Obama Campaign Scientists Try to Spin Basic ACORN-style Community Organizing Methodologies

New Orleans    More than 40 years ago I used to go downtown a couple of times a week to the Walgreens on Main Street and drink very cheap, very bad coffee with an Arkansas political savant named Max Allison.  Max was a behind the scene political operator.  He had run the campaigns that first elected Wilbur Mills to Congress and been involved in scores of other campaigns large and small.  He would be there every morning.  He had narcolepsy.  Sometimes he would drift off in the middle of some story about beating a candidate for governor by putting in other candidates with the same name and other tricks in fashion in post-WWII politics in the South.  He and his buddies, who would later win seats as county judges and congressmen and an organizer like me, would dissect the local paper, then the Arkansas Gazette,  looking for what he called “invisible hand behind the new.”  Often the riddle of the day would be whether it was Max’s own hand behind a story or someone else’s hand.  I would pick up points in these discussions with Max and his cronies if I was able to correctly deduce the elements in what he called the “political equation.”  It was a morning master’s class in politics for a young organizer trying to learn how to build power by understanding the reality of how politics really worked.  Thanks again, Max and so many others, may you rest in peace!

I was reminded of this reading the spinning, self-promotion of a self-declared “dream team” of academic behavioral scientists in the morning Times.  These kinds of pieces are common after every election in the “victory has a thousand fathers, and defeat is a bastard child” school of hustling and bustling.   The point of the promotion was for the scientists to get more credit or more work or something, and their colleagues could say this was a breakthrough, I suppose.

What was more interesting to me is how much all of this simply confirmed long practiced, tried and true community organizing methodology applied to basic organizing and politics for literally decades!  The real lesson is probably, how long does it take the big whoops to listen to field organizers on the ground?

Here’s a good example.  Back to 2000 or more than a dozen years in political campaigns of all kinds starting in the first ACORN Living Wage Campaign on an initiative petition in New Orleans, organizers used a “Count on Me” form, which was signed by voters during the field contact work indicating that they would vote for the measure.   This technique was then universally adopted throughout ACORN on all political campaigns and many other organizational efforts.   The Times quote today on the new “breakthrough” of the Obama campaign:

Many volunteers also asked would-be voters if they would sign an informal agreement to vote, a card with the president’s picture on it.  This small, voluntary agreement simplifies the likelihood that the person will follow through, research has found.

Here is another great example from the story.   For over 40 years a basic element of the ACORN door-to-door organizing rap was to begin the conversation at the door and in the 1st mailing by essentially saying, “Many of your neighbors are coming together to form a community organization with ACORN and would like to have you join with them in doing so,” and then take the rap from there.

Another technique the volunteers said they used was to inform supporters that others in their neighborhood were planning to vote.  Again, recent research shows that this kind of message is much more likely to prompt people to vote than traditional campaign literature that emphasizes the negative – that many neighbors did not vote and thus lost an opportunity to make a difference.  This kind of approach trades on a human instinct to conform to social norms, psychologists say.

The examples are endless.

What is fascinating to me is how much these campaigns could learn from organizers now that the actual field work is finally becoming privileged appropriately.  Field organizing techniques based millions of doors hit over decades by community organizers who live and die based on “what works” and how people “vote with their feet” is actually immeasurably more valuable than research studies!

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Business Assistance Living Wage Campaigns

New Orleans               Support is increasingly lining up in New York City and elsewhere not simply for living wage ordinances, but more specifically for a more targeted type of living wage program where public dollars are partnered with private development.  These so-called “business assistance” living wage ordinances that also draw from experiences with “community benefit agreements” and other equitable urban policy initiatives are extremely important for any city trying to use its tax revenues to not only create new jobs and opportunities, but to also make sure that the benefits of such investments are broadly shared by the citizens.

In the current fight in New York City an oft cited study that buttresses the case for coupling public investment in private development with living wage improvements on such projects was written by T. William Lester and our old friend and comrade, Ken Jacobs from the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education.  The study, “Creating Good Jobs in Our Communities:  How Higher Wage Standards Affect Economic Development and Employment,” put together a list of cities that had enacted “business assistance living wage” ordinances and created a database to compare them to a similar set of cities to determine in a unique way whether or not cities had hurt their growth and job development with such policy initiatives.  The cities  had a good dose of California in them, not surprisingly, but also included a good smattering from around the rest of the country, making the work truly national in scope.

The results contained good news for all of us who have advocated and organized for such policies to be enacted in our cities:

“Economic development wage standards are one tool that a city can use to create jobs of greater quality. We have compared two sets of cities in order to assess the effectiveness of such laws—those with enforced business assistance living wage laws and those without—and found that there is no loss in the number of jobs due to the living wage requirement. It appears that, even during hard times, economic development wage standards are an effective tool for increasing wages in a city without sacrificing the number of jobs.”

This work builds on the path breaking work done by Dr. Robert Pollin of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst that had established in Los Angeles and later, working with ACORN in both New Orleans and Florida, that the any adverse impacts were at worst negligible, and at best wildly positive.  Walmart ran from ACORN’s big-box proposed ordinance in Chicago in 2006 which would have coupled business assistance with their development and pulled up stakes in Sarasota, Florida when we won an ordinance requiring living wages on such developments in that city, but these studies seem to conclusively argue that they simply left money on the table, rather than allowing cities to develop in equitable and sustainable fashion.

With the first hints emerging that we may be coming out of the recession, we need to dust off all of these reports and initiatives and move more aggressively to reassert these agendas in North American cities and around the

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail