Don’t pull that lever!” Pete Beard

September 13, 2018; Next City

National politics often grabs more attention than local government. Certainly, US voting rates, not exactly high even in presidential elections, are far lower in local elections. An article in City Lab noted that half of the top 30 cities had seen fewer than one-in-five voters go to the polls in mayoral elections. Yet, as Nikki Fortunato Bas writes in Next City, local organizing can build equity and restore “the wealth and resources that have historically been taken from people of color and marginalized communities.”

Bas led the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), an organization that builds labor-community coalitions to advance economic and social justice, in Oakland, California, for eight years (and then spent four years at the helm of a national coalition that includes EBASE), before she stepped down to run for City Council.

Bas adds, “The future I’m working towards is a vibrant democracy where everyone has a real voice, where there’s deep organizing, combined with city leaders who view their roles as being both in service of and accountable to the communities they represent. With those ingredients in place, we can leverage the powers of cities to help us all thrive.”

EBASE forms part of a national network of similar organizations across dozens of cities, known as the Partnership for Working Families. Before leaving the Partnership, Bas coauthored a report titled Unmasking the Hidden Powers of Cities, which details many ways activism can help achieve equity at the local level, with Roxana Tynan of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy and Donald Cohen of In the Public Interest. In particular, this report outlines seven policy levers. These are: 1) direct spending, 2) procurement and contracting, 3) economic development and sectoral strategies, 4) proprietary power (i.e., the city as owner), 5) land use, 6) regulation, and 7) taxation.

As Tynan, Bas, and Cohen explain, local governments—cities, counties, special districts (like transit), and school districts—together spent $1.618 trillion in 2012—one-tenth of our nation’s total economic activity that year. Spending, taxation, and regulation may be the most obvious paths to leveraging those dollars, but they are not the only ones. Some examples are:

  • Procurement and contracting: In Denver, community organizing led to a 20 percent targeted hire agreement along with apprenticeship requirements on a $1-billion highway infrastructure project. In Pittsburgh, a community-led campaign led the city government to mandate a $15-an-hour minimum wage for workers on all city contracts.
  • Economic development and sectoral strategies: In Seattle, community groups in 2016 won 77-percent voter approval to require hotel workers to be covered by health insurance and receive other protections.
  • Local ownership: Nationwide, communities own over 25,000 water systems and more than 4,000 airports, but public agencies also own 127 seaports, 14 stadia, over 300 convention centers, 32 hotels, 460 internet networks, and over 2,000 power companies. Ports and airports alone, the authors note, support 22.9 million jobs nationwide. As owners, localities can impact the wages and working conditions of millions of people. For instance, Philadelphia raised airport worker minimum wages to $12 per hour, which benefitted the local workforce, many of whom were people of color.
  • Land use: Building permits are another area where local government’s role is often under-appreciated. In Los Angeles, for instance, the city on average issues 141,000 building permits a year with an estimated value of $6.8 billion. Here zoning and related mechanisms can support affordable housing. A study last year from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy found that 373 communities implemented such requirements nationally that over time has led to the development of over 173,000 units of affordable housing.

Local economic organizing leads to other achievements as well. For instance, last January, as NPQ covered, the city of Nashville passed a policy that requires firms seeking economic development incentives to “disclose details like how many county residents they’ll hire, the wages they’ll pay and whether they’ve had any safety violations in the past.” But this didn’t just happen, it involved a major community organizing campaign led by Stand Up Nashville. As coalition co-chair Odessa Kelly explains in a case study featured in the report,

When you think of change and tradition in the South, it’s not just about reaching people who are suffering the most; it’s about reaching people like me who are getting by but are unwittingly contributing to things staying the same… We’re helping people develop a habit of really examining those situations and searching for solutions. For people of color, it’s always implied that we are beneficiaries of the system—not that we are the system. And once we shift that perspective, that’s when we start to change things.

—Steve Dubb

Correction: This article has been altered from its original form to indicate that Bas was executive director of EBASE not for 12 years, but for eight and then worked for four years as director of the national coalition (Partnership for Working Families), before stepping down to run for City Council.