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What About Organizing?

A response to Richard Freeman's "Solving the New Inquality," from the December/January 1996-97 issue of Boston Review.
Ernesto Cortes, Jr.

First of all, let me congratulate Richard Freeman on his cogent analysis of the crisis facing our nation, and state my belief that Freeman's thesis is correct: The decline in the average wages of 80 percent of working families and resulting increase in inequality threatens the very foundation of American civil society. Which brings us back to what Freeman correctly identifies as the most fundamental question, "What do we do about it?"

But before we deal with that question, I believe we have to try to understand why there is no outcry about the increase in inequality. The leaders and organizers of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) have been studying the decline in real wages and the increases in inequality for nearly a decade. We know the statistics are true. So why is there no national debate? How is it that we have just completed a presidential election in which there was no credible discussion about the decline in wages?

I have come to the conclusion that at least three factors are at work. First, the devastating changes in the economy of which Freeman so eloquently writes, have occurred relatively slowly over the last two decades. Second, the increases in economic inequality reinforce themselves. By this I mean that as the gap between working families and the politicians and their wealthy patrons continues to increase, the decision-makers become less capable of understanding or even developing an awareness of those most impacted by the economic devastation.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the institutions which would have once brought these families into relationship with one another and developed their capacities to articulate an effective public position reflecting their common interests and concerns have all but disappeared in most communities. The community-based institutions which once would have served as the vehicles for public outcry about declining wages-the congregations, the Settlement Homes, the workers' associations-these institutions have unraveled to the point where they are at best service centers organized to deal with the consequences of declining incomes.

By and large, the research conducted by the leaders of the IAF supports many of the conclusions drawn by Richard Freeman about the inadequacies of the strategies currently being pursued by elected officials. However, we have a small disagreement with his assertion that increased government training programs "cannot make more than a small dent toward reversing the rise of inequality." While it is quite correct that a three- or even six-month training program will not restore a 20 percent downward trend in real earnings, our experiences with long-term job training programs indicate that 18 months to two years of training for mid- to high-skilled positions currently available in the local labor market can go a long way toward improving the economic situation of participants. MIT professor Paul Osterman's study of Project QUEST in San Antonio concludes that not only did participants make considerable economic gains relative to their prior wage and income levels, but that Project QUEST participants increased their wages at a higher rate than the average increase for all employees in Bexar County. Other significant positive outcomes include the opportunity for further education and training through employers, as well as benefits such as health insurance and retirement funds.

In organizing communities around the well-being of families throughout the United States, IAF leaders have reached a number of conclusions that reinforce the proposals outlined in Freeman's five strategies for "raising the bottom and reducing inequality." In particular we believe that redistributing resources to support individuals earlier in their lives is critical to sustaining a civil society in this nation. Our organizations have found that resources invested in public education, after-school programs, preventive health care for children, summer work experiences for adolescents, college scholarships, and similar strategies greatly improve the chances of those children when they become adults. Decades of experience have allowed our organizations to see the adults these children become. These children have become leaders in their community and the leaders of our organizations.

The Alliance Schools Initiative is a relatively recent strategy developed by the leaders of the IAF. As described by professors Frank Levy and Richard Murnane in Teaching the New Basic Skills, this initiative is a strategy for increasing student achievement through the kind of school restructuring that can only be created and sustained through the work of a broad-based collective constituency of parents, teachers, administrators and community leaders. Not only has student achievement increased relative to previous achievement at these schools, but as Levy and Murnane outline in the September 11, 1996 edition of Education Week, the Alliance Schools in Austin increased student achievement and attendance relative to schools of similar socio-economic status which received equal amounts of supplemental resources.

While it may be too broad, our interpretation of this information is that resource transfers-particularly in terms of education-will improve the health of the nation only to the extent that an organized constituency is prepared to operate differently with those extra resources. To put it bluntly, increased resources are necessary, but not sufficient to "raise the bottom and reduce inequality." And I suspect this will hold true for all five of Freeman's proposed strategies.

Which brings me to our only serious concern about Freeman's very thoughtful and eloquent article. In the text, I noted only a very few references to what the IAF believes is the most important strategy of all-the organizing of a broad-based constituency for change. And as our experience has taught us, it is the strategy on which the success of all the other strategies depend. Yet organizing is the strategy that most progressives talk about the least.

Imagine what would happen if, in 75 congressional districts, each candidate attended a meeting with 2,500 to 3,000 organized, registered voters-each of whom was committed to turning out at least ten of their neighbors on election day. What if at those public meetings each candidate was asked to make specific commitments to support an agenda which included several elements of Freeman's strategic approach: a commitment to extended day enrichment programs for all children, universal health care, a family wage, long-term job training, affordable housing-the elements necessary to reduce inequality. Imagine that the agenda had been forged through a year-long process of house meetings, small group meetings in churches and in schools, meetings where people's private pain could be transformed into public action. Imagine the new leadership that would be developed through such a process. Imagine the dignity of working people and their families as they collectively forged a powerful role in the governance of their democracy. This campaign of conversation would have created a broad-based constituency with ownership of the agenda, a constituency committed to doing the public business and follow-up work necessary to hold the candidates accountable for their commitments.

A strategy of voter education, registration, and turn-out would ensure that those candidates who committed would be those who were elected. What would happen if, in 1998, at least 75 members of the House of Representatives arrived in Washington with specific mandates from their well-organized constituency to reduce the consequences of inequality and declining wages? And what if it were 150 in the year 2000, plus a number of strategically important senators? What would happen if those elected officials had direct experience with an organized group of collective, genuine grassroots leaders in their communities?

I hope that progressives in the academic community will begin to recognize and appreciate the need for broad-based institutional organizing to create the political constituency necessary to carry Richard Freeman's strategies forward. In fact, this is what the IAF organizations are working to create in over 40 communities around the nation. Franklin D. Roosevelt is reported to have said about the need for a specific policy initiative, "Okay, you've convinced me. Now go out there and organize and create a constituency to make me do it." I fear that too many progressives are still caught up in the "convincing," when what we need now is the constituency-and people who are willing to think hard about how to create, sustain, and energize that constituency.



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