The 99 Percent Takes Office: How an Immigrant Housekeeper Got Elected to the Providence City Council
Photo Credit: carmencastilloward9.com
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If labor and other progressive groups are going to rebuild an economy that works for the 99 percent in America, they need to do great organizing in workplaces and communities and they also need to build deep coalitions among themselves. But that's not enough.
They also need to translate their organizing muscle into political power. And that means looking at electoral strategies in a new way.
The progressive victories in this November's elections were inspiring and important, but they were essentially defensive. We fended off Republican attacks in Ohio, Mississippi and Maine, but we need to be winning pro-active campaigns, too. We need to be able to use electoral politics to reinforce our organizing strategies.
We often elect lesser-evil politicians and send them off in the vague hope that they will do the right thing once taking office. But we have seen time and time again, that even when we have friends in elected positions, they often end up holding the grassroots constituencies that got them elected at arm's length. Politicians face huge pressures from corporate interests once in power and, consequently, just having a "D" after their name does not guarantee that they will take tough stands on behalf of working people. We don't need friends in office; we need champions.
Fortunately, activists in Providence, Rhode Island - prominently including the hotel and restaurant workers union (UNITE HERE) - are providing a model for electing officials at the municipal level who will champion the interests of working people. These progressives are creating impressive coalitions, overcoming historic divides between the building trades and other unions and translating organizing strength into a political program that can produce real community benefits.
What's more - in an exciting special election this Tuesday - they succeeded in electing one of their truest champions yet. Carmen Castillo, a hotel housekeeper and a rank-and-file union leader, brought to her campaign the life experience of an immigrant and a single mom, along with the vision of an organizer. She is drawing on the strength of an electoral coalition that has never looked more impressive.
It Takes an Agenda
Providence's city council has long been heavily Democratic and all 15 council members currently in office are Democrats. In this setting, party affiliation is not the main issue. The importance of having true champions in office became clear when activists started thinking big - imagining an economic agenda that could be enacted at the municipal level and would truly benefit working people.
In the past decade, social movement thinkers have recognized that not all policies must be set at the federal level, where Congressional conservatives can easily stonewall progressive measures. By presenting an alternative vision for economic development at the level of states and metropolitan regions, grassroots movements can have an impact on critical issues of housing, transportation, environmental protection and living-wage standards.
UNITE HERE has been actively involved in Rhode Island politics for many years, but in 2010, the union aggressively expanded its volunteer operation to give workers a louder voice in local elections, especially in Providence. They connected their drive with established efforts by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) locals 1199 and 615, the Laborers, and a variety of community groups that had been working to build a core of strong progressives on the city council. In the 2010 elections, five council candidates endorsed by the union prevailed, making up a third of the body.
The point for the union was not just to get friends into office. It was to pass innovative policies that could help working people in the city in a concrete way. A key example of the types of policies they envisioned was a worker retention ordinance, which could help union members keep their jobs when businesses changed hands and reduce the temptation of subcontracting as a way to reduce decent-paying jobs. An initial version of the ordinance passed in 2009, an expanded version passed in 2010 and it has survived initial court challenges. As Chris Cook, a worker at the Westin Hotel in Providence and vice president of UNITE HERE Local 217 explains: