ACORN members don’t expect much from the Bush administration, but for an organization that got its start during the Nixon years, and thrived through the Ford, Reagan, and Bush Sr. years, dealing with Republicans is nothing new.
First, let’s not kid ourselves about what the Clinton years meant for organizations like ours. Arguably the most important piece of Clinton-era legislation affecting low-income communities was the Gramm-Leach-Bliley financial modernization bill, which permits monster combinations between banks, Wall Street and the insurance industry and seriously weakens the Community Reinvestment Act. Clinton’s Treasury Secretary (and supposed champion of urban community development) Robert Rubin bludgeoned Democratic members of Congress into supporting this bill – only to then leave the administration and become co-chair of the legislation’s main beneficiary, Citigroup.
Of course, none of this recent history should blind us to the threat posed by Bush and the Republican Congress. Clearly the Bush tax plan is a disaster. And Bush’s early moves against labor (the defeat of the ergonomics rules, along with the promulgation of a series of anti-labor executive orders) demonstrate that this administration is going to aggressively target its enemies. Many of us are on that list, and we should be getting ready.
So how should community organizations proceed in the Bush era? Job one is MORE ORGANIZING. Without a mass membership base, whether in community organizations or, at the workplace, in unions, there is no progressive strategy possible. With members in motion, we can create opportunities for progress. In particular, ACORN is looking at issues that connect the deeply held demands and values of our base with a set of national campaigns that can deliver victories and change the political climate. Some examples:
• Living wage campaigns – over 50 victories so far! – have succeeded in putting the issue of low wage work and income inequality on the national agenda. We are now promoting state living wage campaigns, as well as a federal living wage bill.
• Better schools are at the center of our members’ dreams for the future, and we are moving campaigns aimed at delivering real resources (rather than more testing) to the schools in our neighborhoods.
• Affordable housing fights are springing up in virtually every city where we organize. Many of these campaigns target predatory lenders who are forcing families out of the homes they bought; others seek community reinvestment agreements from ever more concentrated financial institutions; and others start from the crisis of affordability and supply, and move towards demands for inclusionary zoning and housing trust funds. All are rooted in our members’ widespread desire for stable and livable communities.
These are campaigns that can create a majority politics, rooted in our communities but with broad appeal to the electorate. They should be used to push Democrats to ally themselves with progressive forces, drawing a clear distinction between a broad alliance of community organizations, unions, and progressive elected officials and the Republican Congress and administration. Most importantly, we need to use these campaigns to expand the whole base for progressive politics.