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How To Build a People’s Movement

Now’s the time to challenge economic orthodoxy—but only a massive social movement can turn things around.
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Face in protest photo by Elvert Barnes

Photo by Elvert Barnes.

The United States is entering the fourth year of its deepest downturn since the Great Depression. The official unemployment rate is rising again, and labor force participation among many groups has plummeted to historic lows. A stillborn economic “recovery” has distributed 88 percent of its benefits to corporate profits and one percent to wages and salaries. The financial press is full of warnings that we have forgotten the causes of the collapse and are doomed to repeat it. Ordinary Americans, pollsters tell us, have little faith that the economy will improve, and attribute hard times to the misdeeds of capitalists.

If ever there was a time to challenge economic orthodoxy, this would be it. Yet there has been no effective movement in the United States to ease the suffering of millions, shift patterns of growth and investment, and make job creation a priority. Handed opportunity on a silver platter, progressives have failed to seize it. Understanding that failure is the key to reversing it.

Why no jobs movement?

The most immediate explanation is that there has been no mass protest by the jobless. Since the beginning of the recession, none of the pillars of the progressive community—organized labor, community organizations, civil rights groups, youth and student groups—have invested deeply in organizing the unemployed. Some online jobless networks have emerged, particularly around the extension of unemployment benefits, but they’ve acquired little focus, mass, or momentum.

Three decades of conservative politics have legitimated a radically individualistic ethos and eroded the once widespread belief that unemployment is a collective problem that society is responsible for fixing.

To be fair, the challenges of organizing the jobless are formidable. In contrast to past recessions, today’s unemployed are widely dispersed rather than concentrated in particular industries, constituencies, or communities. They often hold themselves responsible for their condition and feel a strong sense of shame and powerlessness. Three decades of conservative politics have legitimated a radically individualistic ethos and eroded the once widespread belief that unemployment is a collective problem that society is responsible for fixing.

Moreover, the solutions to large-scale unemployment aren’t obvious. There is no shortage of thoughtful and creative ideas for job creation: infrastructure banks, work-sharing, community jobs, “on-bill” financing of energy projects, worker-owned businesses, lowering (not raising) the normal retirement age. But none of these has captured the imagination of progressives, much less the public at large. Without a compelling solution to point to, it is difficult to sustain protest.

Behind this policy conundrum is a more fundamental political obstacle. Progressives generally assume that public concern about unemployment translates into support for aggressive government intervention. But the majority of Americans believe that only business –not the public sector – can create “real” jobs. A fundamental skepticism about government has led many to conclude that cutting public spending is the best way to create jobs, or to accept high unemployment as “the new normal.” Winning policy change in this climate requires more than good ideas; it requires mass political education.

Without the reality of people in motion, it is hard to generate a sense of hope and potential for collective action.

All of these problems are mutually reinforcing.  In the absence of a mass movement, ideas for change have little weight. In the absence of strong, compelling ideas, people lack the confidence to challenge ideological orthodoxy. Without the reality of people in motion, it is hard to generate a sense of hope and potential for collective action.

In sum, progressive efforts to promote job creation face a classic threshold problem. Incremental strategies—whether in the form of policy analysis, public education, community organizing, or local economic development projects—have a hard time getting lift off. The issue is simply too big, too baked into our economic and political structure. Only something on the order of a social movement can achieve the scale and intensity required to shake up the status quo and create space for a serious effort at job creation.

Pre-conditions 

Social movements, by nature, cannot be programmed, but neither are they entirely spontaneous. As the right has demonstrated in recent years, certain activities and investments can foster the conditions from which movements emerge. These activities include:  

Relentless outreach and recruitment: The current base of progressive activists is simply not large enough or broad enough to support an effective movement for jobs. We need to bring in lots of new people—hundreds of thousands if not millions—who are jobless themselves or passionately concerned about the impact of unemployment on their communities.

Americans have an intense hunger for authentic conversation about what is happening to their country, and a strong desire to work with others in their community to create jobs and renew the economy.

Creating space for authentic conversations: Movement-building requires opportunities for people to make sense of their personal experience, in reflection and conversation with others.  Some of this must be in person, in small groups that offer diverse perspectives with sufficient intimacy to build trust. Online and social media are great tools for exchange of ideas and mobilization of people, but they do not substitute for face-to-face conversation.

Identifying and nurturing grassroots leadership: Social movements rely on a deep stratum of leaders with the capacity for autonomous action and close alignment on values, principles, and goals. These leaders often seem to appear out of nowhere, but they are usually the product of an active cultivation process that includes information, training, and political education.  Like authentic conversations, leadership can be facilitated through online tools but almost always requires some “face time” and one-on-one relationships to thrive.

Developing a clear story: Ask a progressive why so many Americans are unemployed, and the answers one might get include Wall Street, free trade, corporate criminality, lack of public investment, structural inequality, bad schools, a flawed growth model, and much more. There is truth to all of these explanations, but they don’t add up to a cogent story. Creating a coherent economic narrative means choosing some elements to highlight and subordinating others. The same goes for policy solutions—if the list is too long, no one will remember it, much less fight for it.

Building strategic alliances: Movement-building is not well served by a progressive ecosystem dominated by short-term, transactional relationships. Even when progressive organizations play well together at the tactical level there is too little strategic coordination to take on really big, ambitious projects—like full employment. We need to create deep institutional partnerships that build on the complementary strengths of organizations and focus talent and resources on the hardest challenges.

Putting it into practice

These are the guiding aims of a new project on jobs and the economy by the Center for Community Change and its affiliate, Change Nation. Through conscious experimentation, we seek to build a robust network of community-led “action pods” that can simultaneously pursue local job creation strategies and unite around a common national agenda.

59TOC Van JonesWant Jobs? Reclaim the Dream
Van Jones is leading a national mobilization to rebuild the middle class—through decent work, fair taxes, and opportunities for all.

At present, for example, we are using a movement-building model originally developed by the National Organizing Institute to train thousands of grassroots leaders in how to connect their own personal story to a broader economic narrative. We are collaborating with Van Jones and a host of national groups to develop a working message on the economy and a short list of demands for change. And in partnership with MoveOn.org and other groups, we conducted more than 1,000 house meetings on July 16-17 where Americans could meet with their neighbors to make sense of their experience with the economy.

It is too early to predict what will come of these experiments. What we have learned for certain is that Americans have an intense hunger for authentic conversation about what is happening to their country, and a strong desire to work with others in their community to create jobs and renew the economy.

Portia Bougler was amazed when 21 neighbors—ranging from age 16 to 85—showed up at her house meeting in Chillicothe, Ohio. “We had to keep grabbing chairs, but I was thrilled by what people said, their passion and commitment for change. Everyone signed up to volunteer.” Similar reports came from meetings in living rooms, urban cafes, suburban diners, homeless shelters, and hundreds of other venues across the country. If this energy can be captured and sustained, we can create a national jobs movement, a movement of scale with soul.    


Seth Borgos wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Seth is director of research and program development at the Center for Community Change. He has also worked for the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support, an alliance of more than 100 grassroots organizations, the Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program, and ACORN. He is the co-author of This Mighty Dream, a pictorial history of social change movements in the United States.

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