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Assignment Instructions
We have discussed ongoing changes in major social institutions affecting work, society, and the quality of life. By “institutions” we mean organized systems like governments, businesses, and unions. But all of these are driven and shaped in the end by groups of people organizing around their dissatisfaction with the status quo. We refer to these forms of collective action as social or political movements.

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Social movements are the force that makes real social change. They are hard to predict or understand: they come and go, rise and fall back unexpectedly. They can be “conservative,” defending an old way of life, or “progressive,” advocating a new vision of society. They can also be simply chaotic. In the 19th and 20th centuries social scientists focused largely on class-based movements in which workers and the poor organized against employers and/or the government. There are growing questions now about whether class is the most powerful organizing force. Some write about “new social movements” centered on social identities like race, gender or ethnicity. 

1. Guiner, Lani.  Beyond Legislatures:  Social Movements, Social Change, and the Possibilities of Demosprudence.

2. Harold Meyerson, The Seeds of a New Labor Movement

3. Sarah Leonard, The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century


1. Describe an example of “demosprudence” in the United States or another society. What group initially expressed dissatisfaction with the status quo, and what actions did it take to expand the audience for their movement?

2. In your ideal democracy, who would be responsible for ensuring that laws reflect society’s contemporary notions of justice or fairness? Explain your reasoning, and identify what roles “institutions” and “social movements” would play.

Additional resources for assignment

1 Demosprudence


( 132 KB; Jan 14, 2016 6:40 pm )


Labor at a Crossroads_ The Seeds of a New Movement

 ( 127 KB; Jan 18, 2020 8:27 pm )


Leonard Future We Want Comp

 ( 1 MB; Jan 18, 2020 8:27 pm )




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· Describe an example of “demosprudence” in the United States or another society. What group initially expressed dissatisfaction with the status quo, and what actions did it take to expand the audience for their movement? [25 points]








Possible Points

Total Points

Define demosprudence


Identify a group that expressed dissatisfaction

Identify and analyze the actions taken


Use and cite external sources


· In your ideal democracy, who would be responsible for ensuring that laws reflect society’s contemporary notions of justice or fairness? Explain your reasoning, and identify what roles “institutions” and “social movements” would play.  [25 points]



Possible Points

Total Points







Use and cite external sources



Identify who (what individuals or institutions) are responsible

Explain why they are responsible

Discuss the roles of institutions and social movements


SECOND POST (50 points)



Possible Points

Total Points











Identifying your reaction (agreement, disagreement, etc.)

Focusing on a group member or members or the group as a whole

Providing a substantive response

Providing evidence or anecdotal evidence

Quality of the writing




eeds of a New





U’s David


olf—virtuoso organizer and mastermind of Seattle’s $15
minimum wage campaign—says labor needs radically new ways to
champion worker interests.

By Harold Meyerson

October 30, 2014

This article is from the Fall 2014 issue of The American Prospect magazine.



republish it here as part of “American Labor at a Crossroads: New

Thinking, New Organizing, New Strategies,” a conference presented on

January 15, 2015, co-sponsored by the Albert Shanker Institute, The Sidney

Hillman Foundation, and The American Prospect. To view the agenda,

click here.

f anyone has the right to be upbeat about the prospects of the

American labor movement, it should be David Rolf, the president of a

Seattle-based long-term care local of the Service Employees

International Union (SEIU). Between 1995 and 1999, while still in his 20s, Rolf

directed a campaign that unionized 74,000 home care workers in Los Angeles.

It was the largest single unionization since the United Auto Workers organized

Ford in 1941. SEIU then sent him to Seattle, where he has nearly quadrupled

SEIU’s Washington state membership. Last year, he led the initiative campaign

that persuaded voters in SeaTac, the working-class Seattle suburb that is home

to the city’s airport, to raise the local minimum wage to $15—the highest in the

nation. He also managed to make SEIU’s campaign to organize fast-food





workers and raise their pay to $15 the centerpiece of the mayoral race in

Seattle proper. Prodded by the fast-food workers, State Senator Ed Murray ran

on the promise to raise the local minimum to that level. After Murray was

elected mayor, he appointed Rolf to lead the labor delegation on the business–

labor task force that would devise the plan for phasing in Seattle’s new

minimum. This summer, the city enacted the task force’s recommendations.

The $15 minimum wage is now law.

Over the past 15 years, no American unionist has organized as many workers,

or won them raises as substantial, as Rolf. Which makes it all the more telling

that Rolf believes the American labor movement, as we know it, is on its

deathbed, and that labor should focus its remaining energies on bequeathing

its resources to start-up projects that may find more effective ways to advance

workers’ interests than today’s embattled unions can.

In early 2012, Rolf attended a national SEIU board meeting in New Orleans,

where he heard a presentation from the head of the union’s Louisiana local.

The local had had 6,000 members a few years earlier, but it had shrunk to

1,200 after the chambers of commerce in cities with which it had had

contracts got court injunctions forbidding any such contracts.

“Anti-union injunctions?” Rolf asks incredulously. “Getting a federal law

forbidding such injunctions was the No. 1 demand of unions in the 1928

presidential election. Were we back in 1928? Before Norris-LaGuardia [the

1932 federal act that forbade such injunctions in the private sector; the

Louisiana local was public sector]? Before the Wagner Act? Before the New

Deal? This set me on a quest to figure out what had happened to labor—and

what we should do now.”

Leaders of the biggest local unions, Rolf realized, were clustered in a handful

of regions where labor, though declining, had not yet disappeared. “If you’re a

Over the past 15 years, no American unionist
has organized as many workers, or won them
raises as substantial, as Rolf.

union leader in Seattle or New York or L.A., you can think things are OK,” Rolf

says. “But there goes Wisconsin; there goes Indiana. If right-to-work passing in

Michigan isn’t Lenin’s statue coming down in Red Square, I don’t know what


Most labor leaders and activists concur that the union movement is in

something close to mortal peril. With Rolf, they believe that the inadequacies

of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (the Wagner Act), which union-

busting employers are able to violate with impunity, have made it almost

impossible to organize private-sector workers. Unable to grow, labor has also

seen its ranks diminished by the offshoring of millions of jobs and the

relegation of millions more to the ranks of contingent labor or ostensible self-

employment. Today, the percentage of private-sector workers in unions has

dropped to a bare 6.7 percent—roughly its level at the beginning of the 20th

century, before the advent of a sizable middle class.

“The path to collective bargaining has been shut down in the United States,”

says Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America

(CWA) and head of the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Committee. Where Rolf differs

from most of his colleagues is in his belief that collective bargaining—at least,

as the nation has known it for the past 80 years—is not coming back. In a

paper he distributed to his colleagues in 2012 and in commentaries he wrote

for several magazines (including this one), he argued that unions should

acknowledge their impending demise—at least in the form that dates to the

Wagner Act—and focus their energies and resources on incubating new

institutions that can better address workers’ concerns. “The once powerful

industrial labor unions that built the mid-century American middle class are

in a deep crisis and are no longer able to protect the interests of American

workers with the scale and power necessary to reverse contemporary

economic trends,” he wrote in his paper. “The strategy and tactics that we’ve

pursued since the 1947 Taft-Hartley Amendments [which narrowed the

ground rules under which unions may operate] are out of date and have

demonstrably failed to produce lasting economic power for workers. We must

look to the future and invest our resources in new organizational models that

respond to our contemporary economy and the needs of today’s workers.”

This October, with funding from his local, from the national SEIU, and from

several liberal foundations, Rolf will unveil The Workers Lab, housed at the

Roosevelt Institute in New York. The center will study and, in time, invest in

organizations that, in Rolf ’s words, “have the potential to build economic

power for workers, at scale, and to sustain themselves financially.” Whatever

those organizations may be, they won’t be unions—at least, not unions as they

currently exist.

Rolf ’s prescriptions, and Rolf himself, have engendered a good deal of

controversy within the labor movement. His blunt talk about unions’

inadequate present and nonexistent future have made him “a pariah to some

in labor,” says David Freiboth, the head of the Seattle-area AFL-CIO. “He’s

brilliant. He’s egotistical. What he says about the movement, people take

personally. He’s not wrong in what he says, but there’s a way to tell your wife

she’s overweight. You don’t just say, ‘Honey, you’re fat.’ But that’s David’s way.”

But the unease that Rolf and his ideas have created can’t just be ascribed to a

lack of tact. Rolf ’s role is that of a disruptive innovator in an embattled and

defensive institution. He gives voice to the fears that many in labor share but

are reluctant to acknowledge or act upon. And his quest for some new way to

amass power for workers, something other than the decaying collective

bargaining regime of the past eight decades, raises yet another fear: Suppose

there is no new way for workers to assert their interests? What should labor—

what should the nation—do then?

And yet, quite independent of Rolf ’s writings, a growing share of the

organizing in labor today is already taking place outside the structures of

collective bargaining. Unions are organizing domestic workers, who have no

common employer. They are organizing taxi drivers, who are self-employed.

The AFL-CIO’s major organizing effort, Working America, is a community-

based campaign that until recently hadn’t dealt with its members’ workplace

concerns or had a presence in those workplaces. And in the fight to raise

Seattle’s minimum wage to $15, even though few if any of the beneficiaries

were or would become union members, Rolf ended up bargaining with

employers on behalf of the city’s entire working class.

olf loves talking about the ins and outs, the stratagems and tactical

coups, of the campaigns he’s directed. The leader of the largest local

union in Washington state—SEIU Local 775, which represents home

care and nursing home workers—had not planned to wage a campaign last

year to raise the minimum wage in SeaTac. But when the Port of Seattle,

which runs the airport, and Alaska Airlines, the airport’s dominant airline,

spurned the efforts of SEIU’s organizers to unionize the baggage handlers and

fry cooks who worked at the airport at or near minimum wage, “we needed a

big piece of leverage to bring them to the table,” Rolf says.

The leverage was an initiative the unions said they’d place on SeaTac’s

November 2013 ballot—an initiative so radical it would surely push Alaska

Airlines and the Port to the table. The initiative would increase the local

minimum wage from Washington state’s minimum of $9.32 to $15.00 at both

the airport and its surrounding hotels. The phase-in period between election

and implementation would be a mere seven weeks.

Still, Alaska Airlines and the Port refused to bargain. SeaTac voters would

never approve such a measure, they believed; SeaTac wasn’t that kind of


Seated in his neat, sparsely decorated corner office in the downtown Seattle

headquarters of Local 775, Rolf recounts how his union, the fast-food

organizing campaign it guided, and the coalition it assembled proved them

wrong. Rolf is 44, but his wide eyes and baby face make him look considerably

younger—a union and political prodigy wise beyond his years. In the breadth

of his historical references and in his occasional use of the high-tech business

patois that is increasingly Seattle’s lingua franca, he can seem more like an

unusually well-educated business academic than the labor leader who led the

campaign that won the nation’s highest minimum wage.

“We were backed into the initiative by Alaska’s and the Port’s intransigence,”

he says. He quickly recognized the measure could not pass absent an

extraordinary effort. “There were 11,000 registered voters in SeaTac, and we

figured the only way we could win was to expand the electorate.” The

coalition’s canvassers registered 1,000 new voters, mainly immigrants. (SeaTac


is home to many Somali Americans who work at the airport.)

Speaking rapidly, warming to the topic, Rolf continues: “In the normal

Washington-state model, your peak communication with voters is the Friday

before election day. But we peaked when the ballot hit, well before the final

weekend. [All voting in Washington is done by mail ballot.] We put 400

professional union organizers on the doorsteps that day and for the next five

days—eight-hour shifts. We targeted people who never voted or only voted in

presidential elections, but who had family, friends, someone they knew who

worked at the airport. The organizers each had a list of 25 voters; they went

back to each initiative supporter’s house repeatedly until they saw they

actually mailed the ballot.” The initiative passed by 77 votes.

But the triumph in SeaTac was only the second most important victory that

Rolf ’s union won last Election Day. In Seattle proper, State Senator Ed Murray

was elected mayor, chiefly on the strength of his pledge to raise Seattle’s

minimum to $15 as well. While SEIU’s “Fight for 15” campaign to unionize

fast-food workers has highlighted the plight of low-wage workers in dozens of

cities, only in Seattle did the issue come to dominate the municipal elections.

That was Rolf ’s and his fast-food organizers’ doing. They timed the workers’

demonstrations to coincide with key events during the campaign. Their coup

de théâtre was to arrange a televised debate among the major mayoral

candidates at which the questioners were all low-wage workers (including a

Burger King employee active in the fast-food campaign)—who, of course,

asked the aspirants if they supported a $15 minimum for Seattle. It was there

that Murray, more than any of the other candidates, first spoke favorably of

the idea. As the campaign progressed, as the demonstrations continued to

draw widespread coverage, and as the $15 question came up at every

candidates forum, the fight for 15 became Murray’s signature issue. On

Election Day, his victory, the victory at SeaTac, and the upset Seattle city

Their coup de théâtre was to arrange a televised
debate among the major mayoral candidates at
which the questioners were all low-wage workers


council victory of Kshama Sawant, a Trotskyist champion of the $15 standard,

combined to create a perfect storm for a pay raise.

“David’s initiative, injecting the fast-food campaign into the mayor’s race, was

the key to the Seattle raise,” says the AFL-CIO’s Freiboth.

Before he even took office this January, Mayor-elect Murray appointed a

labor–business task force to arrive at a common plan for phasing in a new

minimum wage. Both Freiboth and Rolf feared that national groups like the

U.S. Chamber of Commerce would mount an initiative campaign if the city

government raised the minimum to $15. The way to forestall that was to have

the plan that the city council would vote on devised by a task force that

included Seattle’s own business leaders—particularly from the low-wage hotel

and restaurant sectors.

When the deliberations on Murray’s

task force threatened to break down,

it was Rolf who held things together,

says Howard Wright, the Seattle

hotelier and convention executive

who headed the task force’s business

side. “He kept saying, ‘Let’s not have

our desires for the perfect get in the

way of success.’ He was practical,

less ideological than other members

of the task force. If the labor

movement had more David Rolfs, it would hold its own for a very long time.”

(An assessment with which Rolf clearly disagrees.)

Confronted with the prospect of Sawant’s supporters mounting an initiative

campaign like SeaTac’s, which would raise the minimum to $15 immediately,

the task force’s business-side members had no real alternative but to agree to

a $15 standard that would be phased in more gradually. The labor side of the

task force, which Rolf headed, prevailed on most points of contention. While

stretching out the phase-in to seven years for mom-and-pop businesses, the

task force voted almost unanimously to limit the phase-in to four years for

corporate-affiliated franchises like McDonald’s, and to include tipped workers

under the ordinance’s provisions. In June, the city council enacted the task

force’s recommendations, and Murray signed the ordinance into law.

“It wasn’t traditional collective bargaining,” says Rolf, “but it was an

alternative form of bargaining. It was very like Europe—politically

constructed bargaining between the leaders of business and labor. Some of

the people who will benefit from the raise will be union members in home

care and grocery stores, but most will never be union members. It covers

more people than any contract you could get today.”

But the unions’ success in raising the minimum to $15 also illustrates how

difficult it has become to unionize workers, absent recourse to electoral

politics and local government regulation. Given Seattle’s progressive politics, it

proved easier to win a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour—which will

hike the pay of an estimated 100,000 workers by the time it fully takes effect—

than to organize just 4,000 workers at the airport.

Indeed, SEIU’s nationwide campaign to win fast-food workers a contract with

such giant corporations as McDonald’s and Burger King has yet to add a single

worker to its ranks. That can’t happen unless those corporations recognize the

union and sign a collective bargaining agreement with it, a happy ending that

some union strategists can’t quite envision ever coming to pass. What the

campaign has accomplished is to have highlighted the low pay and arbitrary

work schedules of millions of workers, which in turn has led a growing

number of liberal cities and states to enact minimum wage hikes—though

none as far-reaching as Seattle’s—and paid sick day laws.

The disjuncture between unions’ ability to advocate for workers in the

political arena (though only where the center-left governs) and their inability

to augment their shrinking ranks with new members cannot continue

indefinitely, however. It takes the resources of unions like SEIU and

federations like the AFL-CIO to elect public officials who will respond to

workers’ concerns, just as it takes those resources to mobilize workers’

demonstrations of their concerns.

Within labor, “that’s one reason why the fast-food campaign engenders a

sense of unease as well as a sense of excitement,” says one union official.

“SEIU is making a huge investment with no clear sense that it will ever be able

to claim a fast-food worker as a member. How long can that be a sustainable


And yet, precisely because organizing that results in a union contract is all but

impossible save in a small number of sectors, much of the organizing

currently under way in the United States is of and by workers who aren’t in

standard employee relationships, or who seek legislative rather than

contractual remedies, or both.

hen we started organizing domestic workers,” says Ai-jen Poo,

founder and director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (and

a recipient this year of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award),

“we were calling for a standard contract. But domestic workers aren’t covered

under the National Labor Relations Act, or the Fair Labor Standards Act,

which is the federal minimum wage legislation. So we shifted our focus to

changing labor laws in New York state.”

There, the alliance built an organization of domestic workers that

demonstrated and held events to make themselves visible (to themselves no

less than to everybody else) as a group of workers who were singularly devoid

of the rights most Americans took for granted. After years of lobbying Albany,

in 2010 they won a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights that protected them from

discrimination and harassment, gained them coverage under worker

compensation laws, guaranteed them one day of rest per week, and entitled

them to three paid sick days. Hawaii, California, and Massachusetts have since

“SEIU is making a huge investment with no clear
sense that it will ever be able to claim a fast-
food worker as a member. How long can that be
a sustainable model?”


passed their own versions of the act. In October, the alliance, which has grown

to include chapters in 42 cities, will join with SEIU and the American

Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in St. Louis

for the first home care worker organizing summit, which, says Poo, “will look

at, among other things, how we can raise our wages to $15.”

Since there’s no employer or agency with whom domestic workers can

collectively bargain, building membership is arduous, and building a

membership that can financially sustain the organization is, at least for now,

impossible. Foundations and individual donors fund the alliance. One way to

enroll workers in the group, Poo says, is to establish member-led enforcement

programs once protective legislation is enacted. Members take assignments

both to inform domestic workers of their rights and to provide them with and

serve as member contacts when those rights are violated.

A similar dynamic exists at the National Taxi Workers Alliance, whose

members are classified as independent contractors. Unlike domestic workers,

however, taxi drivers (in most cities, an almost entirely immigrant workforce)

come together in the course of their daily rounds in airport parking lots.

When Bhairavi Desai, the daughter of Indian immigrants, began organizing

New York’s cabbies in 1996, she spent most of her time in the taxi lines at

LaGuardia Airport, with the goal of building an organization that could

compel the city’s Taxi Commission to enact pro-driver (or at least mitigate anti-

driver) regulations.

In 1998, more than 90 percent of the city’s drivers participated in a one-day

strike over the commission’s newly enacted driver penalties, which the

commission promptly rescinded. The Taxi Alliance’s biggest victory came in

2012, when the commission agreed to set aside six cents per fare to establish a

supplemental health and disability fund that partially covers drivers’ dental

and vision care.

Like the National Domestic Workers Alliance and
many workers centers in immigrant
communities, the Taxi Alliance provides workers

Like the National Domestic Workers Alliance and many workers centers in

immigrant communities, the Taxi Alliance provides workers with a range of

services, including help in filing for citizenship and dealing with their

children’s schools. Unlike most of those centers, however, it limits the amount

of foundation grants it accepts, in the belief that such grants can restrict the

organization’s freedom of action. Until the past couple of years, in

consequence, Desai was its only paid staffer.

Of the 30,000 active drivers in New York, 17,000 belong to the Taxi Alliance, of

whom 3,500 pay the annual dues of $100. The organization has also

established chapters in Philadelphia, San Francisco, Austin, and Montgomery

County, Maryland. Nationally, 4,500 drivers pay dues to the organization.

Since 2012, traditional unions have begun organizing taxi drivers as well,

notwithstanding that none are in traditional employer-employee

relationships. The Teamsters have organized drivers in Washington, D.C.;

AFSCME has organizing campaigns in Chicago and New Orleans; there are

even campaigns in several cities to organize drivers for Uber. The unions’

campaigns, and those of groups like the Domestic Workers and the Taxi

Alliances, attest to many immigrants’ openness to organizing as a way to

improve their generally abysmal working conditions and pay. But for most,

such improvements may come outside of the collective bargaining arena.

In 2011, the AFL-CIO broke new ground by affiliating the National Taxi

Workers Alliance. “Many affiliates in the AFL-CIO or Change to Win [the mini-

federation of the SEIU and the Teamsters] have some locals of contingent

workers, or individual members who are contingent,” says Desai. “But we’re

the first national affiliate where all the members are contingent. We bear

witness to the fact that workers anywhere and everywhere can organize.”

By far the largest number of members enrolled in a union-organized non-

union are the 3.3 million members of Working America, an AFL-CIO–backed

with a range of services, including help in filing
for citizenship and dealing with their children’s

group that recruits people in working-class neighborhoods on their doorsteps

in an effort to persuade them to support labor-backed candidates at election

time. The program began a decade ago with the goal of swaying the votes of

non-union white working-class electors in such swing states as Ohio and

Michigan by making the economic populist case for the AFL-CIO’s endorsed

candidates. Working America was “battling for people who otherwise would

be captured by Fox News,” in the words of Karen Nussbaum, the

organization’s director. In the dozen states in which it has been active,

Working America is recognized as an effective political force that has

influenced numerous elections.

Over the past couple of years, Working America has expanded its mission. In

Albuquerque, it mobilized voters to pass an initiative giving the city council

the power to raise the minimum wage, then organized them to pressure the

council to raise it, and then enrolled its activists to serve as informal

enforcement agents—a task the city was slow to undertake. (Members handed

out palm cards reading “Got Your Raise Yet?” to workers in low-wage

establishments.) It recently placed organizers in four cities, says Nussbaum,

“in a pilot program to deal with workplace and community issues.”

Polling has shown that most Working America members support the

candidates and positions the AFL-CIO recommends. In most places, however,

it is not the kind of organization whose members ever attend a meeting, much

less pay any dues. It’s a problem to which Nussbaum is no stranger. As one of

the founders of 9to5, a proto-feminist organization of secretaries in Boston in

1973, she grappled with how to build a workers’ organization that couldn’t

fund itself through collective bargaining. “Today, it’s become one of the biggest

challenges not just to Working America but to the entire progressive

movement: How do you build self-sufficient workers’ organizations outside of

collective bargaining?” Working America has begun experimenting with

brokering health insurance policies under the Affordable Care Act to its

members as a possible source of funding. “SEIU got its start providing burial

insurance to janitors,” she notes.

ore than most union leaders, Rolf is a student of labor history. As an

undergraduate at Bard College in the early 1990s, he wrote his senior

thesis on the “Protocols of Peace”—the 1910 agreement between New

York’s clothing manufacturers and the International Ladies Garment Workers

Union, hammered out by Louis Brandeis, Lincoln Filene, and John Dewey.

“In the 19th and early 20th century, the American labor movement consisted

of competing experiments with a range of origins, goals, and structures,” Rolf

says. “In Seattle, the first unions evolved from gangs of white workers beating

up Asians. Elsewhere, labor was shaped by syndicalists, anarchists, immigrant

movements, communists, eight-hour-day clubs—the sum total of all this wasn’t

just unions but a range of very different movements. The Yiddish-speaking

socialists had very little in common with the iron workers who blew up the

L.A. Times.”

“We had competing models of how to build power for workers,” he continues.

“We’ve had one model since 1935 [when the National Labor Relations Act was

passed]. Which would be fine if it weren’t dying.”

Rolf has firsthand experience with what the 1935 model once could

accomplish. Born and raised in Cincinnati, he grew up in middle-class

surroundings (his father was an attorney; his mother a teacher active in

Unitarian causes), just a generation removed from working-class roots. “My

mother’s father would tell me about how the UAW changed his life,” Rolf says.

“He would migrate back and forth from the farm to the factory, depending on

the economy. He was an industrial carpenter at a GM plant in Ohio. Three

times while he worked there, the union struck; three times he walked the

picket lines. He credited that, he credited the UAW, for making him middle


At Bard, Rolf was active in a range of progressive causes, particularly pro-

choice groups and the campus chapter of ACT UP New York. As his choice of

topic for his senior thesis indicates, he was growing more interested in

working people’s movements, and spent the summer between his junior and

senior years interning for an SEIU organizing project in Atlanta. As graduation

neared, he couldn’t figure out what graduate specialty he wished to pursue, so


he decided to take a year off from academics by accepting a job offer from the

SEIU local for which he’d interned. “But I fell in love with working in the

movement,” he says, “and never wanted to do anything else.”

The labor movement to which Rolf reported, however, could no longer grow

and deliver as it had in his grandfather’s day. Rolf ’s new employer was a local

of Georgia state workers who had no legal bargaining rights—“then or now,”

Rolf adds. “We had a theory that the local could first win the right to have its

members check a box to set aside a small portion of their paycheck for union

dues, just as they could check a box to set aside donations to the United Way.

From there, we thought it could win some rights, though not collective

bargaining, through an executive order by the governor, and then full

bargaining rights through the legislature. What the hell were we thinking?”

Some of what SEIU was thinking was that the South was gradually becoming

more like the rest of the nation in accepting unions. In fact, the rest of the

nation was becoming more like the South in rejecting them.

Though just 23, Rolf says, “I owned a suit and I could talk to politicians, so I got

the job as a legislative assistant—really, our lobbyist.” Traveling to every one

of Georgia’s 180 legislative districts and calling on the legislators with groups

of members, Rolf got a bill enacted that gave members the right to designate

dues payments to the union. But there, as Georgia moved steadily to the right,

the union’s progress halted. The hoped-for executive order and the right to

collective bargaining grew steadily more implausible.

Nonetheless, Rolf ’s success impressed Andy Stern, then SEIU’s national

organizing director, who offered him the job of restarting Los Angeles’s

stalled-out home care worker campaign in 1995. Rolf jumped at the chance,

and within four years, he succeeded in organizing 74,000 L.A. home care

workers—almost entirely women of color—into a new SEIU local. To win the

“I owned a suit and I could talk to politicians, so
I got the job as a legislative assistant—really,
our lobbyist.”

campaign, Rolf had to assemble a coalition of home care providers and clients

to pressure the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to establish a public agency

that would serve as the workers’ employer with whom they could negotiate.

(Under California law, counties administer Medicaid-funded home health

care.) Rolf also had to have SEIU wage, and win, a series of election campaigns

on behalf of candidates who were allies and protégés of the supervisors. He

had the union develop a registry to match up clients and providers. Once the

supervisors had agreed to establish the agency, SEIU had to win the union-

ratification votes of tens of thousands of workers who shared no common

workplaces. It was the largest organizing campaign the national union had

ever run. When the vote results were announced, Rolf had just turned 30.

Rolf ’s success in Atlanta and his triumph in Los Angeles, while both relying on

his ability to turn out members at crucial times, were primarily victories

achieved in the political arena. After the home care worker campaign, Rolf ’s

political skills were so apparent that Antonio Villaraigosa offered Rolf the

position of campaign manager for his upcoming mayoral campaign, and Stern

(by then, SEIU president) told him he could be SEIU’s top person on Al Gore’s

presidential campaign—both offers that Rolf rejected in favor of another offer

from Stern to go to Seattle.

The L.A. victory set the template for the subsequent efforts by SEIU and

AFSCME to organize home care workers—the only truly large-scale organizing

campaigns by any unions to have succeeded in the new century. Among those

successes were Rolf ’s own efforts to organize such workers in Washington

state. Within four years of his arrival, Rolf steered to passage a statewide

initiative to create a public authority that could bargain with home care

workers; he made SEIU instrumental in the election of friendly legislators; he

had the union inspect and rehabilitate 723 ballots during the protracted

recounts in the 2004 governor’s race. (Democrat Christine Gregoire ultimately

won by 130 votes.) The local’s efforts produced a legislature and governor who

not only backed the unionization of home care workers but also raised their

pay in a succession of state budgets.

Since Rolf’s arrival in 2000, Local 775 has grown


Since Rolf ’s arrival in 2000, Local 775 has grown from 1,600 to 43,000

members, while the total number of SEIU members in Washington state has

swelled from 28,000 to 106,000. Full-time home care providers and nursing

home employees have seen their pay doubled to the state’s median. “If you’re

me, life is good,” Rolf acknowledges. But he’s convinced he’s swimming against

a historic tide.

hortly after his grim epiphany on labor’s decline at the New Orleans

meeting, Rolf says, “I began looking at the data state by state. In 1983,

Louisiana had the same share of unionized workers as Seattle had in

2012. Tennessee had the same percentage that New York had that year. When

I turned all this into a PowerPoint presentation, New York was the only state

that still had more than 15 percent of its private-sector workers in unions.

Then I had to change the presentation; New York fell beneath 15 percent.

“The more I researched, the more I became convinced that the rest of the

world had forgotten about us. We weren’t even worth killing any more. Our

collective bargaining model had lost all visibility to the majority of American

workers. For most union members, unions were just an inherited fait

accompli—their workplace had been unionized decades before they got there.

“Every condition and factor that underpinned unions’ power from the 1930s

through the 1960s was gone: immobile capital, government assistance, the

Cold War defense establishment, even organized crime, which propped up

some unions so it could loot them. Not to mention losing two generations of

workers by not organizing in the private sector after the 1940s. In the ’80s and

’90s, Andy’s [Stern’s] generation rediscovered organizing, but it was too little,

too late.”

The very existence of the employer-

from 1,600 to 43,000 members, while the total
number of SEIU members in Washington state
has swelled from 28,000 to 106,000


employee relationship, Rolf points

out, is under attack. “As we’re trying

to turn contingent workers like home

care workers into full-time standard

permanent employees, far more full-

time standard permanent employees

are being compelled to become


“I had been convinced that SEIU’s model of growth [which his own work

exemplified] was working. But I lost my faith in it. I hoped someone had found

the silver bullet that would reinvent growth. I talked to people at worker

centers, but worker centers turned out to be permanent wards of charity. I

talked to academics. I couldn’t find it. I couldn’t even find a project devoted to

finding it.”

Rolf studied how Silicon Valley incubated startups. With Stern, he paid a call

on former Intel CEO Andy Grove, that rare Silicon Valley guru who’d written

critically about American business’s abandonment of American workers.

“Grove told us he didn’t know enough about the subject to offer specific

advice,” Rolf says. “But he did say [to] think about outcomes and treat

everything else—laws, strategies, structures—as secondary.

“That made me understand the death of collective bargaining isn’t something

we should be sentimental about,” Rolf says. “We should understand what

about collective bargaining worked, and try to recapture that. What really

mattered was we created, first, the power to change workers’ lives

economically; second, we created it on a scale that benefited millions, tens of

millions, of workers; and third, we created a model of sustainability so our

institutions could survive even in bad economies or when our political allies

weren’t in power. Those are the three things that new institutions need to do.”

olf ’s critics view these arguments as a dismissal of the valuable work

that unions still perform. They see in them an arrogance—at once

technocratic and prophetic—that some of them saw in Stern, who

resigned as SEIU president in 2010 at least in part because, like Rolf, he

believed the labor movement in its current form was both ineffectual and

doomed. Rolf and Stern’s attraction to the culture of Silicon Valley, their belief

that labor could profitably learn from the Valley’s experience with start-ups,

and their penchant for business-school lingo have only further estranged their

critics. (“Rolf says we need to become Labor 3.0,” moans one union official.


Another union leader says he thinks Rolf ’s diagnosis of labor’s ailments are

brilliant, but that his prescriptions are “from Andy Land”—a reference to

what he sees as Stern’s mistaken infatuation with the egalitarian potential of

the digital economy. Rolf dismisses these concerns. “We don’t have to share

the tech sector’s values to learn from its successes,” he says.

The same union leader also questions where Rolf and his new center are

headed. “It’s not clear if Rolf wants to find new institutions that re-engage

workers at the workplace, or new ways to mobilize them through politics or in

partnership with employers,” he says.

“All the above,” Rolf replies. “I don’t have a singular theory of what will build

worker power. I want to see how competing models fare—those where

workers are opposed to their employers, those where they sometimes work

with them, those where workers—like an increasing number of American

workers—have no employer.”

A further difference between Rolf and his critics concerns union democracy.

When Stern sent Rolf to Seattle, he made clear that one way Rolf could

accelerate SEIU’s growth in Washington was to consolidate its 12 locals. Rolf

did just that—reducing the number of locals to five, while nearly quadrupling

its membership. Merging locals into mega-locals would make them better able

to organize, play politics, and win contracts. And if such consolidations limited

the scope of rank-and-file input and union democracy, well, Stern and Rolf

saw union democracy as often impeding unions’ ability to re-allocate

resources, from serving their existing members, to organizing new ones.

“He doesn’t want to screw around with bottom-

Like Rolf, Working America’s Nussbaum has her list of criteria for what a new

generation of workers’ organizations needs to do: amass power for workers to

improve their lives, be financially self-sustaining, and be subject to workers’

democratic control. Rolf ’s list includes the first two points but not the third.

“He doesn’t want to screw around with bottom-

up democracy,” says Freiboth.

“If a union is bottom up, it’s modeled to serve its existing members and can’t

be strategic in focusing on growth. ‘Progressive’ unions are now often the least

democratic. They’ll service their members, but they won’t let democratic

initiatives get in the way of their strategic initiatives.”

The labor leader whom Rolf repeatedly cites as a model for casting off time-

honored union practices and devising new ones is John L. Lewis. Lewis didn’t

care a fig for union democracy, but he built the CIO.

eattle’s decision to raise its minimum wage has apparently inspired

other cities governed by the center-left to raise their minimum wage

levels as well, if not necessarily all the way to $15. Shortly after

Seattle passed its ordinance, San Diego followed suit. San Francisco and

Oakland have wage-hike referenda on their November ballots, and the mayors

of Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York look to be converging on a $13-and-

change minimum-wage standard for their cities.

If workers’ raises are to come from legislation rather than collective

bargaining, however, is there a way they can use that legislation to build at

least some organization? An embryonic version of Rolf ’s new institutions?

During Rolf ’s meetings with a group of labor-community activists while the

business–labor task force deliberated this year, that was a question he

repeatedly raised. “David kept asking, ‘How can we leverage things like a

minimum wage victory to support worker organizing?’” says Rich Stolz, who

heads an immigrant advocacy group. “Even if it may not be the traditional

collective bargaining model, can we create associate memberships that offer

benefits to workers? What can we do?”

up democracy,” says Freiboth.

One possibility is to build an organization devoted to monitoring and

enforcing the legislation that unions have won—as the National Domestic

Workers Alliance has done by enlisting its members to make sure that

domestic workers’ newly acquired rights aren’t violated, as Working America

has done in Albuquerque to ensure that employers are actually paying the

minimum wage. In Seattle, Murray recently unveiled an enforcement program

in which the city will partner with a private nonprofit organization to inform

workers of their rights. “David keeps saying, ‘If it’s 1 A.M. at Taco Bell and a

worker is asked to work off the clock, City Hall won’t be there—it’ll be up to

the worker,’” says Sejal Parikh, who heads Working Washington, the Seattle

fast-food workers organization.

“Enforcing labor standards in the sectors most prone to victimization requires

a bottom-up approach,” says Rolf, who favors an even more ambitious

nonprofit operation, employing numerous low-wage workers, than the one the

mayor has proposed. “People have to know how to assert their rights on the

job. To get there, we need workers going door-to-door and meeting in church


Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein notes that a number of such

organizations have arisen at various times to enforce laws and ordinances.

During World War II, thousands of CIO members and their spouses served as

the de facto enforcers of the wartime price controls in countless stores across

the nation. The limitation on such organizations is that they’re not self-

sustaining, and that the activists don’t win paychecks or receive benefits

remotely comparable to those that workers get through union contracts.

Murray’s proposed nonprofit may have some workers on staff, but that won’t

make it a workers’ organization.

How could such a group become a workers’ organization, dependent not on

“People have to know how to assert their rights
on the job. To get there, we need workers going
door-to-door and meeting in church

government but its own members for its survival? It may require the labors of

Rolf ’s Workers Lab to figure that out.

olf is not the only premier union operative who believes unions in

their current form are on the way out. Just as Rolf is the most

successful union organizer of the past 15 years, the most successful

organizer of the preceding 15 was Stephen Lerner, architect of SEIU’s Justice

for Janitors campaign that unionized tens of thousands of the low-wage

workers who cleaned the office buildings in the downtowns of multiple

Northeastern, Midwestern, and West Coast cities.

Like Rolf, albeit with some difference, Lerner believes that the primary

purpose of today’s unions should be “not to rebuild unions per se but to

rebuild collective bargaining in a self-sustaining way.” Despite his success

guiding Justice for Janitors—the single most notable organizing campaign of

the 1990s—Lerner’s unconventional methods and ideas were not always

welcome at SEIU, and in 2012, he left the union. Today, he is the chief strategist

of three distinct but overlapping campaigns waged by local labor and

community groups, all of which target the financial sector. The first organizes

students to demand lower interest rates on college debt as well as lower

tuition rates. The second organizes homeowners whose homes are

underwater, calling for cities to take over bank-owned properties through

eminent domain. The third rallies public employee unions and community

organizations to pressure cities to demand renegotiation of their debts to Wall

Street. Lerner doesn’t have Rolf ’s focus on developing new institutions that

can exercise power for workers. Rather, he concentrates more on actions that

could give bargaining power to a far wider range of constituencies.

As befits their respective personalities, Rolf ’s is a more methodical approach;

Lerner’s is more loose and dynamic. But when labor’s two pre-eminent

organizers of the past three decades agree that the collective bargaining

regime established in 1935, in which the American labor movement has

functioned for the past 80 years, is dead and not coming back, attention, as

Willy Loman’s wife says, must be paid.


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Race & Ethnicity

Rolf ’s favored metaphor for the role that he believes today’s unions should

play is that of a “nurse log”—a term used by forest ecologists. A nurse log is a

fallen tree that, as it decays, provides nourishment and protection to seedlings,

some of which will grow to become new trees. “That’s our choice,” he says.

“We can preserve the dying model, or we can use the resources of our model

to give birth to what replaces it.”








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The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century



ITfD B’f





Sarah Leonard

The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century


Title Page
Copyright Notice


Sarah Leonard

Working for the Weekend
Chris Maisano

Imagining Socialist Education
Megan Erickson

How to Make Black Lives Really, Truly Matter
Jesse A. Myerson and Mychal Denzel Smith

Sex Class
Sarah Leonard

The Green and the Red
Alyssa Battistoni

Red Innovation
Tony Smith

The Cure for Bad Science
Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones

Finding the Future of Criminal Justice
Phillip Agnew, Dante Barry, Cherrell Carruthers, Mychal Denzel Smith,Ashley Yates

Sarah Leonard

The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century

After Gay Marriage
Kate Redburn

Small, Not Beautiful
Tim Barker

The Red and the Black
Seth Ackerman


Peter Frase and Bhaskar Sunkara

About the Authors

Sarah Leonard

The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century Sarah Leonard


Sarah Leonard

Every election season is a time of bemoaning why millennials won’t vote

for politicians boldly committed to picking at the edges of their prob­

lems. Consider a snapshot of the situation young people face: the unem­

ployment rate for workers under age twenty-five is 18.1 percent; unem­

ployment for black people who have not graduated from high school is

82.5 percent; the people most likely to be shot by police are black twen­

ty-five-to-thirty-four-year-olds; the national student loan debt has sur­

passed $1 trillion; and the only jobs lucrative enough to pay off college

loans are in the financial industry that detonated our economy or Sili­

con Valley companies deregulating working-class industries.

The future doesn’t hold much hope either, with median household

income declining 12.4 percent between 2000 and 2011. Having a family

is simply harder to afford now. Meanwhile, each new year sets another

low record for union density, meaning we have few levers for turning

those income numbers around. Unlike most wealthy countries, the United

States lacks universal child care and maternity leave, so women are stuck

with the same old debates over an impossible work-life balance.

We were told that in the knowledge economy good jobs followed higher

education; there are few jobs, and we lock ourselves into miserable ones

as quickly as possible to feed the loan sharks. The magazine writers who

report on self-indulgent twenty-somethings (think Time’s ”The Me Me Me

Generation” cover), the well-meaning guidance counselors who coach

kids to ”invest in themselves”-they should save their breath. You don’t

need a college course to know when you’re getting screwed.

The most grotesque feature of the 2016 election is the razor-thin

spectrum of solutions proposed by the f rant runners to a historic set of

The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century Sarah Leonard

problems. Lost in the noise of the 2016 election cycle is the fact that no

viable candidate offers any hope for a radically more equal society: the

policies on offer would merely mitigate the dire inequality that has been

growing since Reagan. And this is despite the fact that a majority of

Americans express widespread discontent with the country’s extreme

consolidation of wealth: about three in four Americans think that in­

equality is a serious problem in the United States. (This places Ameri­

cans in the mainstream of world opinion, where in all forty-four nations

polled by Pew, people think inequality is a big problem facing their coun­

tries.) It is this popular dissatisfaction that no doubt accounts for the un­

expected surge of support for the unlikely long-shot Democratic candi­

date, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, an avowed socialist.

Indeed, the most obvious source of this election’s futility is that popular

opinion, expressed through elections, has essentially proved to have no

influence on policy. According to a now-famous 2014 Princeton and North­

western study measuring influence in American politics, ”economic elites

and organized groups representing business interests have substantial in­

dependent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based inter­

est groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

On key issues like gun control, financial reform, and education spend­

ing, the policymakers’ divergence from popular opinion has been partic­

ularly stark.

The United States is now, in effect, an oligarchy. Beyond this sad

reckoning lies an even more fundamental problem: there is no better al­

ternative on offer. We need a vision of a better future, one that turns

our modern capacity for abundant food, shelter, and health into a guar­

antee that no one will suffer for their lack.

So when people demand that we vote, you can see why the answer

comes back: for what?

The economic crash was not just an ugly fluctuation that we’ re all trying

in good faith to correct. It has provided cover for neoliberal benefit roll­

backs-cutting government services in the name of budget crises-in

which all of these candidates have participated. Vulnerable people who

need the services the most get screwed first: the young, the old, the

The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century Sarah Leonard

poor. Eligibility for unemployment benefits has been tightened and op­

portunities to extend them rejected because we ”can’t afford them.”

A college education is edging beyond reach for many of us. In 2012,

Congress restricted Pell grants for low-income college students. While

national student debt has surpassed $1 trillion, the federal government

has made it impossible to default on these college loans-even your So­

cial Security can be garnished to pay them off. And before students even

make it to college, they are subjected to schools with such attenuated

budgets that physicians have started prescribing Adderall to poor kids to

keep them focused in unruly classrooms whether they have ADD or not.

In the words of one doctor, ”We’ve decided as a society that it’s too ex­

pensive to modify the kid’s environment. So we have to modify the kid.”

Perhaps it’s wise to modify the kid for the brave new world that will

await her: one with constantly shifting and disappearing jobs and no

safety net of any kind. It is a truism now that no one expects one career.

Most people now in college or high school will have six jobs by the time

they’ re twenty-six. And let us not mistake flexible work for fulfilling

work. This is an age when the power of the boss is so ascendant over the

power of the worker that we can be shuffled around to match precisely

the needs of capital. Department stores and retailers now use apps that

will inform an employee midway through a workday if their services are

no longer needed to match customer demand. About half of early-career

hourly workers learn their schedule for the week less than one week in

advance. A full day’s work, or a ”steady” job, is a thing of the past. This

is a chronically unstable way to operate in the world, picking up bits of

knowledge work, service work, or manual labor as needed.

When asked what factors led to such a dramatic divide between the

needs of the average citizen and the actions of the state, Princeton so­

ciologist Martin Gilens, co-author of the 2014 study measuring influence

in American politics, cited moneyed lobbying on the one hand, and ”the

lack of mass organizations that represent and facilitate the voice of or­

dinary citizens,” on the other. ”Part of that would be the decline of

The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century Sarah Leonard

unions in the country, which has been quite dramatic over the last 30 or

40 y ears,” Gilens added. ”And part of it is the lack of a socialist or a

worker’s party.”

It is not only in the United States that unions are crumbling and the

safety net is being torched in the name of leaner, more responsible bud­

gets. The Eurozone, which was once touted as the means to a prosper­

ous and peaceful continent, has revealed itself to be nothing more than

a continental sy stem of extraction.

Poor countries in southern Europe borrowed money from foreign banks

before the devastating financial crisis of 2010, only to find themselves

unable to pay them back. To protect the euro, much of this debt was re­

structured and taken over by the troika-the International Monetary

Fund, European Commission, and the European Central Bank-that then

forced countries such as Greece, Spain, and Italy to cut social spending

to pay off the debts. Now in Greece, for example, unemployment has

hit 25 percent in part due to huge public-sector cuts, and infant mortal­

ity, suicide, and addiction are all on the rise because the troika has re­

quired cuts in health care spending.

For examples of turning radical ideas into platforms for power, we might

consider the rise of radical European parties in opposition to this sort of

austerity-examples of Gilens’ counterweights to oligarchy. As we write,

these parties are being buffeted by international creditors and may col­

lapse, but they have far outpaced Americans in organizing militant left

institutions. Greece elected Sy riza, the first radical leftist, antiauster­

ity party to hold power within the EU. Syriza entered government prom­

ising to defy troika mandates and leave debt unpaid rather than starve

Greeks. They promised, as well, greater democracy in the workplace,

supporting enterprises such as the national television station, which had

come under worker control during the crisis. In Spain, the lndignados

movement, a sort of precursor to Occupy in the United States, has trans­

formed into a political party called Podemos. They, too, promise to defy

EU austerity measures, root out corruption, and devolve more democ­

racy to local councils. These parties are quite different from one anoth­

er, the former a party born from a fusion of radical-left forces and the

The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century Sarah Leonard

other out of a haphazard and less ideologically coherent coalition of re­

gional groups. They will not solve the crisis right away, and may even

disintegrate under pressure from the troika, but they provide an exam­

ple of organizing successfully for power.

* * *

The United States has shown glimmers of such radical potential. The

surge of youth politicization embodied by Occupy injected class into our

public debate back in 2011 and formed connections with antiausterity

movements across the world, especially with the Spanish lndignados.

More recently, the Black Lives Matter movement for racial justice has

forced the whole country to confront not only the violence that oppresses

black people in America, but also the recession that black America has

suffered since 2001. Parts of the movement are putting forward eco-

nom1c programs.

Like Occupy, Black Lives Matter eschews centralized leadership in favor

of a more horizontal structure that privileges local autonomy. On Decem­

ber 13, 2014, some 30,000 people marched th rough New York City in

honor of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and other black victims of police

brutality, creating a new normal in the public’s response: today, police

shootings, which are no more prevalent than before, regularly make

headline news and inspire mass protests. One of President Barack

Obama’s last acts in office will be limiting military equipment for police

departments; his reform barely scratches the surf ace of the problems

with American policing, but is one of the first tangible results of the

movement at the federal level. No change would be on the agenda with­

out pressure from the new organization.

Young activists in the United States are embedded in other rising leftist

forces as well. Fight for 15 is a low-wage workers’ movement that started

with promising victories for fast-food workers and has most recently

achieved a previously unthinkable $ 15 minimum wage for all of Los An­

geles. The domestic workers’ movement, almost entirely run by and rep­

resenting immigrant women of color, has organized to achieve a domes­

tic workers’ bills of rights-which includes the right to overtime, days

The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century Sarah Leonard

off, and legal protection from sexual harassment-in New York, Califor­

nia, Massachusetts, and Hawaii. The debt abolition movement, which

emerged from Occupy, has recently been the undoing of Corinthian Col­

leges, a shady for-profit education company that ripped off thousands

of students, a few of whom, in an act of economic disobedience, are

now refusing to pay their student debts in protest. The immigrants’ rights

movement has been tremendously brave, with many young people tak­

ing leadership roles and exposing themselves to potential deportation.

All of these organizations have enormous challenges ahead of them, es­

pecially because most are reliant on centralized labor union and foun­

dation funding and are not self-sustaining through dues or other tradi­

tional labor methods. They also represent a tiny fraction of citizens even

as they point to creative ways forward.

So where does that leave us? Some across left-of-center American

politics have stepped forward to condemn the new activism. If the re­

action to Occupy was ”what are your demands?”-shorthand for ”show

us your reasonable think tank-approved white papers”-then the reac­

tion to Black Lives Matter has not been far off. Establishment liberals

such as Al Sharpton have condemned the movement for lacking leaders

and have demanded a focus on voter registration and mobilization. Black

voter registration did surge in Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown’s

killing by police officer Darren Wilson, but in the poignant words of one

activist and scholar, ”voting would not have saved Michael Brown.” Cer­

tainly, voting for Obama has produced little change, either in the treat­

ment of black people by the police and the criminal justice system, or

for students and their chronic state of debt, or for the falling incomes

of ordinary workers.

The unimaginative stance of established politicos demonstrates a

fundamental misunderstanding of grassroots politics. Protests don’t

write policy in their first months, but rather shift conversations and tell

everyone suffering through American capitalism that they are not alone.

More important, all of these movements for change ultimately have one

focus: on redistribution-of wealth, power, and justice. Their decentral-

The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century Sarah Leonard

ized structures pose challenges, and are sometimes liabilities, but they

indicate a real hunger for democracy, one that may manifest itself dif­

ferently in the future.

In fact, according to a 2011 Pew poll, a higher percentage of Americans

between the ages of eighteen and thirty have a more favorable opinion

of socialism than of capitalism. This points to a tremendous churn of rad­

ical potential, and while we should not get too utopian about its immi­

nent triumph, it is crucial that we, like the rising European parties, ar­

ticulate the sort of world we would like to see, the world that no lead­

ing candidates have promised. This is a world that could only be born

with the force of social movements at its back.

It is time, in other words, for ideas big enough to be worthy of the global

discontent that put them on the agenda. The ideas in this volume draw

on a rich tradition of socialist proposals, long a force in American poli­

tics, only recently quashed into obscurity. It’s easy to forget that social­

ist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs won almost a million votes,

twice. Or that hundreds of mayors and local officials were socialists in

the first half of the twentieth century, and that Milwaukee elected three

”sewer socialist” mayors, the last as late as 1956. Even today, the Senate

boasts a self-described democratic socialist, presidential candidate Ber­

nie Sanders. This is not a strain alien to American soil-despite the neo­

McCarthy ite language of the Republican Party. The modern GOP accuses

every Democrat of being a socialist (we wish!) and slurs progressive tax­

ation, universal health care, and a host of other decent policies as ”for­

eign” and ”European” in order to cast suspicion on anyone left of cen­


We propose an alternative vision-both reformist and revolutionary,

utopian and pragmatic. Leftists have often shied away from suggesting

blueprints, thinking them undemocratic. But proposing a course isn’t the

same thing as imposing one. If the movements we’ve embraced in the

past couple of y ears are worth taking seriously, it’s because they can

form the political basis for social plans. People want to know that there

is another way.

The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century Sarah Leonard

The openness of young people to socialism may indicate two things:

they are fed up with being repeatedly let down by capitalism; and peo­

ple who came to political consciousness after 1989 do not have a vision

of socialism heavily influenced by the Cold War. When the economic cri­

sis hit, there was a resurgence of casual interest in Marx, with headlines

like ”Why Marxism Is on the Rise Again” and ”A Generation of Intellec­

tuals Shaped by 2008 Crash Rescues Marx From History’s Dustbin.” Some

Black Lives Matter activists have taken up the mantle of the Black Pan­

thers, whose vision of socialism confronted centuries of racist ex­

ploitation. Newfound engagement resulted from attempts to describe

what was happening to us, and Marxism-which describes a system

designed to produce expropriation at the bottom and growing windfalls

at the top-suddenly seemed more convincing than liberal fumbling to

explain how Democratic policies generated by people such as former

Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers could have contributed to the di­

sastrous crash.

The socialism we envision, and toward which we take some first steps

toward describing in this book, is one that prizes democracy, striving al­

ways for the sort of mass redistribution that makes individual human

flourishing possible. Our goal is an economic democracy that produces

more freedom than we could ever hope for under our current system.

The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century Sarah Leonard


Peter Frase and Bhaskar Sunkara

You get what you pay for, and we haven’t paid for much.
Compared to other rich countries, the United States does little to ensure its

citizens have access to vital services or to prevent them from falling into depriva­
tion due to unemployment or low-wage labor.At 19.4 percent of GDP,American
social spending is far below the 25 to 30 percent budgeted in most of Western
Europe. Meanwhile, 16 percent of Americans lack health insurance, almost a quar­
ter of our children live in poverty, and millions are unemployed.

Yet not only does an expansion of the safety net seem politically impossible,
even existing protections are under attack everywhere. But a movement to ex­
tend social protections has the potential to foster a new majoritarian left coali­
tion. Republicans know this that’s why they manipulate the way welfare is per­
ceived at every turn.

The reality is that 96 percent of Americans have benefited from government
programs, but the right works hard to hide that fact. It’s part of a deliberate strat­
egy t.o divide the country into two camps by convincing the majority of voters
that their labor is benefiting parasites dependent on the social safety net.

Democrats have too often bolstered this effort by echoing calls for ”welfare
reform” and ”fiscal responsibility” and by supporting policies that channel bene­
fits through the tax code (such as the home-mortgage deduction) and private or­
ganizations (such as employer-provided health insurance). The result is a system
that provides few benefits, makes them largely invisible, and disproportionately
serves the more affluent.

In the face of this neoliberal consensus, the left’s countermission must be to
show that social democracy benefits everyone. The efforts of generations of lib­
erals have rarely gone beyond rebranding and messaging. Few have pushed for the
structural changes necessary t.o build a strong welfare state.

The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century Sarah Leonard

Given the country’s economic situation and the massive discontent at the
political level, the left is in the best position in decades to argue for social-demo­
cratic programs.Austerity has only worsened unemployment and stagnated wages,
and only a concerted effort to create jobs and boost purchasing power can revive
growth and restore employment. Despite fear-mongering about the effects of bud­
get deficits, the government is still able to borrow money virtually interest-free.
And contrary to right-wing claims of out-of-control spending, taxes as a percent­
age of GDP are at their lowest level since 1950. We can and should ensure that
everyone has access to health care, education, a secure retirement, and a livable
income regardless of labor market uncertainties.

Most on the left would agree with these goals; the question has always been
how to achieve them.

We think we have an answer.We propose a new anti-austerity coalition united
by the immediate demand that certain social spending burdens, currently borne
by states and municipalities, be federalized.Almost all states are legally required
to keep balanced budgets, making it unfeasible for them to deploy deficit spend­
ing. Even if these laws were changed, states would still face greater difficulties in
this arena than the federal government. States could never borrow money on as
favorable terms as the United States can, and they haven’t been printing their own
currencies since the Articles of Confederation.

Simply put, without centralization, social democracy in America is impossible.
Once achieved, progressives could pursue policies that not only immediately im­
prove working-class lives, but also lay the groundwork for more radical reforms
in the future. W hich is to say that the left needs an affirmative strategy that can
go beyond the piecemeal defense of the status quo against austerity. We need a
comprehensive strategy that is adapted to the current state of our politics and
economy and that draws on existing areas of progressive strength.

For too long, liberals have focused on technocratic policy analyses, seeking
granular remedies to isolated problems. Such solutions lack the kind of sweeping
political vision that wins and sustains policy reforms. Conversely, radicals have for
too long made rhetorical appeals without any grounding in political realities. The
plan outlined here is a corrective to both trends, written with the understanding
that wonky policy and class politics are inextricably linked.

* * *

Though the struggle over state budget cuts has sparked debate at the national lev­
el, the politics of austerity has been prominent in the lower levels of government.
Indeed, as long as social welfare programs are funded at the state and local levels,
the fiscal limitations of subnational governments make expanding the safety net
nearly impossible in the future. Local movements may sporadically succeed at fund-

The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century Sarah Leonard

ing sporadic programs, but they will be fighting a losing battle as long as they are
trying to win concessions from governments with little spending flexibility. In the
long run, building a better and more robust social safety net will mean unifying and
reorganizing our fragmented welfare state. Some liberals defend the current sys­
tem by holding up the states as ”laboratories of democracy” that can pioneer new
progressive initiatives that are impossible at the national level. Historically, how­
ever, the least progressive aspects of American welfare have been those that are
passed off to the states, while the most generous and universal are national pro­

As the political scientist Suzanne Mettler observes in her book Dividing Citizens:
Gender and Federalism in New Deal Public Policy, the elements of the New Deal that
were left to the states were largely those that serve women and minorities, and
these programs tend to subject recipients to surveillance and scrutiny by bureau­
crats and social workers. National programs such as Social Security and Medicare,
which have a large proportion of white men on their rolls, are by contra.st re­
garded as entitlements and their recipients treated with respect.

This pattern is likely to be perpetuated, especially by right-leaning states that
are both hostile to welfare programs and contain a disproportionate share of the
nation’s poor: It’s no coincidence that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan’s 2012 budget
plan planned to push even more social welfare administration onto the states, by
converting programs such as Medicaid and food stamps into block grants.

Given the current disarray, a one-size-fits-all solution for consolidating the
welfare state does not exist. Under a new progressive system, state and local
spending could be transferred to federal programs in various ways.


In these cases, where benefits are already a shared responsibility of federal and
nonfederal governments, Washington must simply assume more of the responsi­


The current shortfall in pension funds is largely a result of the 2008 stock-market
collapse after the burst of the housing bubble, a circumstantial, not essential, depri­
vation of funds. But some type of federal guarantee for these plans is required to
ensure that workers receive the benefits they are contractually entitled to, espe­
cially in times of recession.

The federal government already has an entity, the Pension Benefit Guaranty
Corporation, responsible for ensuring that private-sector employees receive their
pensions even when their plans fail or their employers go bankrupt. Something

The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century Sarah Leonard

A broader shift to the left among Americans under thirty has already begun,
reflecting the frustration of young people facing rising inequality and diminishing
economic prospects.The recession hit this demographic group especially hard,and
its effects will dog them throughout their lives. Those who have entered the job
market in recent years face lower employment rates, worse wages, and higher
debts than those who preceded them.

The Occupy movement left the streets some years ago. It did, however, unleash
a wave of politicization that remains with us. Thousands of people are still active
in groups that found their genesis in Occupy. Moreover, the idea that elites use
their wealth and power to the detriment of the vast majority of people has intro­
duced a level of cla.ss analysis into the national public debate unseen in eighty years.

The early success of Occupy owed much to a creative wellspring from the
anarchist movement. The novel idea of occupying space and creating camps is tes­
timony to that. But too many within the movement saw those encampments as
models of a future postcapitalist utopia, rather than merely tactical deployments.
Not surprisingly, they failed to connect these tactics to a wider political strategy.

Occupy’s failure in this respect and its inability to translate its energy into more
sustained organizing around a broad anti-austerity message reflect both historical
-and innate weaknesses within the anarchist movement and activists’ fears of
being co-opted into a neoliberal electoral framework.

By linking younger activists on the extraparliamentary left with labor unions and
policymakers under an umbrella program that’s both radical and achievable, Oc­
cupy activists could contribute to tangible progressive change without sacrificing
their uncompromising zeal.


Today, only 12 percent of the workforce belongs to labor unions. However, 37 per­
cent of public employees are unionized, compared to just 7 percent in the private
sector. This is both a striking sign of the American left’s decline and a reason why
resistance to the current economic crisis has been hard to muster.

That the public sector houses what remains of the labor movement is taken by
many to be an indication of the movement’s terminal decline.And even this last
union bastion is eroding.

Cash-strapped states and cities have launched an effective bipartisan attack on
the salaries, benefits, and collective bargaining rights of public workers. Scott Walk­
er’s victory against collective organizing in W isconsin was just the most outra­
geous example of a generalized phenomenon. In the context of local competition
over resources and general economic downturn, public employees are easy tar­

The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century Sarah Leonard

The strength of a middle-class politics built around resentment should not be
underestimated: Walker had a real social base, and thousands were energized
around antiunion sentiment. His supporters saw union pensions, health benefits,
and worker protections as special privileges stolen from more productive sectors
in the private economy, rather than as the just rewards for hard labor that every­
one deserves. Even some liberals, sympathetic to unions in the private sector, view
the interests of unionized public employees and the interests of the public they
serve as at odds.

Instead of asking ”Why not me?” this anti-working-class alliance demands ”Why
them?” For this precise reason, shifting fiscal burdens from underwater state and
local budgets onto firmer, federal terrain is vital. But in the meantime, we should
accept that the labor movement is now concentrated in the public sector.This can
be turned into a source of strength.

Some see public-sector unions as little more than cartels that protect the
privileges and pay of their members. But these unions can be the chief protectors
of big federal programs. And if the public sector were more stable, with its jobs
linked to politically untouchable and universal federal programs, public-sector
unions could have clout similar to that of their powerful European counterparts,
visible and reliable protectors of the welfare state.

Historically, public-sector unions are more oriented than their private-sector
counterparts toward a social-movement unionism connecting organically with
their communities rather than limiting their struggles to shop-floor-level disputes.
This broader orientation was critical to the mass local support the Chicago Teach­
ers’ Union garnered in its struggle in the fall of 2012 against Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s
assault on their bargaining rights and compensation. By devoting significant re­
sources toward community outreach and tying its demands to a vision of egalitar­
ian public education, the union made the strike about more than just wages and

Creating a new set of union proxies, either directly or by engagement with
outside radical social movements, could also drive this coalition against austerity.
These organizations could circumvent restrictive labor laws and build alliances
with both nonunion workers and the unemployed.Actions pitched at this com­
munity level can show the public that unions are more than self-interested actors
and make labor a cornerstone of a broader progressive movement.

The labor movement also has the ability to connect the outsider power of
protest with the insider business of writing and lobbying for legislation. Unions
have both the resources and the experience to sway Washington. This will be a
necessity for any movement that seeks to reshape the structure of the American
welfare state, an important complement to the visibility and disruptive potential
of street protest.

The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century Sarah Leonard

Local and state officials will be necessary collaborators. Our strategy would
generate political pressure first and most intensely at the state and local levels.
Local governments’ drive toward austerity has much to do with their intense bud­
get constraints.

Our era lacks the robust urban political coalitions that characterized the period
when left-wing social scientists Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven suggested
banding together to overwhelm the welfare rolls, proving the inadequacy of the
American welfare state to meet basic needs. At that time, the civil rights move­
ment was able to forge alliances between urban people of color and affluent, ed­
ucated white liberals and often against working-class political machines that ex­
cluded nonwhites.

* * *

Today, however, elite liberals are arrayed against what they regard as the modern
machine: a ”bloated” public sector that has become one of the few sources of sta­
ble, middle-cla.ss jobs for people of color. Neoliberal leaders such as New York’s
former mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel unapologetically
represent the interests of wealthy business owners against the working class, push­
ing austerity and privatization as the solutions to fiscal crises. Breaking the power
of this political bloc will necessitate offering fiscally stressed governors and may­
ors an alternative path.

State and local officials are generally happy to have the burden of social spending
taken off their hands, whatever their nominal ideological commitments. The right
may have denounced Obama’s stimulus bill, but most Republican governors and
mayors didn’t turn down the money.

If progressives can articulate a positive political vision while simultaneously
pushing for policies to ease the fiscal burden on states and cities, they will offer
voters and officials an alternative that is appealing and practical. W hile refusing to
sacrifice public services or jobs on the altar of balanced budgets, the left could ally
with state and local leaders to lobby for national solutions to fiscal crises.


The left must not only defeat austerity and preserve the social safety net; it must
do so in a way that assembles the forces necessary for more fundamental trans­
formations in the future.

This vision should be premeditated. We can’t go back to the postwar Golden
Age of the American welfare state, but we can build a system in the twenty-first
century that embodies what people remember most from that era an overrid­
ing sense of freedom. Freedom to give their children an education without rival.
Freedom from poverty, hunger, and homelessness. Freedom to grow into old age

The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century Sarah Leonard

with pensions, Social Security, and affordable and accessible health care. Freedom
to leave an exploitative work environment and find another job. Freedom to or­
ganize with fellow workers for redress.

* * *

The appeal of such a society, combined with the political strategy needed to make
it a reality, will pave the way for the institution of a new set of economic and so­
cial rights to complement our bedrock political and civil rights. These steps are
necessary to build the type of working-class power that can in time win more rad­
ical transformations.

What kind of society would we build? Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky’s belief
that if nourished the average person could rise to the heights of an Aristotle,
Goethe, or Marx is perhaps too ambitious. But we can imagine a better future,
one where technology makes the pace of work more and not less tolerable, where
democracy is radically expanded into our workplaces and our homes, where com­
petition and exploitation eventually become barely remembered relics of an inhu­
mane age.

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