CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Working together, economic and racial justice organizers over the past decade have brought about policy changes to address economic inequality, researchers report in a new book.
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign urban planning teacher Marc Doussard and co-author Greg Schrock, a professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University, examine grassroots organizing efforts in six cities, including Chicago, in “Justice at Work: The Rise of Economic and Racial Justice Coalitions in Cities.” Doussard conducts research on economic development and the economic value of improving wages, working conditions, and job security for low-wage workers.
Doussard and Schrock say the racial justice organization has changed the way activists work for policy change. Historically, community organizers focused on a single issue, whether it was fair wages or affordable housing, and used bargaining and negotiation to bring about change. They played down discussion of race for fear the volatile issue would erode support for their positions, Doussard said. That approach changed with the racialized crisis of foreclosures in the late 2000s and the Great Recession, he said.
“The worst loans have been made in communities of color. Their foreclosure rates were through the roof. At the same time, austerity budgets deprived those same communities of the resources they needed,” Doussard said. “Every issue seemed to be related to racism.”
Racial justice work offers a generic language to talk about these related issues, he said.
“Racial justice is really effective in talking about financial issues. It matters because austerity and budget cuts have always been a problem in cities,” Doussard said. “If you talk about alternative funding models, people’s eyes glaze over. If you say a policy is discriminatory, people understand.
For example, the Chicago Teachers Union won public support for stopping school closings in minority neighborhoods in part by calling the plan “educational apartheid.” By centering race in their messaging, they built a coalition that included anti-racist organizations, Doussard said.
Similarly, in “Fight for $15” campaigns across the country for a minimum wage of $15 an hour, community organizations, labor unions, and civil rights groups began to work together, creating larger and more diverse networks with more political ties. “Participants in social movements at this time find that adding new partners and issues to the agenda expands, rather than dilutes, their power,” Doussard and Schrock wrote.
As the COVID-19 pandemic shone a spotlight on economic and social inequality, activists had for years associated various social issues with systemic racism, and they had a way to talk about how the public health crisis and its effects were race-related, says Doussard.
Union organizers have also reacted to globalization, he said. Their goal for many years, particularly in Chicago, was to try to preserve manufacturing jobs that were being moved overseas. They have shifted their approach to the service economy, whose jobs cannot move and which often employ people – especially women – of color.
The authors wrote about “urban policy entrepreneurs” – the people who shape public policy agendas in cities, as opposed to conventional policy makers in Washington, D.C. Doussard and Schrock focus on cities where, according to Doussard, he is much easier for community groups to set the agenda and capture the attention of mayors and council members through protests, pushing ballot initiatives and supporting rival political candidates.
The book uses “Fight for $15” campaigns as an example. It was passed in Seattle after a candidate made it a campaign issue and union leaders began defending it. The campaign then moved to other cities, demonstrating how a national network of activists shares information such as how to write language for new policy enforcement, compelling ways to talk about it and effective means of protest.
“Redirecting policy attention from Washington to cities is not just about doing the same elsewhere. It’s a policy based on people’s everyday lives, in everyday relationships,” Doussard said. “By deciding to deal with the minimum wage in the cities rather than in Congress, the organizers ended up with a higher minimum wage, with follow-on benefits that people did not think they were getting and with strong and robust coalitions . So many voters and researchers are focused on Washington, and in the meantime, what’s happening in cities is this remarkable transformation.
The success of movements such as “Fight for $15” and the campaigns against school closures and plans to fund tax increases that burden low-income neighborhoods stem from years of work to create networks between labor, racial justice and community organizers and find the most effective messages to garner support for policy changes, Doussard said.
“Among the many issues we are considering, lawmakers voted for change after activists spent years or decades refining messages, models and supporting research,” Doussard and Schrock wrote. “It makes the case for activists to find and take more risks: trying new policies, reintroducing old ones, supporting new studies, trying new messages, and simply advancing justice campaigns by inventing rather than waiting for opportunities. “