Politicians Are Not Our Friends

They’re quick to take credit when change is enacted, but what really motivates our politicians?
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On Wednesday, July 22, the wage board empaneled by New York governor Andrew Cuomo made its announcement: It would raise wages for fast-food workers in New York City to $15 an hour by 2018, and for fast-food workers in the rest of the state to $15 by 2021.

Cuomo took a victory lap, preening, “When New York acts, the rest of the states follow … We’ve always been different, always been first, always been the most progressive.” But there are a few things wrong with the governor’s self-congratulations. New York, of course, was not first—SeaTac, Washington, has that honor, and Seattle was the first big city to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour. The New York action will take effect statewide, but only for workers in a particular industry; home health care, retail, and restaurant workers, all of whom labor for poverty wages, are still left behind. The wage board was possible because of a strange bit of New York law that allows the governor's labor commissioner to create a board to study wages in a particular industry, after which time the labor department can issue a wage order that sets a new state minimum wage for that industry's employees. It is not actually possible in many other states.

And perhaps most pertinent, the fact is that the governor opposed such a raise right up until he empaneled the wage board. His minimum wage proposal just a couple of months ago was $10.50, lower than that proposed by Democrats in the state legislature (Cuomo too is ostensibly a Democrat), and even that was scrapped after Republicans opposed it. For years, the governor paid lip service to a small increase while refusing to bring his considerable political weight to bear on the notoriously dysfunctional state legislature. He was pushed by the Working Families Party to endorse a higher minimum wage for New York City in exchange for their endorsement of his reelection bid in 2014, and nearly immediately told reporters that he still opposed the measure.

The lesson is not that Andrew Cuomo woke up one morning and, Grinch-like, found that his heart had grown three sizes that day. Rather, it is that a confluence of forces pressed him into flipping to support a popular measure—84 percent of New Yorkers approved of a minimum wage hike in a recent poll, including 67 percent of Democrats. Facing a corruption investigation in the state government that is only getting bigger and plummeting poll numbers, the governor reached out for something he could do to earn good press and the easiest thing to hand was an issue championed by a large national movement that began right in his own state, the Fight for $15.

Workers first walked off the job demanding $15 an hour and a union in New York City in November of 2012, in a strike supported by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and local community organization New York Communities for Change (indeed, many people posted remembrances of NYCC's former leader, Jon Kest, who strategized the first strikes and died in 2012). SEIU helped the movement spread around the country, partnering with local organizations in many cities and funding organizers to bring fast-food workers and, later, workers in other low-wage industries together to demand better wages and better treatment. SEIU is now paying for ads touting Andrew Cuomo as a “fighter” for low-wage workers, but the money would have been better spent congratulating itself on bringing around a governor who has never in his career been a fighter for low-wage workers.

Politicians are not our friends.

Some of them are very nice people—there are elected officials I like quite a bit and enjoy chatting with when we cross paths. Some of them are genuinely committed fighters on one issue or another. (Andrew Cuomo, for example, has been a genuinely committed fighter against raising taxes on the wealthy.) Some of them, like Congressman John Lewis, emerged from militant political struggle to hold elected office and bring their ideals to bear in their work. But they are not, ultimately, our friends who just need to be asked nicely or explained to in order to do the right thing.

Even Kshama Sawant, Seattle's socialist city councilmember, calls the idea that heroic leaders enacted the $15 wage in her city “a fairy tale,” and credits the collective struggle of workers for putting the issue on the table and demanding it be heard.

It's a cliché so old it's growing moss, the old story of Frances Perkins or maybe it was A. Phillip Randolph giving President Franklin Roosevelt a litany of reasons why he should act on labor issues or racial justice, and the president replying, “I agree, now make me do it.” The story sticks because it's true. Politicians do not need our loyalty, our “support.” They need pressure and popular demand. Sometimes they need lawsuits. They often require protests in the streets and in their offices.

It's bad enough that in the U.S. many people think of politics as something we do every four years (two if they're really engaged), trudging to the voting booth to check off a name that seems slightly less likely to screw them and then giving up. What's worse is that, especially in the era of social media, politics often descends into rival camps shouting at each other about how great and wonderful their candidate is, how she or he is owed the vote because of some vague history or even vaguer future proposal. Think pieces abound, arguing over what, for instance, Black voters want or women will do. (Yes, I recognize the irony. It is intentional.) Politicians become memes, defanging their actual power and making them cuddly. You can buy a beer cozy with Hillary Clinton's brand on it. As Sydette Harry wrote, “We are fan-casting our political futures because we find nothing to hope for in mainstream political reality.”

Politics, like journalism, is about listening. Any organizer worth their salt will tell you that the most important part of their job is when they ask people what they need, what is wrong, what the organizing could help them fix. Whether you're organizing people to form a union in the workplace to push back on the boss's power or to vote for a candidate that you believe will solve some problems (or at least be less awful than Scott Walker), you have to listen to them when they say what they need.

But politicians often don't do the listening, and when we defend them against challenges, we enable them to continue not listening. That lack of listening has given us record-low voter turnout, as the average person thinks that they have no impact on what a politician thinks or does—and studies show that they're right, unless they happen to be a billionaire.

Pressure works, and if progressives, labor activists, feminists, and others want our issues to be acted upon, we need to keep it up, because the other side definitely is. Witness New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who campaigned fervently against racist policing in 2013, now signing on for 1,300 more police and appointing a police commissioner who likens protesters to terrorists, after the police union did little more than stage a well-timed temper tantrum. The reality is that promises made on the campaign trail often come to nothing, that powerful interests look easier to fight when you've never been their target before, and the wealthy will always have media outlets, consultants, and armies of lobbyists on their side. Up against all that, the best power we have is disruption.

That's why it made headlines last weekend when, at Netroots Nation, which has gone from a scrappy gathering of outsider bloggers to a massive conference of progressive organizers and media where elected officials go to warm up to the base, protesters from the growing racial justice movement known as the movement for black lives or Black Lives Matter disrupted a presidential candidate forum with Martin O'Malley and Bernie Sanders (Hillary Clinton was notably absent from the conference). Neither candidate acquitted himself very well in the moment, floundering for answers that should have been easy. But what was more disappointing was that afterward, supporters of the flailing candidates began to scold the disrupters for disrupting.

Martin O'Malley, who probably knew he was going to be challenged on this issue as the former mayor of Baltimore, pivoted quickly, doing interviews and putting out a statement. Bernie Sanders retreated, but since then has talked about Sandra Bland and structural racism. Hillary Clinton, whose campaign strategy has mostly been to sit back and act like the frontrunner without putting herself in a position to be challenged, stated “Black Lives Matter.” (She had been criticized for saying “All Lives Matter” in a Black church near Ferguson, Missouri, the mistake that O'Malley also made at Netroots.) The AFL-CIO put out a statement in support of the protesters.

Their action worked. They put their issue front and center and made major presidential candidates answer to them. They were successful because they did not assume that presidential candidates were already on their side, but because they kept pushing, with the weight of a nationwide movement behind them. It will require even more pressure to get a policy platform that will make a real dent in the structural racism that leaves black people, good jobs or no, at constant risk of state violence.

The debate has changed in the U.S. because of movements over the past few years, where now candidates are scrambling to endorse a $15-an-hour wage and to find the right language and policies on criminal justice reform. Policies will change not if we just ask officials politely enough, but if we can ensure that the cost of refusal is too high.

 

Sarah Jaffe is an independent journalist and the author of NECESSARY TROUBLE: AMERICANS IN REVOLT, out in August 2016 from Nation Books. Her work has appeared in the Nation, Salon, the Week, the American Prospect, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and many other publications. She is the co-host, with Michelle Chen, of Dissent magazine's "Belabored" podcast, as well as an editorial board member at Dissent and a columnist at New Labor Forum.
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