Earlier this fall, movement leaders gathered at a virtual conference. Called Econ Con, the conference was organized by the Omidyar Network, a funder, and nine nonprofits—the Center for American Progress, Center for Popular Democracy, Community Change, Demos, Economic Policy Institute, Economic Security Project, Groundwork Collaborative, Roosevelt Institute, and the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.
In one panel—moderated by Jerusalem Demsas of Vox, Tara Raghuveer, director of KC (Kansas City) Tenants, Ericka Taylor of Americans for Financial Reform, Sara Nelson, the flight attendant union president, Bianca Cunningham of Bargaining for the Common Good Network, and Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party—participants discussed how “to remake our economy so that it works for all,” building on lessons learned in the past two years.
Below are six key themes that speakers focused on in that session:
1. The economic impact of white supremacy: While mainstream media focuses on the machinations of individual politicians, Taylor said that she believes that the failure of Democrats in Congress to raise the corporate income tax rate from 21 percent to 28 percent, as President Joe Biden originally proposed, even when it was 35 percent as recently as 2017, is a clear sign of the continued economic power of white supremacy. “White supremacy is the core problem,” she remarked. Mitchell concurred, noting that white supremacy “by design” makes it “very hard to do the multiracial organizing” that is needed in order “to concretize the gains of the movement” in public policy.
2. Tenants don’t have the political power needed to consolidate housing justice at the federal level. As Raghuveer put it, “The crisis tenants face can’t be solved at a building by building, block by block level.” Raghuveer noted that the struggle for a “home guarantee” and rent and mortgage cancellation “was an exciting fight” and even “visionary,” but did not even get close to leading to the federal policy of “canceling rent” and making landlords bear the bureaucratic burden of proving need to get reimbursed for lost rent collections. (Even as of late October, only an estimated $10 billion of the $47 billion in emergency rent relief funds enacted by law in December 2020 and March 2021 had made it into qualifying tenants’ pockets).
“We got completely schooled by the Establishment. We just got dunked on. We do not have the power to win at the federal level,” she said. Shifting power, she added, “is a very, very urgent challenge.…We need to be building deep at the local level. There are more of us than there are them, more tenants than landlords, more workers than bosses, but that only matters if we are building organizations together.…We need much, much more power before we will win.”
3. Electoral politics and social movements need to coordinate their actions to be truly effective: “Social movements play an essential role in our ecosystem. Political parties play another role,” noted Mitchell, who hails from the Movement for Black Lives and now leads the Working Families political party. Mitchell added that if social movements are disconnected from political parties, then the policy responses to the questions posed by social movements are highly likely to be those favored by organized capital. For example, Mitchell pointed out that the corporate response to police violence against Black Americans was to sell police departments body cameras, “It was a market-based corporate solution,” Mitchell noted, and as the Washington Post database on police shootings indicates, a largely ineffective one. Independent political power, Mitchell emphasized, is needed for social movements to be positioned to not only pose questions but implement movement-preferred solutions.
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Mitchell acknowledged that, “Elections alone will not get us free,” but added that working people need to have every tool at their disposal to protect their interests. “Opponents, they will pull on those levers of power,” Mitchell noted. “Vacuums will be filled. Who will fill those power vacuums? Is it working people or capital? In real estate, is it landlords or folks working on tenants’ rights?” Mitchell added, “There is no space where there aren’t contradictions and challenges. Ultimately, we must stand in the muck to help people be free.”
4. Additional popular education is needed to foster greater solidarity: Mitchell said that a priority in the coming years is “to develop our popular political education and ideological understanding on a nonacademic grassroots level…[so that] our people understand where we are, the tools to analyze where we are, and understand where we are going. I think that is how we develop a greater we.”
In the session, Nelson noted that the long history of flight attendants organizing in unions, a rare industry (for the US) where 80 percent of 50,000 flight attendants are unionized, positioned the flight attendants to gain protections during COVID-19 unavailable elsewhere. Nelson explained that: “Because we had built up that power, we brought capital to us first and they negotiated with us outside the political process.” The results? Two million aviation workers kept their benefits and jobs, airline executive compensation was capped (unlike CEOs in other industries), and stock buybacks were banned.
Cunningham told a similar story in Connecticut, where alliances home health care workers built with faith-based organizations and immigrant rights organizations led to higher wages, the recognition of Juneteenth as a holiday, and the creation of mobile crisis units to respond to health crises without police involvement.
5. Housing is about community, not just real estate: “The crisis that tenants face today boils down to racial capitalism,” noted Raghuveer. “Further commodifying housing doesn’t solve the problem that our homes are treated as investments, not as a public good,” she added.
Raghuveer told the story of a 70-year-old Black woman, Diane Charity, who is KC Tenants’ board secretary. Raghuveer related that Charity told her that “I’m not trying to be a property owner to be responsible for mowing the land and cleaning the gutter.” Charity explained, added Raghuveer, that “your solution for me is an individual solution and what I am seeking is a collective solution.”
6. Flexibility in tactics is key to success: In Kansas City, Raghuveer pointed out that when KC Tenants found itself unable to persuade city officials to shut down the city’s housing court, the group shifted its tactics and decided that the “goal is not to win an eviction moratorium, the goal is to stop evictions.” To achieve that, the group sought to act and “stop every eviction. Frankly, we did not think we could do this. Ultimately, we took three escalated direct actions, and we did end up stopping 90 percent of the evictions.” The organizing also helped generate 63 new leaders.
In the conversation, some speakers also reflected more broadly on their work. Nelson noted that for her union representation “is about helping people find their power.…It all goes back to helping people understand that we that we belong.” Raghuveer also offered some reflections on tenant organizing. “We have a tenant union,” she said. “But we also do political education. Just being able to connect with my neighbors. The fact that they support a lot of what we are talking about. They just want to see a real opportunity to exercise that. That’s what’s been giving me hope the last few months.”