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Activists Gather for PWF Summit

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Photo: Joe Rihn

The Partnership for Working Families Summit kicked off Tuesday in Los Angeles as activists from around the country convened at the Biltmore Hotel for three days of workshops and talks focused on creating good jobs, sustainable industries and strong unions.

The Partnership includes such groups as the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), Puget Sound Sage and the Alliance for a Greater New York (ALIGN). While attendees came from a range of organizations and campaigns, the idea that cities can be platforms for change provided a common thread. As Leslie Moody, the Partnership’s outgoing executive director, put it in her opening remarks, “Cities matter.”

Moody pointed to the new set of progressive mayors taking office across the U.S., but added that elected leaders do not act alone. She cited the way communities have pushed new civic officials to follow through with constructive policies.

Leslie Moody (left) and Nikki Fortunato Bas

Leslie Moody (left) & Nikki Fortunato Bas

“We’re not going to wait for federal change,” Moody said, adding that local politicians often advance to higher offices over time. “If we don’t hold local politicians to high standards, what will they do later in their careers?” she asked.

According to Moody’s successor, Nikki Fortunato Bas, who directs the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), the redevelopment of the Oakland Army Base is one example of the kind of community benefits policies that are shaped by local involvement. She believes that vast discrepancies in income can be narrowed by requiring major construction projects and real estate developments to provide local communities with accessible jobs that pay living wages.

On Tuesday evening, Maria Elena Durazo, Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, opened a panel discussion touching on similar themes as she called for labor and community groups to join forces. She stressed the importance of good jobs with union representation as building blocks for sustainable communities.

For some attending the conference, new campaigns to raise wages for low-income workers make this an exhilarating time to be an activist. According to LAANE’s executive director, Roxana Tynan, there is “real excitement and movement around income inequality and raising the minimum wage.” She identified a “growing awareness of what income inequality means,” including “how the majority of Americans are living in some kind of economic insecurity.” Tynan added that this “knowledge is really motivating.” Describing the growing support for higher minimum wages, she noted how an ordinance to raise the minimum wage of hotel workers in Long Beach, California, received support from a majority of Republican women.

Attendees Betsy Pernotto and Cameron Yee shared similar outlooks. Pernotto, who serves as the co-chair of Jobs With Justice in Bellingham, Washington, mentioned community benefits projects in her area, along with the recent vote to raise the City of SeaTac’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. Yee, who works for the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) in Ventura, California, sees the City of San Jose’s recent minimum wage increase as a reason to be optimistic.

When it comes to the recent cuts to food stamps, these activists find evidence of an ongoing challenge for working families. Victor Sanchez, the AFL-CIO’s Northeast Region’s National Community Engagement Development Coordinator, said that cuts to benefits for low-income people are not a sign of things to come, but rather a sign of “how things have been.” Tynan echoed these sentiments, calling the development “nothing new.” She added, “That has been the nature of life for low-income families for the last 30 years.”

For Moody, the recent wave of city elections and progressive victories are a more accurate sign of the times.

“I like to think there will be another side of the populist movement that is a lot more caring than the Tea Party,” she said. Sanchez perhaps best summed up the spirit of the conference, which ends today.

“Activism,” he said, “finds itself in a space of reimagining what’s possible.”

(Joe Rihn is a freelance writer and communications specialist based in Los Angeles.  He has worked and volunteered with the Liberty Hill Foundation, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and Dublab.com.)

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