Citizen-led initiatives scored big wins in the midterms. But now this form of direct democracy is under attack.
In April 2016, we started a weekly “Face on the Frontlines” feature in our Inequality.org newsletter. Since then, we’ve had the honor of lifting up more than two dozen workers, organizers, artists, students, business leaders, elected officials, and others who are fighting to reverse extreme inequality.
In a year that offered many good reasons for despair, these individuals have kept up our spirits and reminded us that we can take on formidable obstacles — and win. As 2016 winds down, we wanted to highlight some of the “Faces on the Frontlines” that we found especially inspiring.
We started our series with Jobs with Justice Organizing Director Erica Smiley, who wrote about the need for labor organizing strategies that can succeed even in the face of anti-union laws and institutions. In our new political landscape, her words are even more prescient.
In May, we featured John Mudie, a veteran telecom lineman and executive vice president of Communications Workers of America Local 1122 in Buffalo, New York. He reported from the frontlines of a strike involving nearly 40,000 workers over outsourcing and lower labor standards at Verizon, where the CEO was making well over $25,000 a day. A few weeks later, the strike was called off after the company agreed to major concessions, including adding 1,300 new call center jobs and reversing several other outsourcing initiatives.
In June, we were proud to publish a piece by restaurant server Christopher Alvear about the need to raise the subminimum wage for tipped workers. In November, we were happy to report that both Maine and Flagstaff, Arizona had passed ballot initiatives to increase the minimum wage and phase out the tipped minimum. Look for this issue on more ballots in the next election.
In July, we talked to Ben Chin of Maine People’s Alliance about his experience being targeted with racist attacks by the state’s rightwing governor, Paul LePage. As the Alliance ramped up their ballot initiative campaigns to raise taxes on the wealthy and increase the minimum wage, we reported on LePage’s statement that Chin and other organizers “should be sent to jail.” And so while we were still recovering from the outcome of the presidential election, we were thrilled to interview Ben post-vote about their ballot initiative victories.
In August, we featured Magdalena Zylinska, a housecleaner and organizer from Chicago about the big win on a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in the state of Illinois. This was the seventh such state victory for the National Domestic Workers Alliance and their allies.
In early September, IPS Associate Fellow Manuel Pérez-Rocha shared lessons from his many years of work against free trade in Mexico and Central America about the likely impacts of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. A main focus of his work has been to fight trade rules that allow private corporations to sue governments over public interest regulations. And so in October we were pleased to report on a victory by Salvadoran activists against one of these corporate lawsuits, in this case over the denial of a mining permit on environmental grounds. Only a few weeks later, we were able to celebrate the demise of the TPP negotiations.
In late September, we interviewed Judith Le Blanc, director of the Native Organizers Alliance, about the struggle against the Dakota Access pipeline and the role played by billionaire and big bank investors in the project. After the number of water protectors continued to swell, federal authorities halted construction, at least temporarily on December 4, in a huge win for the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies.
In October, we ran a commentary by Steve Novick, a member of the Portland, Oregon city council who was pushing a path-breaking proposal for a tax penalty on corporations with extreme CEO-worker pay gaps. On December 8, we had the pleasure of reporting that the proposal had been adopted. And since then we’ve been hearing from elected officials in many other jurisdictions who are interested in taking similar action.
We look forward to getting to know more champions in the fight against inequality in 2017 and sharing their stories and strategies.
Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project and co-edits Inequality.org at the Institute for Policy Studies.