Power in Community – and Cities

Notes from American Labor at a Crossroads Conference, January, 2015, Washington, DC

The popular vote for local public officials still carries a lot of power, including power over money. This is especially true for big city elections (and, unfortunately, for small state elections well). At a time when American workers’ democratic workplace voice is in sharp decline, the case can be made, as American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President put it at the January “American Labor at a Crossroads” conference in Washington, DC, that “community is the new density.” To the extent that community-labor alliances affect city elections, workers’ votes in non-labor elections can bring about real changes that benefit the working class, not only dues-paying members.

Weingarten’s observation was the virtual theme of the day-long conference featuring national and local labor leaders and writers. Union activists and scholars highlighted the growing success being found through organizing neighborhood-based voters, along with union members, to achieve gains like a higher minimum wage, stronger public employee union contracts and worker-and-citizen-oriented government in general– even as traditional membership-only organizing or contract campaigns continue a long decline. (A number of community-labor successes, including campaigns in Seetac and Seattle, Washington; Richmond and Los Angeles, California; and New Haven, Connecticut, have been featured in this blog.) Another AFT speakr at the Conference, Jessica Smith, described bringing parents and other community members into contract negotiations with city management, and even leading off successful negotiations with community demands.

One question not directly addressed by the Conference speakers was WHY the base of popular power is shifting away from the workplace and toward the residential base, especially cities. One answer to that question can be derived from a 1981 article on collective bargaining by authors Samuel Bachrach and Edward Lawler, which defines power in an ongoing relationship as a function of the NEED of each party for the other party or something they control. In general, the side in a relationship that needs the other side less, has more power (whether for good or ill).
Unfortunately, capitalists’ need for the U.S. workforce has been drastically lessened over the past fifty years by a combination of global outsourcing and automation (and aided by labor’s failure to follow capital around the world.) In the 1930’s, when the Detroit-area workforce for America’s Big Three auto manufacturers – tens of thousands of manual laborers in densely-manned factories – walked out, production shut down. Today, as Charley Richardson and others have noted, workers typically are relatively few, widely separated in their workplaces, and harder to organize; and, of course, autos and most other items are produced by many brands, and quickly available to countries around the world. The power of a strike in one location is generally much less than was once the case – even if the withdrawal of local labor is total. And, solidarity from a massively non-union U.S. population is rare and dwindling.

Cities, by contrast, are still densely populated – and citizens’ votes cannot be outsourced or automated. Local office-holders – and, to a lesser extent, state and national leaders – still NEED their voters to keep their jobs. When class-conscious activists, like the Chicago Teachers Union or socialist organizers in Washington State, reach out and educate their residential communities, wise local officials respond. Ignoring an isolated teachers’ Local is one thing, but if the community stands with the teachers, an arrogant Mayor may find that wealthy and powerful friends are not where the ultimate power lies. Increasing the minimum wage, or the living wage, or environmental protections – or approving a better union contract — is something a Mayor can do, and ignores at his or her peril (perhaps even in Chicago.)

Successful organizers are finding the power structure’s vulnerability and need – and it’s growing in the neighborhoods as it declines in the workplace.

Can the urban base fill in for the falling workplace membership base? Certainly not indefinitely. Union members pay dues that can sustain an independent power base around defined economic and workplace benefits. Taxpayer money still goes first to political and governmental leaders, not to labor. Organized urban residents may sometimes vote as urged by class activists, but, as SEIU super-organizer David Rolf noted at the conference, “We are at rock bottom now in terms of class consciousness… Most people don’t even know what collective power is.”

And workers’ wealthy opponents can perceive and target power bases as well as progressive organizers. Urban gentrification is widespread, and of strategic value to the ownership class. Pushing low-income residents out of powerful central cores to a disorganized plethora of suburban jurisdictions, does more than raise landlord incomes in cities. It divides and weakens the progressive power base as well.

Another weakness: cities, like (free) workers, but in contrast to property-owners and States, have no place in the U.S. Constitution. No U.S. city has the independent power of London, Paris or Tokyo, and some, like Boston, contain only a minority of the metropolitan population. Wyoming, Mississippi and Alaska each have two U.S. Senators. New York City and Los Angeles have none – and a semi-rural, mostly white state population like Pennsylvania can punish a predominantly black city like Philadelphia at will.

Can the Constitution be amended to balance power with population? Probably not in our lifetime.

Still, popular votes matter, and they are most concentrated in the relatively progressive urban jurisdictions that form the core of America’s majority. As even the professional “class” – and their children – are pushed down toward proletarian status, the potential for a conscious urban majority rises. Labor must reach out to educate its urban working class and intellectual base, oppose gentrification and disenfranchisement, and build more alliances where power is still found – in our dense, geographically-based neighborhood, city (and national) communities.
Where organized workers are needed – and only where they are needed — whether for labor or for votes, they have power.


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