This special series of articles in The Forge and The American Prospect examines the role of public policy and rules changes in spurring organizing. The series was inspired by a Yale Law Journal article by Ben Sachs and Kate Andrias proposing that organizers push for legislation granting collective-bargaining rights to tenants, debtors, welfare recipients, and other groups of poor and working-class people—facilitating the development of durable institutions that can act as countervailing powers against the power of organized capital.
We agree that organizers should use every available mechanism to help us grow our power and that power-building policies like the ones proposed can act as important catalysts for organizational growth. We know that policies like these can be effective because we’ve seen them work—with the National Labor Relations Act, which helped organize millions of new workers into unions, and the Community Reinvestment Act, which gave organizers the leverage to win hundreds of billions of dollars of investments in their communities and organizations.
To rebuild our democracy, we need to win more legislation that redistributes power to poor and working people—and creates new handles for organizing and building member organizations.
As we kick off new fights to win structural reforms that spur organizing, there are a couple of things we should keep in mind. First, we cannot expect any rules change—no matter how well crafted—to do the hard work of building power in our communities. Any power-building legislation must be developed and fought for by a base of working people—not separate from them. The best laws in the world won’t work if there are not organizers and members ready to actualize them. As a field, that means investing in developing new organizers (both staff and volunteer) and training existing organizers to do the critical work of deep listening, centering members, and developing leaders.
Second, when we win power-building legislation, we must guard against the tendency within each of us and our organizations to protect what we have rather than continuing to advance and contend for power. Any legislation, no matter how good, will be a compromise measure that will not achieve nor permit all that it should. We should use that legislation to our advantage—expanding our base and changing people’s economic conditions within the bounds of the law—but we must also actively fight to expand the terrain of struggle.
One major benefit of passing legislation to support organizing is that it can help to develop enduring institutions of poor and working-class people. Institutions are necessary and important; they are the means by which we can hold power. But within institutions, we can also become complacent, defending whatever concessions we win rather than continuing to push for more.
Rules changes are most effective when our base is actively engaged in the struggle to win them—and when they help us win more things for our communities.
When we don’t continue to advance and demand more, we open ourselves up to attacks on what was already a compromise measure. To truly grow our power over the long haul, we must make plans to avoid complacency, defend against attacks, and pivot to the next fight that will help us win greater, more durable, and more transformative change. Otherwise, we risk finding ourselves stuck inside institutions without the nimbleness to respond to an evolving political moment.
Using Policy to Reorganize Power
Over the past couple of decades, we have seen our movements get sharper about using structural reforms to build power—something that the right has long mastered. Campaigns focused on voting rights and democracy, Medicare for All, and the Green New Deal all put structural change at the center, organizing members beyond a short-term win and toward the broader reorganization of power in our society. Organizations like Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and Appalachian Voices have effectively used existing structures like rural electric co-ops to develop the leadership and organization of people in rural communities. And many community organizations have used federal COVID relief to employ their members to do vaccine outreach.
The two examples from history that stand out as among the most effective in spurring organizing among poor and working-class people are the National Labor Relations Act and the Community Reinvestment Act. Passed in 1935, the NLRA granted most private-sector workers the right to collectively bargain in their workplace without fear of reprisal. In the following years, new formations like the Congress of Industrial Organizations launched massive organizing programs across the industrial sector—bringing millions of workers into the middle class and helping to spur decades of economic stability for many.
The NLRA facilitated a rapid expansion of the labor movement. But the legislation was, in many ways, a compromise measure aimed at winning labor peace amidst mass disruption. And it had profound limits, among them its de facto exclusion of many Black, brown, and women workers. After the legislation passed, labor needed a plan to expand beyond it and continue growing working-class power. But many unions accepted the limitations of the NLRA and its amending laws, building out a sector around the legislation even as the right successfully narrowed its power. The lesson for organizers today is that if we do not continue to advance after we pass significant legislation, we are retreating—and ceding critical ground to the right.
The 1977 Community Reinvestment Act is another example of a powerful organizing handle. Community organizers across the country—led by National People’s Action, where one of us, George Goehl, later served as executive director—pushed for the law, which made redlining illegal. Importantly, the CRA gave community groups the ability to enforce it by filing complaints or comments with federal regulators, which could lower a bank’s credit rating or hinder its ability to undergo mergers or acquisitions.
The law gave organizers leverage to force banks to open new lines of credit in Black and brown communities, leading to hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in neighborhoods that would not have gotten it otherwise. As a result of the CRA, Archon Fung writes, “banks now often engage in discussions and negotiations with community organizations, so that they can address their concerns and thus avoid escalation to an official regulatory level.”
The CRA gave organizers new leverage from which to build a base, develop leaders, deliver real wins, and grow organizations. As Steve Kest, the former national executive director of ACORN, explains in another piece in this series, “CRA did not generate automatic empowerment. You still need organizers to connect that virtuous circle. There was nothing inherent in the law that built organization for you. But, in giving organizations power and then providing a vehicle to generate benefits that went back to the members of that organization, it created a very clear material incentive for people to join the organization.”
But as with the NLRA, a new sector of community development organizations and CRA advocacy organizations emerged around the CRA that became less confrontational and more prone to protect the status quo over time. The CRA also didn’t challenge the power of banks more broadly. This is not surprising given the broader political context. With neoliberalism on the rise, it was hard to imagine enacting transformative economic change. But as a result, when an opening did arise—during the financial crisis in 2008—we didn’t have a base of people organized around big structural ideas to transform the economy and we failed to take advantage of what could have been a significant political opening.
As we map out the next set of rules changes that can help us consolidate power, we must also get more aggressive in plotting our next moves—anticipating both the backlash from the right and the potential for the calcification of our own organizing. Otherwise, we risk ending up in a defensive posture, fighting to maintain compromise measures rather than continuing to grow our vision and our power.
The right is far better at playing offense. One of the most fatal mistakes our movement made was not taking the Hyde Amendment seriously. The amendment, which bars federal funds for abortion, stripped reproductive rights from poor women—and our failure to respond emboldened the right to continue chipping away at the right for everyone else.
Rather than finding ourselves in the position of defending increasingly shrinking ground, we must fight, consolidate our power, and then innovate and fight again.
There’s No Substitute for Good Organizing
Both the NLRA and the CRA are vital organizing handles that have led to real material wins for working people and helped to develop powerful member organizations. We need many more laws like these if we are to win durable political power and build multiracial democracy. But the best structural reforms in the world won’t matter without good organizing.
Sometimes, we worry that our field has gotten too self-absorbed about how to make change. It’s important to be smart and strategic—and good policies can both make our organizing easier and help us build power in the long run. But the truth is, people join organizations for simple reasons: They want to feel good, they want to be a part of something, and they want to have a sense of purpose.
Our field has exploded over the past five years. Today, more people than ever have the title of organizer, but most have not received the training they want and need. They have not been coached in the basics of listening, identifying and cutting an issue, crafting a campaign, or developing a power analysis. This is a huge challenge for our field, and it’s not one that rules changes can fix.
When we knock on someone’s door, people aren’t moved by the legal process; they’re moved by our vision and our plan to win. They stay in the fight because of the community they build, and the joy and power and purpose they feel. They stay because they’re able to win things for themselves and their communities—and because they believe that, together, we can win more.
In fact, rules changes are most effective when our base is actively engaged in the struggle to win them—and when they help us win more things for our communities. Material wins build members’ and organizers’ sense of possibility and power, something that we all desperately need right now. Our movements are at war with defeatism and cynicism, and we need to be winning if we want to build a working class with the collective self-confidence to fight for more transformative wins. But these wins need to come from and through the base; staff-driven work is, in our experience, far less effective at building and solidifying power.
So, yes, let’s get creative and ambitious in our approach to public policy—pursuing new legislation and rules changes that win things that improve people’s lives, reorganize power, and spur more engagement in public life, including through organizing. We will need to do all this and more to stem the tide of authoritarianism and build multiracial democracy.
But let’s also get real about what it will take to build fighting organizations that are capable of advancing transformative change for poor and working people; make sure power shifts in rules are connected to an existing base; and guard against a new segment of the establishment being created around these reforms. We can be inspired by past structural reforms—and learn from what worked and what didn’t.
This article is part of Countervailing Power, a joint series by The American Prospect and The Forge: Organizing Strategy and Practice that explores the ways organizers can use public policy to build mass membership organizations to countervail oligarchic power. The series was developed in collaboration with the Working Families Party, the Action Lab, and Social and Economic Justice Leaders.
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