Hey, liberal activists—try arguing basic morality instead of wonky bullshit

By Randy LoBasso
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jun. 18, 2014

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It was a week before the May 20 primary election, and community groups around the city already had something to celebrate. Mayor Michael Nutter had just signed an executive order requiring city contractors provide a $12-per-hour minimum wage for their workers beginning January 1—and for any subcontractors they might hire.

It was a cautious celebration, though. That very prospect was up for vote as a ballot initiative, whereas Nutter’s order, by definition, was a temporary measure. His action might, activists thought, be a cagey attempt to minimize defeat, coming from a mayor who’d been fighting against that very minimum-wage effort for years.

But then came the election, and the ballot initiative didn’t merely pass—it received more votes, 94,128, than any other question or candidate in the city by a margin of about 3 to 1.

Claiming victory on behalf of the subcontracted workers: a group called Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild, or POWER, who’d worked relentlessly to get voters to support the initiative.

The community organizing group was formed in 2011 by Bishop Dwayne Royster, also the founder of the Living Water United Church of Christ in Lower Northeast Philadelphia. Royster and his small staff were central in lobbying City Council to put the minimum-wage question on the ballot. Remarkably, they’ve found political success by framing workers’ rights and other liberal issues in terms of something that, all too often, the left has failed to fully appreciate: communities of faith.

When POWER launched,
the idea was to find common ground that might bring together Christians, Jews, Muslims and other faith groups around the city—and use that common ground to make progress on issues that often get mired in political muck.

“Economics and education are issues all of our faith traditions speak to,” Royster says. “All our texts are very clear about education and economics. We find the commonalities in our faith texts, and we try to lean into those areas.”

POWER’s approach explains, at least partially, why the vote to increase the minimum wage was approved with such an overwhelming force. The group didn’t just hold rallies and issue press releases; its staff of four, and 40 volunteers, set out to contact 50,000 Philadelphians via door-knocks and phone calls with the goal of getting 5,000 low-propensity voters to commit to voting—and, specifically, voting for the minimum wage increase.

Much of that effort was conducted by speaking directly with congregations throughout the city, of which about 40 align themselves with POWER.

“Congregations are concerned about what’s going on in civil society,” Royster says. “We believe faith has a role to play in civil society—and hopefully help throw things back in alignment, so there’s justice in our city. It’s the people that do the work; we just support and facilitate what’s happening.”

POWER released videos in which they interviewed Philadelphians who’ve been making around $5 per hour with minimal tips for several years, and who would instantly be lifted out of poverty if the new minimum wage were to go into effect. Those conversations gained the attention of Fabricio Rodriguez, who’d been the lead organizer at the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Philadelphia for several years, where he’d lobbied for issues like paid sick leave. He joined POWER as an organizer this spring.

“We’re really trying to change politics,” he says. “People’s politics aren’t translating to City Council, much less Harrisburg, in the way people live. Putting [issues] in a moral framework actually brings people together in ways that hasn’t been done in Philly in a while. I think that’s reflected in the [minimum wage] vote.”

While inner-city politics has a long history of being influenced from the pastor’s pulpit, the idea of a community organizing group that rallies the faith community around specific, progressive economic issues is a relatively new one. It’s the sort of approach that right-wing politicians, nationally, have held a monopoly on for a generation.

Part of the reason conservative activists have led the pack in framing political issues morally is that they’ve been willing to reduce those issues to seeming incredibly simple.

In 2004, for instance, conservatives won elections by promising to keep America safe from the terrorists abroad and from the homos at home. And while they’ve been beat back in recent years, they’ve managed to hold onto power by exploiting peoples’ most simple, innate sense: greed. Greed, that is, framed as good—rendered as a noble struggle by the rugged individual to rise above the inner-city welfare queen; as those who pay taxes versus those who don’t. It’s probably a short-term strategy, but one that’s kept the Republican Party afloat and able to block the president’s ultimate vision.

But here, this year, Philadelphians who voted by and large came up with something much different. They decided to give a higher wage to those among the working poor who are employed, if indirectly, through the government. That means, in the long run, they voted to pay more in taxes—since, after all, the government’s money comes from us.

To find out how POWER was so successful, it may help to look at George Lakoff’s three levels of analysis. The linguist wrote the book Moral Politics in 1996 and has been studying political rhetoric for over 40 years.

The first level of Lakoff’s analysis involves looking at universal issues that affect us all. Lakoff defines universal values as things like justice, equality, rewards for work, family, and protection. Liberals and conservatives look at fairness differently: Liberals tend to see fairness as sharing with, and caring for, others, while conservatives see it as getting your due. The strictly religious often come down on the liberal side here, as long as the subject isn’t abortion. In our particular case, the universal issues at play are education and economics.

In the second level, we classify types of issues. Health insurance, for instance, can be classified under a series of issues: educational, employment, public health, moral, human rights, etc. (In 2009, the Obama Administration unfortunately framed it as a policy-wonk issue, which is part of the reason the health-care reform has been so unpopular.) The key for POWER was to classify the minimum wage for subcontractors not as an issue of labor unions—even though Big Labor in Philly was indeed affiliated with the effort—but as a moral and human rights effort, aimed at pulling people out of poverty and directly helping marginalized communities of workers.

Level 3 is the bureaucracy. This is where liberals actually tend to thrive—which is unfortunate. This is the part where you create specific policies and programs to deal with the original problem—but if you haven’t first connected with voters on Levels 1 and 2, that opens your entire effort up to criticisms of “big government.” We saw this at the state level when Republicans passed a controversial voter ID law in 2012 without first having made a successful case that it was needed. (In fact, it wasn’t.)

POWER began with the goal of raising wages for airport subcontracted workers, but only successfully lobbied to get the question on the ballot after three years in the field—after making their, and workers’, argument time and again. Levels 1 and 2 first—then Level 3.

And after all that, the issue is still not resolved: POWER and workers continue flooding City Council on an ongoing basis to make sure the city actually enforces the law.

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