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Looking forward to the 2007 ASA Annual Meeting in New York …

Paradox and the City: Why the Working Class Has Political Power

by Dan Cantor and J.W. Mason, Working Families Party

The first paradox of New York City politics is that the city with the country’s greatest gap between rich and poor is also the city with the largest and perhaps most politically potent labor movement. The working class and poor have real access to political power.

New York’s extreme levels of inequality are not news, and have less to do with concentrated poverty—which New York shares with other big American cities—than with concentrated wealth, where it is truly in a league of its own. But the exodus of middle and working–class families from much of the city, especially Manhattan, is also a factor, as housing prices have risen and industrial and blue–collar jobs have disappeared.

Yet compared with other older cities or with its recent past, New York has to be considered an economic success story. Even poverty, while real and exacerbated by high housing costs, is mitigated by two important factors: the large proportion of the poor living in immigrant communities and the much greater availability of public goods, especially transit and health care. Compared with “second ghettoes” elsewhere, New York’s housing projects and other poor neighborhoods are far more integrated with the rest of the city.

Immigration in the City

Because of immigration, New York today is larger than ever and continues to gain population, an outcome—like the city’s declining crime rate—that hardly could have been foreseen 30 years ago. Anthropologist David Harvey has argued that the New York City 1970s fiscal crisis was the dry run for the structural adjustment programs that have been the hallmark of neoliberalism; like a third–world debtor, the city was granted relief on condition of deregulating the economy, slashing public payrolls, privatizing public assets, and granting an unprecedented level of political authority to its creditors.

But if the resolution of the fiscal crisis resembled the treatment of debtor nations in the 1980s, the city’s subsequent trajectory was quite different. The city’s strategic role as a financial hub and as a continued attraction to immigrants gave it a unique resilience. Just as important was the city’s more recent political transformation.

A New Mayor

At the mayoral level, Giuliani’s snarl has been replaced by the affable managerialism of Michael Bloomberg. The cultural shift has been dramatic, including an end to the deliberate fanning of the flames of racial fear and resentment under Giuliani as seen in a comparison of their responses to the police shootings of Amadou Diallo in 1999 and Sean Bell last year. More profoundly, Bloomberg has revitalized city government, running what is universally regarded as the most competent and professional and least corrupt administration in decades. (The mediocrity of the Giuliani administration has been largely obscured by his September 11, 2001, vintage reputation as “America’s mayor.”) Bloomberg’s reaction to the budget crisis in 2003 was the diametric opposite of the city’s surrender to its creditors in the 1970s: He insisted that the city had far more to fear from curtailed services than from higher taxes, and after some false starts, supported a highly progressive income tax surcharge affecting mainly households with incomes over $500,000. That is a second paradox of New York politics: The quintessential businessman mayor has turned out to be a uniquely pro–government mayor as well.

Can’t Fight City Council

A third paradox is the rise of the City Council into an arena for progressive policy–making. It has been transformed by three factors: Changes in the rules (campaign finance reform and term limits) and repeated and repeatedly successful coalitions of newly aggressive unions and community groups, especially ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now). The final factor is the rise of the Working Families Party as the political expression of those institutional forces and aspirations.

Public financing for city elections—matching funds for small individual contributions, combined with spending caps—has made it possible for community and labor activists to run for office. But public financing alone was not enough until term limits were passed by referendum in 1993. There is a delicious irony here, in that term limits was the project of a hyper–wealthy right–wing businessman, Ronald Lauder, and was opposed by labor and its allies. The result? It has strengthened the constituencies (i.e., unions, minorities, and community groups) whose influence Lauder hoped to reduce, and has contributed to a decided leftward shift of the City Council.

The combination of public financing and term limits has meant vastly more common contested elections, combined with an advantage to organizations who are able to generate large numbers of volunteers and even to recruit candidates. New leadership in a number of the city’s larger unions combined with the continued political strength of SEIU 1199, the teachers’ unions, laborers’ unions, and others, made labor an obvious candidate to fill this role. But even in New York City, unions lack the ability to organize a political movement alone, a fact increasingly recognized by their leadership.

Influence of Community Organizations

The rise of ACORN has been a critical factor in creating coalitions able to take advantage of the new electoral conjuncture. ACORN, one of a number of community organizations established in the 1960s and 70s, has outlasted almost all of its peers and has a national reach that no other community network (with the possible exception of the Industrial Areas Foundation) can match. ACORN is more oriented toward electoral politics than other community groups, which allows it to take advantage of the openings created by campaign finance and term limits. The ever–vigilant Manhattan Institute’s City Journal described the New York City Council as “taking orders” from ACORN—while a bit of a hyperbole, it does not fundamentally mischaracterize its influence.

The issues that ACORN and its allies have been most active on are not surprising: housing and education top the list. They have defeated privatization of the schools and won enormous housing commitments and zoning regulations, proving the high value of door knocking.

Putting all of this together—that is, combining the new electoral possibilities with issue–based campaigns aimed at reducing the vast inequality that characterizes New York City—is the nation’s most interesting (so we think!) progressive political organization, the Working Families Party (WFP). Taking advantage of New York’s unusual “fusion” law, which allows candidates to run on multiple party lines, the WFP has built a reliable electoral bloc of labor, liberal, and minority voters that it typically delivers to Democrats, but can strategically withhold or even, occasionally, marshal behind its own candidate. In a number of City Council districts, the WFP share of the vote regularly exceeds 25 percent, giving the Party a real voice in New York City government.

But a voice—even a loud one—is not the same as governing authority. This is the hurdle that the labor and community groups inside and outside the Working Families Party and the progressive wing of the city’s Democrats have not yet cleared. On housing, education, and labor regulation, the WFP and its allies can have a decisive impact. But the heart of city government remains the budget and land use decisions. (Land use in particular is decisive in determining the industrial mix of the city.) And in those areas progressives remain on the outside looking in.

So the final question about politics in New York City is whether a still–strong labor movement, in combination with increasingly powerful community groups and a uniquely favorable electoral environment, can move from opposition to governing. There is a widespread view on the left that popular politics is fundamentally and necessarily oppositional and that progressive change happens more through protest than through voter action. The test in New York is to see whether we can keep the spirit of the former, avoid the traps of the latter, and make this city a beacon of egalitarian democracy. Frances Fox Piven votes WFP so we are off to a good start.

J.W. Mason is the Policy Director and Dan Cantor the Executive Director of the Working Families Party of New York.