A City for All of Us: Applying lessons from a Solidarity Brigade to politics back home
Written by Jonathon Feinberg
Over the summer of 2019, I participated in a “Solidarity Brigade” – a group of individuals from around the country who come together to support and learn from organizations that have been successfully integrating electoral and movement organizing. I spent 10 days working with an organization that has a long track record of organizing with Latinx, African American, Asian American, Pacific Islander and youth communities, building independent political power and organization both through electoral work and movement-building. As an organizer, and as a member of Liberation Road, I wanted to learn about how they did this, and bring these lessons back to my normal life. I am finding these lessons particularly important now, as we on the left struggle to consolidate the people’s movements that came forward to support the Sander’s campaign and to make this movement more relevant to the issues and leadership of working-class communities of color. And at a time when these same communities’ whose exposure to the ravages of white supremacy and capitalism have left them especially vulnerable to COVID-19 and the ever-deeper economic crisis.
Creating a New Majority
My day job with a community-labor coalition is building political power for the working class majority of my city, power that is independent of elected officials and parties. We want to be the dominant voice regarding development, hiring, and representation, rather than hitching our wagon to whatever local opportunists happen to run for office. In other words, we work to engage the political sphere from a space both inside and outside of political parties.
When I say working class, I really mean the vast majority of my city, and yours. SUNY professor Michael Zweig defines ‘working class’ as “people who, when they go to work or when they act as citizens, have comparatively little power or authority. They are the people who do their jobs under more or less close supervision, who have little control over the pace or the content of their work, who aren’t the boss of anyone” (What’s Class Got To Do With It, 2004, p4).
With this definition, I realized that we have always been the majority. Yet our issues are generally not addressed in local, state, or federal politics. There are far too few politicians with working class roots. We rarely, if ever, get a real electoral win. We don’t remember how to flex that majority-muscle, how to make a politics that represents all of us.
The most important lesson I learned was how critical it is to create an identity of a new majority. Liberation Road refers to this as building a new political subject, a new “we” that is capable of changing our collective fortune. We build this political subject out of the working class – primarily by bringing unions, immigrant populations, and social movement organizations together into a shared identity, that new “we”, that sees the power in its numbers and the righteousness of demanding a politics that works for all of us.
And if we want to build a politics that works for all of us, it will take ALL OF US. My host organization saw that the key to winning a future for all of us is building a strategic alliance of the multinational working class and the oppressed nationality liberation movements (movements organizing to win equity and self-determination for Black, Latinx, Asian and Pacific Islander and Native American peoples) as the core of the much broader united front we will need to win against the ruling class that holds the levers of state power. This strategic alliance keeps us centered in our political line, improves our messaging, and brings the right players to the table.
Applying Lessons on the Ground
I came back and worked on 2 projects in the 2019 election cycle, doing my best to incorporate this ALL OF US framing I’d internalized during the brigade while targeting outreach to people who fit in this strategic alliance: organizing a “Peoples’ Assembly” on housing and jobs in the municipal election, and working on the campaign of our city’s only true progressive city council candidate.
The Peoples’ Election Assembly met every goal. The assembly itself, as well as the housing tool we released that night, used an explicit “All of us” framing. This was the largest electoral event of the year, with three times the attendance of others and the most representative turnout. This helped establish our organization as the main alternative voice regarding housing and development, and we did so by centering voices from the strategic alliance in our multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multilingual city in every aspect of the event. We brought community and labor together. We successfully took advantage of the high public attention on issues that elections bring to promote a different kind of politics.
The campaign was for a seat representing the part of our city most at risk of displacement. A young black man, the child of immigrants, ran against a middle-aged white woman incumbent. We targeted areas of low turnout, people who felt excluded from the political process, people who comprise the so-called “new majority”. We used “All of us” framing throughout, with simple and clear campaign promises focused on accountability, accessibility, and housing. Our campaign looked like our city and spoke its many languages. With no paid staff, our volunteers knocked on over 1500 doors. The candidate was attacked by the local press and the local democratic committee for switching his party affiliation to “independent” and for running against the city’s only female city councilor (although 3 more were running). Unfortunately, we lost by only 50 votes.
While we didn’t win the election, we successfully raised our issues and the masses of people who support them to the city’s attention. Now, no matter what the outcome, we’re at the table in a new way. Much like Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign, even though we lost we set the agenda for future debates.
Fighting for ALL OF US
When we fight, we need to fight for ALL OF US. We can’t just call for a new politics, we need to BE that new politics. We do that by building alliances and coalitions, bringing people together around shared campaigns and shared victories as much as possible. But it is not just about adding up all the marginalized groups. We can’t let the fact that the core of this alliance needs to be the working class and oppressed nationalities determine who is or is not allowed in. To create a new political subject, we need a ‘big tent’ movement that centers these voices, and also welcomes others. That is the importance of ALL OF US.
So why should you care? Because my town isn’t very different from yours at the end of the day. Because progressive candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are running grassroots campaigns and winning. Because at least one republican stronghold state was flipped by progressive organizing. Because we need to work at the local and state level as well as the national. And we need more examples of how to win. What I brought home from my time in the solidarity brigade has already had a significant impact on our work locally. We are now better positioned to take control of key local positions, key local processes, and to build a city government that works for ALL OF US.