Case Study: Right to Recovery and the fight for an Emergency Bill
Chicago’s #RightToRecovery campaign is boldly setting an example for the country on how to build struggle around Covid-19. United Working Families (UWF), has been at the center of helping pull together a coalition of organizations that it has worked with over the years: both in movement work and electoral work.
Pulling together over 50 grassroots organizations, as well as several leftist politicians (including the 6 socialist aldermen), the campaign is providing a concrete opportunity for all of Chicago’s Left to come together around the crisis. We have an opportunity to organically learn to work together, learn from each other, and learn to build solutions out of the problems the coalition encounters.
Note: The following represents my own thoughts and analysis. This is my personal blog and represents my personal position. This isn’t an official statement by the R2R campaign.
Our first teachable moment with Electeds
Recently, the coalition encountered its first crossroads. State Representative Delia Ramirez introduced a bill to the IL House of Representatives. The bill introduced a number of things, but principally it provided:
- An eviction moratorium 180 days
- A rent and mortgage freeze for 180 days
- A fund to recoup canceled residential rent and delinquent mortgage
payments and for tenants to secure funds to move (aka: The Fund).
This was an amazing opportunity to win some real relief for the residents of Illinois. However, when Ramirez proposed the bill, it immediately got push back from the IL Senate President Don Harmon, the Illinois Realtors Association (ILRA), Rep. Kathleen Willis, Rep. Robert Rita, and Rep. Natalie Manly.
In response to the opposition to the bill, Ramirez began following the normal procedure: negotiate. This is perfectly sensible given the traditional processes of getting legislation passed by politicians. The capitalist approach is to propose something, then begin wrangling votes from fellow politicians to convince enough of them to support your bill by:
- Compromising on parts of the initial legislation
- Leveraging any dirt or overdue favors from politicians
- Promising some kind of political and/or financial incentives for the support
By the end of negotiating, the only thing remaining in the bill was The Fund.
For all of us in the coalition, this was extremely disappointing and frustrating. Ramirez repeatedly whittled down the period for the moratorium in the hopes that the ILRA, and openly hostile politicians, would compromise with her. She was acting in good faith, and was hoping that they would too. In practice, they demonstrated they have no interest in good faith.
What could we have done differently?
In the spirit of openly discussing what we did right, what we did wrong, and how to improve outcomes for the future: I’d like to provide some thoughts on this. We’re a coalition and we need open discussion and debate for our coalition to succeed, as well as to prepare all of its participants with political lessons for after the coalition is over. I hope more coalition members provide thoughts of their own so we can have a comradely debate.
There was a minor controversy when the Communications Committee (which I am a part of) released this image for social media.
When the bill received resistance, after already whittling down the rent and mortgage freeze to 60 days, a debate began about whether or not the situation was complicated by releasing this graphic. Some members felt that the graphic hurt the possibility of Ramirez winning support. The idea was put forward that there is a separation between activism and official politics and that this graphic made official politics more difficult.
Some sections of the coalition supported this position. But what perspective is at the root of this position?
Scenarios and strategies
If we send our comrades into political office, we have to have two different scenarios in mind.
Scenario 1: Our politicians are in the majority position
Assuming we have gotten enough of our trusted comrades into political office, they are in a position to move legislation on their own or are in a position to twist the arms of the enemy politicians and get them into line.
This is the ideal scenario, though still far from being possible in 2020.
In this case, the capitalist approach of negotiating can be effective. Not to say that it will be, or that it won’t involve compromising. But by being in a majority position, our comrades are more likely to be able to negotiate with enemy politicians.
Scenario 2: Our politicians are in the minority position (or alone)
If we only have one comrade in office, or only a few, we don’t have the muscle to sway or strong-arm other politicians.
This is the worst scenario and the most likely for us to face in 2020, and into the near future.
In this case, the capitalist approach of negotiating is impossible. All enemy politicians can rally against any legislation our comrades propose. As the majority they can’t be overcome. If we can’t negotiate our way to winning then what does that leave us?
I would argue that it leaves us with a worker’s approach to politics.
Lets step back for a moment. To even get Ramirez’s bill heard by the state senate, the #RightToRecovery coalition mobilized non-stop. The mobilization took three forms:
- Organizing phone banks to get our members and supporters to call state representatives to pressure them to support the bill
- Organizing a digital push to have our members and supporters fill out online “witness slips” in favor of the bill
- Using social media (via graphics like the one above) to help mobilize our base, identify our enemies, and continue building pressure on our enemies
After doing three pushes, within 48hrs, we managed to generate an approximate (and astounding) 3300 witness slips. Let me tell you: witness slips are not fun and they are not cool. But each time we had to push our members to generate them: they did. The most witness slips ever submitted had been appx 700. We blew that out of the water three times in less than two days.
This is all to say that the strength of the working class is in our ability to rally as many of our fellow workers as possible. We’ve demonstrated that this coalition is capable of doing that. We also demonstrated that through our mobilization for a Car Caravan protest on May 7th and a Tele-town Hall (each drawing in over 300 people during a time when there is massive uncertainty and confusion about what to do).
So how does this all factor into the perspective we should use in the state senate (and other halls of political power)?
If, outside the halls of power, our main strength is our numbers and our ability to rally numbers: then we need to keep that perspective for our elected comrades.
Worker’s approach to electoral power
If an elected comrade is alone or in the minority, and they have an organization and/or coalition to support them, then they only have the choice to use their legislation as opportunities to publicly identify and shame the capitalist politicians that stand in the way of progress.
Speaking concretely: Ramirez shouldn’t have negotiated away the key pieces of her own legislation in order to pass anything. She should have held the line at the need for a 180 day rent and mortgage freeze. Instead of relying on hidden conversations that pushed her to strip down her own legislation, she should have publicly identified who was asking her to water it down and mobilized the coalition to amplify the negative press against those politicians and her own heroic stand against them.
This could have presented three opportunities:
- Raised Ramirez’s profile as a fighter that won’t compromise against corrupt and uncaring politicians
- Brought the names of the obstructionist politicians into everyone’s household, to help mobilize against them now and in the future
- Raised the profile of the coalition to help it recruit organizations and individuals
In practice, Delia’s legislation was whittled down to The Fund: the part of the legislation that provides landlords with access to money. This is something that could have been passed without our comrades supporting it. Since there was no way to actually win the meaningful parts of the legislation (the rent and mortgage freezes), it would have been more helpful to use her megaphone as a politician to force the enemy politicians to reveal their true colors. She could have been TV, radio, and online letting every resident of IL know that she was proposing a bill with a 180 day rent and mortgage freeze and that her fellow politicians + the ILRA were stopping her from helping everyone keep a shelter to shelter in.
This would not help her make friends at the state senate: but she is never going to become friends with the enemy politicians. The only way to become their friend is to sell-out the working class. From that vantage point, we don’t want her to become their friends.
I want to take a moment to be clear about something. State Representative Delia Ramirez did everything in her power to get this legislation through. The problem wasn’t that she didn’t try hard enough, or that the coalition made it impossible for her, etc. The problem is that the capitalist approach of negotiating in good faith with enemy politicians was never going to work: no matter what. The real world results have proven that this strategy can’t work.
The next time one of our comrades is in a position to present legislation for the working class, they should remember that they need to mobilize the working class rather than negotiate. This isn’t simply a matter of political purity (though that factors in too). It is a matter of practical reality: we can’t win our legislation by playing nice — the proof is that we didn’t. Our only chance is to mobilize anger and pressure on the politicians that are holding back our legislation by identifying them via our elected comrade(s) and our organizations.
If this still fails to win us the legislation we want: we would have failed anyway. At least we can come away with the three opportunities outlined above and prepare ourselves for the next battle.