October 21, 2020

Strike Watch: Solidago Foundation's Rebecca Greenberg on Funding Democracy Defense from Georgia to Arizona

Strike Watch brings you original content from FJE on urgent economic justice issues and the latest developments in grassroots efforts to build worker power - and where funders can partner and are taking action. This week, we bring you an in-depth interview with Rebecca Greenberg of the Solidago Foundation, who shares how and why the foundation has gone all-in on shoring up grassroots movements in four US states at the front-line of electoral defense. The Black and brown-led organizations Solidago partners with build power for low-income communities to advance a just economy and progressive co-governance; they see electoral defense pre- and post-election as inseparable from this mission. We are grateful for Rebecca taking time to share learning on the critical ways electoral defense work is having an impact and will be crucial for what comes next in Georgia, Arizona, Minnesota and North Carolina - and for honing in on key practices for funders supporting such movements!

Can you share a bit about where and how Solidago is focusing when it comes to election defense, protection and post-election support, and what you’re hearing from the ground?

Given that it's the biggest election of our lifetimes, we have focused our 2020 grantmaking in four core states: Arizona, Georgia, Minnesota and North Carolina. In terms of what we’ve been seeing, I would say top lines are voter suppression. This isn’t new in any of the places where we've been and with the groups that we're talking to. They're kind of like, “Welcome to our world, welcome to our lives, welcome to what has always been true.”

COVID-19 has completely shifted the terrain in every way. Leaders, organizers and communities on the ground have ramped up and pivoted to phone, text, and digital and online strategies, and the groups are able to organize and connect with folks as it relates to their Get Out the Vote (GOTV) work, as well as how as it links to mutual aid networks and rapid response. Many plans for this shift and expansion in GOTV have been in the works already as part of the way organizations are deeply connected and responsive to community needs.

"There is persistently a high level of calculated state-sanctioned repression that is overtly racialized across all of our core states - and beyond. Just because none of this is a surprise to groups doesn't make it less challenging to overcome and to combat."

What folks are facing in terms of voter suppression is multi-faceted: safe in-person voting and worries about mail and all of the misinformation and disinformation floating out in the cyber space. Organizations are physically helping people get to voting places safely with physical distancing and other barriers. There's an interesting difference in mobilizing in states where there's already a culture of vote by mail - like Arizona where roughly 70% of voters vote by absentee ballot – versus North Carolina where less than four percent of voters participated in voting from home in the last election. In different places there is also risk of violence - real threats that have already surfaced in all four of our core states (AZ, GA, MN and NC). In North Carolina for example, during the primaries in February, white militias and white supremacist groups showed up armed in the back of trucks or cars, with guns out, at the freeways where folks were getting off to go to their polling places. This has happened even prior to this cycle in the eastern part of the state, where over 20% of the state’s Black community population lives. Along with armed violence there’s the weaponizing of COVID-19, where states are creating their policy around and practices around election administration to repress votes, like the limiting of ballot boxes. Particularly egregious in Georgia, this includes actual in-person voter intimidation tactics by refusing to wear masks or passing local policies, ordinances or rules making it not legal to wear a mask at an in-person polling place. Outside of polling places, there are hostile forces taking masks off and coughing on folks waiting in line - a fear and intimidation tactic particularly directed at people of color and Black voters disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. It is very intentional, very calculated and perverse.

Georgia definitely received a lot of attention after the Abrams campaign in 2018, and there is persistently a high level of calculated state-sanctioned repression that is overtly racialized across all of our core states - and beyond. Just because none of this is a surprise to groups doesn't make it less challenging to overcome and to combat. The repression of elections is methodical, and there's political will and buy-in at the state and now national level for the system to function in this way.

How did Solidago – a long time supporter of economic justice and worker movements – decide to jump into election defense, and how have you extended support?

The foundation has been in a period of transition over the last year. At the beginning of 2020 the Board decided that the foundation was going to return to its original trajectory, to spend all the assets of the foundation down and to sunset by 2022-2023. Our Board prioritized the election. This is not changing our theory of change and the way that we have been committed to supporting base-building community rooted groups, organizing, mobilizing, working with and for communities of color low-income communities of color. Now, this year, we are supporting those groups in their work around this election. The geographies where we focused after a lot of analysis are swing states where are there contested elections up and down the ballot, where there is a progressive ecosystem of movement of independent political organizations and power-building groups, and where there is an opportunity for us to come in to support with flexible resources. In the Spring we did a docket that was very focused on GOTV on the [501](c)(3) side -  non-partisan and supporting long-term power building organizations doing that work. Our (c)(4) sister foundation supported related organizations in long-term power building groups working more explicitly on the political and electoral organizing side, in relationship with their non-partisan integrated voter engagement work.

Election protection surfaced as a key need, and the questions we asked ourselves were: Is this a body of work that exists separate and apart from the other core work of base-building and independent political power? The answer is no - it is baked into the work because it is so steeped in the systems that folks are dealing with, practices and policies so extremely and unabashedly racialized and directed at Black and brown communities, including citizen militias, white supremacists and white nationalists. In some case there might be a specific plan or body work with national networks guiding and helping state-based groups in election defense, but it’s part and parcel of what movement organizations do over the long-term.

And it shows up differently across our focus states: In Arizona, several amazing Latinx movement leaders grew up organizing in response to fighting for their lives while living in the SB 1070 days under Arpaio, and now - together with a multi-racial coalition of movement allies - are leading the work in the state. That has shaped an amazing set of groups where there's already a culture of vote-by-mail, but where there are still many challenges and systemic roadblocks for communities of color, Black and Native communities to access the ballot. In particular, Native American communities have been deeply impacted by COVID-19, but there is movement energy around supporting and connecting their organizing in this process. In Arizona, we have been supporting the coalitions and voter engagement tables, which hasn’t historically been Solidago's approach. In some states, groups have told us that for Election Protection work, it is helpful to support the tables as that’s where this work lives. Still, we tend to think that if we have the flexibility and ability, we should support the scrappy groups on the ground without intermediaries. At least in some of these places, when it comes to election protection, groups have affirmed that they are in relationship and alignment through the tables. Our strategy is to resource the groups directly and also support this shared infrastructure.

Solidago is unique in many ways in its extensive support for 501(c)(4) organizations. What ways are you funding these groups, and do you think that it’s important for economic and social justice funders to consider resourcing this part of movements?

For a lot of the organizations we've been in relationship with over the years, we helped support getting their (c)(4) up. These are now off and running; our work has been to both support lobbying dollars on the (c)(4) side and unrestricted dollars in alignment with the work on the (c)(3) side. “Election Protection” is typically more thought of as the (c)(3) kind of universe where it's non-partisan, so it was interesting to hear from groups in the (c)(4) spaces that they need support here too. (c)(4) work is more than just persuasion. In this space, non-partisan voter engagement work includes know-your-rights on how to access the ballot and equipping the volunteers and staff, at every level of the organization, with the ability to actually engage with the community to answer questions about how voting affects someone’s life right now.

Being able to provide support for language access came up in some of the (c)(4) groups in Georgia, for example with the AAPI population heavily concentrated and growing in the greater Atlanta area. As with many other states, Georgia is not providing adequate language access in vote-by-mail materials, so (c)(4) dollars can be used to provide translation for persuasive information accessible to groups of voters who otherwise do not have access. Where in-person contact is limited because of COVID-19 digital and print materials in appropriate languages are able to reach more people, more quickly.

When we are looking at the likelihood of a contested election and what's going to happen in the days, weeks and months following November 3rd, we want to be able to resource groups’ tool belts, which they have created and built over time. We want to ensure that at any given moment they're able to do a mass mobilization in coordination with others in their town, in the city and at the state level; to lobby with their elected officials; to participate in strategic litigation efforts; to fight and advocate for policy change. All those different tactics at their disposal also advance economic justice.

Can you share some of the ways you’re seeing the connection on the ground between the pre- and post-elections organizing happening, and the work for economic justice?

We can’t lose sight that this election is about more than the president. There are key races up and down the ballot in a lot of different places, and for many state-based groups it is but one more step towards progressive governance. In these final weeks it's all hands on deck to get as many people out to vote as possible, and the groups we work with are also continuing to build plans and prepare for what's going to happen when redistricting starts in January or in places where the state or local level dynamics and politics might present opportunities for passing some progressive legislation.

"As folks organize, it’s clear how in critical elections at every level, economic justice is at stake. For instance...Georgia 9 to 5, in partnership with other groups like Black Voters Matter, is challenging devastating real life implications of what happens when the public utilities are controlled by conservative forces."

I was particularly excited about the foundation agreeing to prioritize Georgia as one of the four states this year. Historically we have funded in some Southern states – in Texas, Florida and Virginia – but like a lot of institutions have not moved many resources in the deep South. It’s a good chance to be able to demystify what I hear a lot in philanthropy or in certain spaces – which is, “There’s a lot possibility and opportunity in the region but we don't really know how we can fund there - is there is the infrastructure there for us to be able to support.” The answer is, of course, the infrastructure is there and might look different; groups might call themselves something different than what you might be used to.  Relationships are incredibly important and organizations in the South have been building for a long time, with few resources. This is true of the grassroots worker center model and even some of the larger statewide organizations, who contend with the fact power and money is very concentrated in the metro Atlanta area. We’ve encouraged our board really support Black women’s leadership in this progressive ecosystem, leading statewide work and focusing on areas like coastal andsouthwestern GA. These organizations are targeting a smaller set of counties for particular state legislative races to shift power on the state level and chip away at exclusionary, destructive policies – with the last two years particularly terrible under Governor Kemp.

I want to also recognize that in Georgia in particular, we were introduced to a lot of this work by partners in philanthropy - so this isn't some like discovery that we made by any stretch of the imagination. We were lucky to be invited to a site visit organized by Jillian Murphy with the Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund back in February and Melanie Allen who's now co-directing the Hive Fund for Gender and Climate. Both Jillian and Melanie, together with other colleagues, have been instrumental in helping us shape our understanding of the state.

As folks organize, it’s clear how in critical elections at every level, economic justice is at stake: For instance, In Georgia, economic justice groups, primarily Georgia 9 to 5, in partnership with other groups like Black Voters Matter, is challenging devastating real life implications of what happens when the public utilities are controlled by conservative forces (in GA, by the Public Service Commission, an elected body that gets little attention on the ballot). The fact Georgia is right to work state, the fact unemployment is skyrocketing and the minimum wage is already an unconscionable $5.15 per hour - all these forces are working against folks.  Our partners and Georgia 9 to 5 have shared devastating stories of community members in Southwest Georgia attempting to take their own life after trying to unsuccessfully resolve having their lights cut off and the ways their members are under stress and at risk. These stories get lost in the focus on the national elections, and yet they can also be shifted with building power locally.

What have you learned and honed in terms of funding practices from this last year of funding election defense – and where you think philanthropy can take action in this urgent moment?

As we have continued to move general operating support to groups organizing year-round via multi-issue, multi-racial organizing groups, we are also preparing emergency grants – a rapid response for after election day. We’re finalizing what that looks like and if we’ll just focus on the four states we are in currently, but Solidago not going to be requiring proposals from folks. Our goal is to respond - quickly - anticipating what might be a long road to deciding the election.

I think there are needs that groups have that might not seem like conventional power-building towards a strategic agenda, but that is crucial to support in this moment - folks are going to need PPE for their members to be able to vote and for people recruited to be poll workers or to help monitor counting of ballots. In some states like North Carolina there are longer cure periods than in Georgia for mistakes on your mail-in ballot, and groups may be involved with that process. This requires short-term sustained responsive support. The best bet is to keep offering flexible general operating support - it doesn't have to be a large grant. For us, we don’t move the same resource as larger national foundations, and can’t by definition offer longer-term funding as we plan to sunset, but we seek to make up with that in being flexible and fearless. The point is, at this moment, the funding does not have to be a huge, it just needs to be responsive:  what do groups really need to be able to provide the level of PPE, water, food, entertainment for people coming to vote, and how can we protect folks at the polls and after? How can we support the work folks will be doing to keep community mobilized, motivated and energized right after the election?

"Crucial healing work and supportive work is needed - it doesn't have to be conventional GOTV. And the good news is, it’s never too late to support: if you're not going to be a transactional political donor or a transactional anything donor then it's never too late."

People running organizations, volunteering and surviving in this insane time are tired, and as we talk about voter suppression or election protection, we have to uplift people being targeted -   Black, brown and low-income communities. No one has been given a reason to believe that any of their participation in this process matters, except for how groups and communities on the frontlines are asserting a voice for themselves through all of the amazing work in community and on the ground. That kind of inspiration is crucial and it’s really important and so keeping people sustained, motivated, and healthy who do this work day in and day out. That can't be undervalued. Crucial healing work and supportive work is needed - it doesn't have to be conventional GOTV. And the good news is, it’s never too late to support: if you're not going to be a transactional political donor or a transactional anything donor then it's never too late. Just ask the groups what they need and they'll tell you; build that relationship, now.

In the foundation world, we might just be paying attention now because we finally feel like we have something to lose. But folks on the ground have been experiencing this for much longer. We need to trust their decisions and that theirs is the strategy that's going to be deployed now. They have the plans, tactics, ability to mass mobilize, or sue the government. They have ideas on power building beyond the election. We have to respond in this moment by continuing to support groups to build and be ready to move their agendas across so many levels, and in ways that allow them to protect people and protect opportunities for economic justice.

October 14, 2020

Surdna Foundation Stepping Up for Racial Justice

Don Chen, President of Surdna Foundation, announces the foundation's plans to increase its grantmaking by $36 million to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color leaders, organizations, and networks most affected by systemic racism. This post was originally published here on the foundation's website.

Don was part of the 2019-2020 Philanthropy Forward: Leadership for Change Fellowship cohort, a joint initiative of Neighborhood Funders Group and The Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions. Surdna Foundation, a member of NFG, seeks to foster sustainable communities in the United States guided by principles of social justice and distinguished by healthy environments, strong local economies, and thriving cultures.


Across the U.S., millions have stepped up in support of Black lives and against systemic anti-Black racism. Today, I want to tell you how the Surdna Foundation is stepping up, too.

Meeting the Moment

Racial and social justice has long been at the heart of every grant we make. But the pandemic, economic crisis, and our nation’s long-needed reckoning with racial injustices call upon all of us to do more and to do better.

In response, Surdna is increasing its grantmaking for racial justice by approximately $36 million over the next three years. These new funds will intensify our support for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color leaders, organizations, and networks most affected by systemic racism.

Our goal is to give our grantee partners breathing room to respond to today’s urgent needs and to sustain their work toward addressing deep, structural anti-Black racism to realize just and sustainable communities in which everyone can thrive.

Combined with our annual grantmaking of roughly $41.5 million per year, this increased spending will bring Surdna’s total financial commitment to racial justice to approximately $160 million between now and the end of 2023.

How Will the Funds be Granted?

As a longtime funder of racial and social justice, Surdna will initially use additional grant dollars to support existing grantee partners, including:

  • Artists and arts organizations that are particularly threatened by revenue losses during the pandemic and those working with their communities to imagine and prototype a more racially just future.
  • Grassroot organizations and networks working at the intersection of racial, economic, and climate justice.
  • Businesses and entrepreneurs of color in need of access to capital and a runway to imagine, innovate, and generate wealth in their communities.
  • Efforts to abolish youth prisons and foster safe communities.
  • Program- and mission-related investments that extend the impact of the Foundation beyond grantmaking.

Our Inclusive EconomiesSustainable Environments, and Thriving Cultures program teams, alongside our Impact Investing staff and the Andrus Family Fund, will work within their existing strategies to make investments that support previously identified ideas developed with grantees and partners. Opportunities for new grants and grantee partners will be developed at a later date.

Each year, we will determine the exact amount of increased spending, estimated to total $36 million over three years, by an annual valuation of our endowment on December 31st. In keeping with trust-based philanthropic practices, we will listen to our grantee partners’ needs and award multiyear, core support grants whenever appropriate.

Fulfilling Our Mission

As an institution working to foster just and sustainable communities, we know that thriving cultures, inclusive economies, and sustainable environments simply are not possible without directly addressing structural racism. Sustainable communities must include access to fair opportunities and the processes that shape our lives and communities.

For over five generations, Surdna has been governed largely by descendants of John E. Andrus, who founded the foundation in 1917. As Peter B. Benedict II, Surdna’s board chair and fifth-generation family member said, “Not only is stepping up our funding at this moment the right thing to do, but it also underscores the importance of our social justice mission.”

On a practical level, we fulfill our racial and social justice mission in three ways: 1) programmatic grantmaking, 2) offering support to grantees beyond the grant money, and 3) program- and mission-related investments, including leveraging our $1 billion endowment to influence other investors to do impact investing that will result in more just, sustainable markets and outcomes. We intentionally invest in communities of color, supporting those that have historically been underfunded, and make impact investments that are not only profitable but good for people and the planet.

Centering Our Grantee Partners

For years, the Surdna Foundation has supported solutions to dismantling the policies, behaviors, and cultural drivers that have produced racial injustices over generations. The greatest reward of my job is seeing the transformative work of our grantee partners. Here are just a few examples of initiatives we’ve had the privilege to support this year:

Imagining a More Racially Just Future

Artists can help us radically imagine and build a more just future in which we all can thrive. Take, for example, Designing Justice+Designing Spaces (DJDS), a nonprofit real estate and architecture firm with a mission to end mass incarceration and structural inequality. At the heart of its work is the question: What would a world without prisons look like? DJDS works with communities and those in the criminal justice system to imagine and design healing alternatives to prisons like the new Center for Equity in Atlanta.

The NDN Collective is an Indigenous-led organization dedicated to building Indigenous power. Through its Radical Imagination grant program, it will fund six Indigenous artists/culture bearers to imagine, design, and create projects that propose solutions to our most intractable societal problems. NDN Collective is one of our Thriving Cultures program’s 11 re-granting partners supporting artists of color to advance racial justice within their local communities.

Caring for the Land and One Another

Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities are disproportionately impacted by environmental and climate inequity—such as flooding, land loss, and environmental toxins—and have the experience, expertise, and powerful solutions to resolve these inequities. To realize healthier, more equitable outcomes, our Sustainable Environments grantee partners seek to increase the capacity of communities of color to self-determine the ownership, control, and stewardship of land and infrastructure assets.

The National Black Food and Justice Alliance (NBFJA) promotes Black food and land, by increasing the visibility of Black leadership, and building power in our food systems and land stewardship. NBFJA has facilitated seed grants to BIPOC members across the country for food security, community wellness, and cooperation.

The Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) is an alliance of grassroots Indigenous peoples whose mission it is to protect the sacredness of Mother Earth from contamination and exploitation by strengthening, maintaining, and respecting Indigenous teachings and natural laws. In response to the pandemic, IEN has been resourcing frontline community-based mutual aid organizations and providing immediate relief to small business owners in need. IEN’s extensive grassroots network of Indigenous peoples has connected community members with basic needs like food and water, healthcare, and preventive measures, and through their PPE partnership has distributed over 190,000 masks to the hardest-hit areas of Indian Country.

Creating Inclusive Economies

People should have power, choice, and ownership over the economy no matter their race or ethnicity. Yet, the Black and white wealth divide is as wide today as it was in 1968. Our Inclusive Economies grantee partners are working to close the gap.

One Fair Wage is a national coalition, campaign, and organization seeking to lift millions of tipped and subminimum wage workers nationally out of poverty by requiring all employers to pay the full minimum wage with fair, nondiscriminatory tips on top. As restaurants and other establishments close nationwide due to the pandemic, One Fair Wage launched an Emergency Relief Fund to provide assistance to restaurant workers, delivery drivers, and other tipped workers and service workers who are bearing the economic brunt of this crisis. Its members are also mobilizing voters to make a fair minimum wage a reality across the country.

Common Future is a network of leaders seeking to shift capital into historically marginalized communities, uplift local leaders, and accelerate equitable economies. From bridging the wealth gap for Black entrepreneurs to ensuring communities have a final say over the development that impacts their neighborhoods, Common Future’s leaders shed light on how to rebuild economies that work for everyone.

Investing for Impact

Investing in entrepreneurs of color is one of the most effective ways to drive job and wealth creation and address long-standing racial inequities. To that end, we make impact investments that provide capital to fund innovative, market-based approaches that address systemic challenges while generating social and financial returns.

For example, The Impact America Fund (IAF) makes early-stage investments in tech-driven businesses that create ownership and opportunity within marginalized communities. The fund’s founder, Kesha Cash, is one of the few Black women in venture capital and understands that traditional venture capital funds often overlook prioritizing and supporting entrepreneurs of color. IAF helps founders get traction with institutional investors, who often don’t have the expertise or lived experience in these communities to appreciate the huge opportunities at hand.

VamosVentures is another investment firm that sees tech as an essential ingredient for communities of color to thrive. VamosVentures, founded by Marcos Gonzalez, invests in diverse teams with a focus on Latinx entrepreneurs. The fund supports diverse-owned companies with capital, commercial opportunities, and strategic guidance with the goals of generating returns and social impact through wealth creation, social mobility, and tech-driven solutions to challenges persistent in communities of color.

Unlocking Potential by Ending Youth Prisons

The Andrus Family Fund envisions a just society in which vulnerable youth have more than one opportunity for a good life. As part of this vision, many of AFF’s grantee partners are working toward a world without youth prisons.

Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ) unlocks the leadership of formerly incarcerated young people to dream beyond bars. Through youth programs, life coaching, policy organizing, and restorative retreats and trainings, CURYJ helps young people lead the way in transforming their communities and investing in their healing, activism, and aspirations.

Communities United for Police Reform (CPR) is an unprecedented campaign to end discriminatory and abusive policing practices in New York and build a lasting movement that promotes public safety and reduces reliance on policing. Running diverse coalitions of more than 200 organizations, CPR works closely with those most unfairly targeted by the NYPD to build accountability and increase transparency. These are just two of AFF’s grantee partners that are shining a light on injustice and lifting up ways to foster safe, thriving communities for all.

Contributing to Racial Justice

This is a year for the history books. Every day seems to bring a new challenge. At the same time, I’m grateful. Having spent a career working to advance just and sustainable communities, I’ve often wondered what it would take to get a critical mass of leading voices to wake up to long-standing racially unjust conditions and demand transformative change. I believe that moment has arrived. By intensifying our support, the Surdna Foundation hopes to contribute to greater sustained momentum for change.

I look forward to sharing more with you in the coming months about our grantees and what the Surdna Foundation is thinking, doing, and learning.

Onward,

Don Chen
President
Surdna Foundation

November 13, 2020

Strike Watch - Election 2020: Workers Redefine the Map, as Corporate Tech Pours Millions to Undermine Rights

While the public eye (rightfully) centered on the US presidency this election, worker-led organizing made tremendous waves across the country in ballot initiative, issue-based wins and get out the vote mobilization, including in closely-watched swing states. Corporations and the ultra-wealthy also pushed their agendas of racialized and gendered inequality ahead, most notably California’s anti-labor rights "gig" worker proposition. While the full significance of the election is still unfurling, the results point to the power of long-term, worker-led organizing led by unions, place-based worker organizations, and abolitionist movements. These efforts belie any easy answers from red or blue maps - but instead point to the critical ways intersectional movements build across the losses, lessons, and confrontations with corporate agendas that line the hard road to ground-breaking wins.

#RedforEd Returns, Victorious

In Arizona, voters boosted school spending and, specifically, teacher salaries through a 3.5% tax on those making more than $250,000. Proposition 208 came as a direct response to teacher labor organizing, especially the 2018 Red for Ed strikes in Arizona, a wave of teacher’s actions that started in anti-labor states like Arizona and eventually reached Democratic-led, but austerity-stripped cities. The 2018 Arizona strike brought a 20% raise for teachers but did not meet demands for school staff funding, guarantees for raises or spending to meet national standards. But organizing among teachers did not flag, including a more recent set of strike actions to challenge early re-opening of schools in the COVID-19 crisis and the fight for Proposition 208, accompanied by a jump in teacher union membership 10%. Similar measures to increase taxes (including via cannabis legalization) to boost school spending won across Wisconsin localities and in other states, including a new tax measure to fund Universal Pre-K in Colorado. 

Fight for 15 Breaks Through in the South

Florida surprised many when it passed a minimum wage of $15, with a significant 60% of the vote and a transformative bump from the current minimum of $8.56. While actively challenged by the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, the wage hike was advanced by an extensive door knocking this election season and long-term campaign of strikes and actions since 2012 by the Fight for $15 coalition. Spearheaded in part by SEIU and including the Sierra Club Florida, Florida Immigration Coalition, the Poor People’s Campaign, and Democratic Socialist of America (DSA) chapters, the Fight for $15 had recently been an active part of the Strike for Black Lives, featured in our recent Strike Watch.  Get Out the Vote efforts by the multi-racial, multi-issue New Florida Majority coalition, tied to national Seed the Vote 501(c)(4) and PAC networks in swing states, also pointed voters to the amendment, part of the latest in the NFM labor-community coalition’s efforts on worker’s rights. The Florida win tiptoe on the heels of two voter-approved Southern minimum wage hikes in 2018 in Missouri and Arkansas, that won by more than 62% and 68% respectively.

Making Paid Sick and Medical Leave a Public Good

Colorado residents turned out at 57% to support paid family and medical leave for 12 weeks through Proposition 118. Voters pulled off what legislators had failed to do in multiple sessions, with lawmakers having faced some of the most expensive lobbying efforts in 2019 in Colorado against the bill by local Chambers of Commerce and corporate interests. Through a pay-in system by workers and businesses, the new measure covers up to 12 weeks for childbirth, adoption, medical emergencies in their families, a family member’s active-duty military service, and reasons related to abuse and sexual assault – with a higher pay rate coverage for lower-wage employees. The structure shows the influence of growing, more comprehensive organizing on this issue, in that the policy is inclusive of all workers and publicly-managed, in ways prior state-level bills have not been.

Proposition 22 and the Challenge of Corporate Tech Spending

Speaking of expensive measures, there was also devastating news on the ballot initiative front for workers – most notably with the passage of Proposition 22 in California. The $200 million dollar effort by Uber (now merged with Postmates), Lyft, Doordash and other tech corporations that rely on vulnerable low-wage service labor was the most expensive ballot measure in California history. The law now excludes app-tied workers from the state minimum to a pay guarantee that only amount to $5.64 an hour, limited health benefits based on hourly requirements, and exclusion from NLRB collective bargaining, worker’s compensation and other rights. It is also sealed with an unprecedented provision requiring 7/8th legislative majority to overturn. Researchers and organizers have noted the dangerous move to create a permanent “third category” exemption to labor law will most hurt mostly older Black, Latinx, indigenous, immigrant and women workers  for generations to come – similar to the 1930s New Deal exclusions of domestic and farm labor. While Lyft and other companies are signaling an interest in a vaguely-defined relationship with bigger labor unions  via “sectoral bargaining,” organizers have pointed to this as a trojan horse that would further undermine worker’s voice, and usher in another era of labor suppression similar to company unions of the pre-New Deal era and the 1947 post-Taft Hartley “business unionism” era targeting labor power.

In initial assessments, the lack of restrictions on corporate proposition spending opened the door for massive spending on a deceptive Yes on 22 campaign. Expensive, constant TV and radio ads included groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the manipulation of racial justice language and data (via spurious groups like the “Berkeley Research Group”) - not to mention the gig companies’ looming threat to leave California after courts enforced AB 5 this Fall. Some analysis points to the fact companies manipulated the app itself to make it appear that the workers picking up passengers or dropping off deliveries were supporting the corporate measure. Pro-22 ads had to be clicked through to access app functions – also questionable given the use of this private data for political purposes. (And in the middle of a pandemic-fueled food and restaurant delivery surge, Door Dash and others even offered stamped bags “Yes on 22.”)

Yet undeniable is the importance of continued organizing by Rideshare Drivers United, Gig Workers Rising, Gig Workers Collective and others – who have gained ground creatively in a terrain where they face the deep challenges reaching workers invisibly scattered across cities and rural regions. These groups’ effect on mobilizing the public in the Bay Area of California led to vote totals decisively against Prop 22 in tech stronghold Silicon Valley. Far from done fighting, gig worker-led organizations are now gearing up for battles across the US for the future of work that centers workers.

The Future Defined by Workers

Across the US this election, simplified mappings of red and blue fell apart in the face of investment in long-term deep, “ground game” organizing across labor and community organizations – from Black-women led groups like Georgia STAND-UP to Navajo and Latinx-youth led organizing by groups like LUCHA in Arizona. Often-invisible networks of non-funded grassroots organizing groups, including those tied to the Black Lives Matter uprisings, also mattered in building the energy and momentum among youth and marginalized voters. Cutting across these, too, was a massive in-person effort by labor unions like UNITE HERE (including numerous unemployed Black and brown hospitality workers) in key states where unions have ground presence.

Tweet from Isaac Bryan, @ib2_real, Director of Public Policy at UCLA's Ralph J Bunche Center, and Co-Chair of the Reimagine LA coalition that sponsored LA's succesful Measure J

If there is a consistent theme among the ballot struggles discussed above, it is that worker-led organizing that cuts across community and labor organizations - and the willingness to step up actions, from teacher’s to fast food strikes - can pay off big. Direct confrontation with corporate or legislative actors is an inevitable part of this process, as McDonalds' workers in Florida or teachers in Arizona can also share. And there are no campaigns that don’t face losses and setbacks. Much of the above organizing faced (well-funded) roadblocks and lost policy fights at times but kept building and learning – much as the gig worker movement is now doing.

This lesson was also reinforced by powerful gains in local measures on other intersecting issues of racial and economic justice, such as the significant Measure J in Los Angeles County supported by Black Lives Matter-LA, Justice LA coalition, Youth Justice Coalition and a wider network created called Reimagine LA. (The tweet featured to the left is from Reimagine LA co-chair Isaac Bryan, Director of Public Policy at UCLA's Ralph J Bunche Center.) Measure  J- part of a local progressive sweep - now permanently sets aside 10% of the County budget for alternatives to incarceration, including job programs serving Black and brown communities. Cities as varied as Columbus, Ohio and Portland, Oregon passed police oversight measures, while Philadelphia banned stop-and-frisk decisively. At the state level, California abolition movements including Communities United for a Responsible Budget stopped algorithmic bail calculations, prison spending, and other attempts to scale back decarceration, while also advancing rights for parolee voting (legislation written by formerly-incarcerated residents). Needless to say, none of these shifts - like the multi-year battle to oust District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles - were won overnight, or without tensions and confrontations.

Georgia STAND-UP Director Deborah Scott's call in a recent Vox interview speak volumes to the nature of long-term organizing that is transforming the political landscape – and tangibly shifting workers’ lives: “Everything can’t be online for us because there’s a certain level of our population that does not respond there,” Scott said, describing a tactics that included safe door-knocking, protests, and reaching those seeking direct services. Building strategy means “making sure people really listen to the wisdom that we have because we’ve lived it.”