department of Energy requiring Community Benefits Plans developed through robust community engagement on projects that receive infrastructure bill funding. At the local level, changes to the budget-making process (such as swapping midday downtown hearings for evening neighborhood meetings with child care, food, and translation services) can make it easier for people to organize and to wrest control away from corporate lobbyists.

Making the rules more favorable to power building and community governance is part of an approach we describe as “braided strategy.” In this model, advocates (particularly those working at the state and federal level) can help create conditions on the ground that support organizing. In turn, grassroots organizing builds power from the ground up, changing the power dynamics and thus what’s possible to win at higher levels of government. Like a braided rope, each strand of work (whether a local campaign that organizes people around city budget priorities or federal-level advocacy for including labor standards as investment criteria) reinforces the others, creating a whole far stronger than its component parts.

This new era of public investment presents us with a fundamental choice: Are we content to merely hope this money does some good, or will we use this moment to shift economic and political power?

At PowerSwitch Action, we believe that our economy and democracy belong in the hands and care of regular people. That doesn’t just mean casting a ballot every few years. It means people coming together with their neighbors and coworkers to make thoughtful decisions about their needs: What will keep us safe? What will let our kids thrive and our elders rest? What kinds of jobs do we want, and how will we value labor?

It’s a big vision, and we won’t get there easily or quickly. But what we can do is make sure that we’re laying the stepping stones in the right direction. By growing civic organizations and shaping rules, we can shift governing power away from corporations and toward where it rightfully belongs—in the care of our communities.

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Lauren Jacobs is the Chair of the Partnership for Working Families Action Fund and the Executive Director of PowerSwitch Action.

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