How can organizations build the movement we need to overcome corporate power? Over the past five years, PowerSwitch Action has experimented with weaving together seven local affiliates in California to grow statewide power. The goal: challenge corporations on behalf of the low-wage workers, people of color, and immigrants who make the state’s economy churn.
From poverty wages to sky-high rents to environmental disasters, many of the crises we face today are linked to outsized and entrenched corporate power. Corporate dominance and the pursuit of profit has destabilized our economy, pushed our climate to the breaking point, and fueled the rise of right-wing authoritarianism. In the face of such entrenched power, how can we build the multiracial, feminist, democratic economy we need?
Based on the work of two outside evaluators, who helped us identify what made PowerSwitch Action’s program effective, we share four key lessons learned from studying our own strategy. To rein in corporations and build a people-powered democracy—where we make the rules for corporations instead of the other way around—we need to move beyond quick wins that can be rolled back easily by powerful interests. We need to set our sights on the horizon, thinking not only about legislation or campaigns we can drive in any given year but about how our work today sets us up for bigger and bolder success tomorrow.
Planning Beyond Pragmatism
PowerSwitch Action was born out of collaborations between labor unions and community organizations channeling their combined strengths to oppose real estate developers, banks, big-box retailers, and other corporate influences in local governance and economic development.
The network was founded in 2002 when four local labor-community alliance organizations in California—the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, Working Partnerships USA in Silicon Valley, the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy in the Bay Area, and the Center on Policy Initiatives in San Diego—identified a need for strategic coordination. Initially known as the California Partnership for Working Families, the network quickly expanded to include affiliates in New York, Atlanta, Denver, and other cities and became the Partnership for Working Families in 2006. Today, our network comprises 21 groups in regions consisting of over one-third of the US population.
PowerSwitch Action focuses on cities as key strategic terrain. Urban areas are home to 80 percent of the US population, produce and hold most of our nation’s wealth, have tremendous power via public policy and budgets, and are where most people directly feel the impact of government and organizing in their daily lives. In our early years, we developed new approaches to shift power from corporations to communities. Our affiliates ran some of the country’s first campaigns for living wages; pioneered the use of community benefits agreements as an organizing and legal tool to make developers address local residents’ needs (everything from affordable housing to childcare); and brought environmental justice, labor, and community groups together into powerful coalitions that rewrote the local rules for exploitative industries like port trucking and waste collection.
While our work locally improved the lives of millions of people, it became clear that corporate power is fueling far greater threats to our communities. Climate disasters fomented by the fossil fuel industry are hitting low-income communities of color, corporate interests and authoritarian politicians collude to lower taxes and loosen regulations while assaulting our democracy, and megacorporations like Amazon demand billion-dollar subsidies from local governments while destroying small businesses and paying low wages for literally back-breaking work.
To counter corporations’ outsized and unchecked power grab, we need more than public policy fights, community benefits agreements, and harm reduction. We must be practical yet ambitious about how short-term work and non-reformist reforms feed long-term structural transformation. Instead of asking what we can win in today’s status quo, we need to shift the terrain to realize the future our communities need.
Lessons for Long-Term Change
In 2017, leaders across PowerSwitch Action embarked on a multiyear process to plan a long-term agenda for a people- and planet-centered economy. Our strategy incorporates public policy fights and campaigns that confront corporations, building an organized base with the experience and resources to wrest governing power back into the hands of our communities. As part of this approach, we launched a new program linking together our seven powerful affiliates in California to grow statewide power for the people who make California run.
We can’t rely solely on government to rein in corporate excess when corporations can reshape government.Five years later, the program is the only worker-centered effort in California rooted in local organizing across industries, issues, multiracial identities, and key regions of the state. Here are four lessons from the program’s evaluation that are key to building transformational power for working people.
Lesson #1: Take the fight directly to the villain
For the first decade after our founding, our network and affiliates sought to shift governing power from corporations to communities by indirectly confronting corporate power. Living-wage campaigns, for example, were effectively proxy fights, with lobbyists for airport concession vendors and private trash collection companies seeking to maximize their profits at the expense of workers and communities. At the same time, our coalitions pushed city council members to require that more of those profits go to paying workers enough to cover their bills.
While public policy is an important lever, it became clear that it wasn’t enough. Corporations can spend millions of dollars to defeat legislation, elect corporate-friendly politicians, and overturn laws at the ballot box or via the courts. We can’t rely solely on government to rein in corporate excess when corporations can reshape government. We learned that we must name and shame the villains to target and stop their exploitative practices.
Our work challenging Amazon is a prime example of this evolution. In 2017, Amazon announced a national competition to pick the location of “HQ2,” effectively asking cities to bid against each other to give the megacorporation the most subsidies and tax breaks in exchange for housing its second headquarters. Our affiliates in relevant cities drew upon our experience challenging developer subsidies in community benefits fights to turn the tables on the corporation. We wrote our own set of demands and expectations for Amazon. If it wanted to come to our cities, it would need to pay its taxes, commit to sustainable practices, pay its workers well, and more. We told our elected leaders that public resources must be used for public good, not to line Jeff Bezos’s pockets.
In New York City, our affiliate ALIGN helped bring together a coalition that called out the many ways Amazon hurts working-class neighborhoods and people of color—from its punishing warehouse jobs to its technology enabling the Trump administration’s cruel family separations. Combined, this organizing around the country changed the press narrative about the competition: stories about stunts cities pulled in their attempts to woo Amazon were replaced with more critical pieces about communities objecting to the whims of a billionaire. Faced with intense opposition from the community and city council allies, Amazon abandoned its plan to build its campus in Long Island City, keeping $3 billion of proposed subsidies in public hands.
Since then, our network has continued taking the fight straight to Amazon. One approach has been to target logistics hubs that handle large amounts of freight through target cities in Missouri and California’s Inland Empire. There, our affiliates, the Missouri Workers Center (MWC) and the Warehouse Worker Resource Center (WWRC), support workers at Amazon’s warehouses organizing for safer conditions and better pay. Workers in San Bernardino have demonstrated their power in numbers—signing petitions, meeting with management, and twice shutting down the hub as hundreds walked off the job. Amazon has made some safety improvements and given workers some of the highest pay hikes of any of its warehouses, but the workers are far from finished.
Directly confronting corporations also creates stronger movements. By organizing in their workplace and community, people experience their collective power and realize they can demand more. By telling clear stories about corporate harms and how people are fighting back, these fights create momentum for legislative and regulatory campaigns to rein in corporate excess, changing how our economy and political system work.
Lesson #2: Use a “whole person” perspective to weave intersectional alliances
The multifaceted coalition in New York that beat Amazon’s HQ2 was united by a shared analysis of how Amazon harms communities. We learned that we could expand our movements by showing how corporations extract from us in nearly every aspect of our lives. Companies profit off our labor while paying low wages and forcing us to work in unsafe conditions. Big landlords charge high rents, while luxury developers gentrify neighborhoods and buy up public space. Corporations extract natural resources and pollute our communities—and the list goes on. They do so while sowing division based on identities, distracting us while a small handful of executives can continue exploiting us efficiently.
When we think about how a struggle affects people in all their different identities—as workers, renters, people of color, gender-oppressed people, people of faith, immigrants, and more—we can organize a broader base of strong support. Early on, PowerSwitch Action brought together labor unions and neighborhood groups to win community benefits agreements that included good jobs for people working at a new stadium or hotel and affordable homes and transit when they clocked out.
Sign up for our free newsletters
Subscribe to NPQ's newsletters to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.
After the HQ2 fight, we cofounded Athena, a national alliance of over 50 groups organizing to bring Amazon to heel. The group consists of workers and economic justice advocates, small businesses and antimonopoly researchers, privacy advocates, and racial justice champions. The coalition members have been confronting Amazon directly by supporting warehouse worker strikes and protesting military contracts, and advocating for government regulation of the company.
This work drives home a narrative throughline about Amazon’s dominance, making it harder for them to dodge accountability and creating an environment where they can be called out. This approach has made way for the Federal Trade Commission’s groundbreaking antitrust lawsuit against Amazon and investigations into the company’s workplace practices led by Senator Bernie Sanders. Using a whole-person analysis to weave big-tent coalitions helps scale our movements to go toe-to-toe with corporate giants.
Lesson #3: Operate at multiple levels of geography
Too often, state and national groups working with local partners create campaigns that just don’t work. They tend to misunderstand the conditions, either handing down cookie-cutter policy campaigns, setting lower standards than could have been won locally, or emphasizing tactics that don’t engage local people and coalitions. While this strategy might yield quick wins, it doesn’t meaningfully tap into the power of local communities. We’ve learned that weaving stronger connections or “braiding strategy” among local, statewide, and national campaigns maximizes power building on every level.
Local campaigns draw people in, provide concrete examples of a problem, and generate excitement when a new approach or policy tool shows promise. Wins in one place can spark campaigns and victories elsewhere, such as when campaigns for higher minimum wages in San Jose and Seattle helped set off a chain reaction that later resulted in $15 minimum wage hikes around the country. Local fights also shift political terrain, paving a path for statewide and national campaigns.
State and national campaigns create conditions that fuel power building and organizing locally, develop leadership, yield regional organizing opportunities, infuse resources into local communities, and strengthen the infrastructure for shared campaigns. Combined, the different strands form a stronger and more sustainable campaign than any individual thread.
Braided strategies have been a key component of our work confronting Amazon and other forms of corporate exploitation. As workers at Amazon warehouses began organizing and speaking out, they drew attention to how the corporation pushed them to work at unsafe speeds and skip bathroom breaks to meet intense productivity quotas. This local organizing shaped the national narrative around Amazon, leading multiple states to pass laws regulating such quotas and to the aforementioned federal investigations into the company’s occupational health and safety crisis.
In turn, these state and national wins have shifted local environments. Emboldened by success, workers at the San Bernardino air hub officially formed the Inland Empire Amazon Workers United (IEAWU), calling out the company’s cruel practices of forcing employees to work in record temperatures. When Amazon retaliated by suspending Sara Fee, one of the group’s leaders, IEAWU rallied the community to stand with her, bringing press attention to this tactic that employers frequently use to crush organizing. As a result, Amazon backed down, and Fee returned to work. Later, she was able to share her experience with members of Congress.
Unfair retaliation against workers like Fee is far too common, and it led us to the next steps. A statewide coalition we cofounded, the California Coalition for Worker Power (CCWP), launched the Our Voice, Our Jobs campaign to fight retaliation against workers. In the 2022 California state budget, CCWP won $71 million for community outreach to help workers understand their legal rights and to bolster funding for the state’s labor agency to investigate retaliation complaints. This year, CCWP won a new law establishing standards to protect workers who speak out about wage theft and pay inequity. This standard says that if an employer retaliates against someone for exercising their rights under the law, the obligation is on the employer to prove the punishment wasn’t related to those actions rather than the employee to prove that it was.
By cracking down on corporate tactics to silence workers, these state-level actions support workers’ freedom to organize—making local conditions more fertile for organizing and winning future fights across the state and beyond.
Lesson #4: Pay attention to power and forge multiracial, feminist spaces
As we’ve said, taking on corporate power requires bigger and more aligned movements. As described above, adopting a “whole person” perspective shows us how to unite diverse demographics against a common enemy. But to effectively sustain such a coalition with differences in resources and perspectives, it’s critical to think about how they will work together.
Over two decades of coalition building, we’ve learned that failing to equitably manage power dynamics and bring forward diverse members’ interests and assets leads to fractured alliances, transactional relationships, ineffective strategy, and short-lived success. To avoid these pitfalls, we’ve adopted a system leadership approach to forging multiracial, feminist coalitions.
This approach helps coalitions consider how to handle disagreements that can tear groups apart, such as around funding or strategy, and adopt processes to manage these concerns, such as agreements around how diverse interests will be made visible or decisions will be made. It emphasizes forming authentic relationships with coalition partners where people can have difficult conversations while grounding groups in shared values. It recognizes leadership in all its forms and the work done behind the scenes by marginalized people that sustain movements.
This political moment calls for organizing power that meets corporate power at scale.This approach has undergirded our work with both Athena and CCWP. As one of the original founding organizations of Athena—which includes groups ranging from Somali immigrants organizing at Amazon warehouses in Minnesota to national legal advocacy organizations—we helped Athena think deliberately about how to bring groups into relationships with each other. The coalition has adopted agreements around transparent and collaborative fundraising and a governance structure that democratizes power among all groups and guards against domination by any single coalition member. At CCWP, we helped develop equity-oriented resource-sharing principles, generative approaches to conflict management, long-term strategy orientation, and much more.
These strong systems and practices have been key to successfully engaging funders and growing the coalition, leading organizations ranging from small worker centers to the SEIU California State Council to commit to the coalition’s objectives.
We Can All Get Free
We share these lessons to help movements and coalitions prevent some of the pitfalls that can keep us underresourced, stuck in silos, or limited by unequal power dynamics. We hope others will benefit from our successes centering whole people, employing braided strategies, and forging multiracial feminist movement spaces to work toward long-term agendas for liberation.
This political moment calls for organizing power that meets corporate power at scale. It is the only way to create an economy and democracy where we hold power so we can all get free.