Day 2 — Regional and State Power-Building

In Pennsylvania, the aftermath of the presidential election has highlighted the deep political divide between urban cities and counties – typically overseen by Democratic mayors and county executives – and the governments of the majority of states – where Republican’s control legislative chambers, governor’s offices or both.  Increasing, the electoral divisions are spilling over into open warfare targeting immigrants, poor people, people of color and the working class.  The issues of affordable housing, immigration, wages and economic growth continue to needs investment in people power organizing strategies to ensure that low-income, working class and communities of color are able to benefit from influx of new development.

In order to build power, Pittsburgh United and their allies are working to build rural organizing infrastructure that connects to their issues with the broader issues of urban cities and rural cities needs.  This form of organizing has the groups working on communications, campaign messaging and leadership development that engages everyday people on real issues of wages, environmental health, housing and a host of other issues.  As these organizations organize in these areas on local campaigns, they hope their strategies and tactics can move the needle of influencing legislators to support state policies.  

Adan Marín, Director of Make the Road PA and State Director of the organization’s (c)(4), Make the Road Action in Pennsylvania, moderated the panel. Adan currently co-chairs Pennsylvania Pride at Work (the AFL-CIO LGBTQA constituency group) and chairs the Pennsylvania Working Families PAC.  We are build committees of people who are willing to working together and connecting food and song.  

“We are described as an immigrant rights organizations”, he said, “but we are immigrants rights organization working on workers' rights issues.”  

Lisa Frank is Vice President for Strategic Campaigns at SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, the state’s largest and fastest growing union of healthcare workers, uniting 45,000 nurses, professional and technical employees, direct care workers, and service employees across the commonwealth.  

“One way to describe this group of older white, far right men have been able to rest power from everyone else at a pretty terrifying scale. Over the last eight years, we have lost a total of 1,000 legislative seats, they have control of 32 legislatures, they achieved of trifecta of right wing power in half of all the states of the country. I think Trump’s election has clarified and created a lot of urgency about the situation and I would argue have been in process for a good two decades. In response as a result of that clarification, we have seen a brilliant eruption of resistance across the country that has really to crystallized a coherent opposition.  I would describe our situation, as a yet relatively incoherent left fighting against a fairly well organized and ascendant right and this why we have worked cut out for us and this is why one of the places of our work really have center in Pennsylvania.”

She spoke of how in Pennsylvania and beyond, we need common narratives that continue to develop deeper trust together. The need for developing a pipeline of running our own candidates was also lifted up. "We need to be nimbler and have made some trust bets on who have an organizational structure that is ready to move and to be engaged with others as they move forward," she said.  

Tony Helfer is the President of UFCW Local 23, a progressive, modern organization of activists affiliated with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. Local 23 represents more than 11,000 workers in western Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia and eastern Ohio. Tony shared the history of Pittsburgh contract agreements with food industry with.

He highlighted in the mid-1970’s when he work for Kroeger that he was making a value today at $16.90 an hour.  Going to full-time in mid-70’s and was paid $24.50 an hour in the late 1970’s. What happened to the living wage opportunities in grocery stores?  In the 1980’s everything changed and the market collapsed and Giant Eagle was the only standing grocery store.  He mentioned partnering with collection action and demanding a prevailing wage and their activities in and to get to scale we need more family sustaining jobs.

Chris Ward is a Community Organizer with Washington County United, a group of people and organizations coming together to fight for justice in working class communities in Washington County. They are working on building infrastructure to provide support to build people power.  One of the main ways they do it is by relating issues they see in their communities like cuts in health care and living wages. They address issues of how race plays a role in society, and work to expand social awareness in rural communities. Racial inequality is more in the cities due to concentrated African American populations, and less of an issue outside of communities.

Rev. Greg Holston, Executive Director of POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower & Rebuild), helped to lead a coalition of faith groups, unions, and social justice activists to raise the living wage to $12 per hour for all Philadelphia contracted and subcontractor workers – in particular, the nearly 4000 workers at the Philadelphia International Airport. Rev. Holston helped lead successful fights to unionize airport workers to pass labor legislation and city-wide sick leave.  Represent about 50,000 individual congregant groups interfaith, multi-racial and multi-ethnic.

His organization also led an education coalition and moved elected officials to invest $400 million of education revenue.  The coalition fought to get an progressive City Attorney to address ending stop and frisk, ending cash bail and mass incarceration issues. He shared that we need for us to be "authentic" with our organizing.

Rev. Holston said, "Don't be involved with something to use my people... Don’t run a campaign that you going to get us all hyped up about how are lives are going to be changed and when the campaign is over, you’re gone and our conditions are still the same... Charity is not enough, we needed justice”.

He spoke of how the challenges his community faces are steep and that within a three zip code radius around his church, fifty percent of people live below the poverty level. Twenty-five percent live in deep poverty making less than $5,500 a year.  

"The issues that are surrounding that community have been there for fifty years. They have been there in the deindustrialization of our nation. They have been there with Republicans and Democrats. They been there when Bill Clinton was there and all eight years of Obama was there," said Rev. Holston. "And when sit there and say Trump is the problem, then they look at you like you are crazy. Life have not changed; it has gotten worse. When you talk about power we are talking about real solutions to transformed five generations that live in poverty. That’s why 45,000 votes that Trump won by, those votes were in mile radius from my church and people did not vote because that didn’t make a difference. Until we begin to root ourselves in community and deep organizing to go deeper and same organizing in those so-called Trump areas”.

"Until we have a real message in areas and going deep into those areas when those people back not for election but for a generation," he said. "Are we willing to invest to do the deep organizing not for every 4 years but from a generations?"