By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The destruction of hundreds of thousands of decent-paying jobs in the early and mid-'80s, and the Reaganite war on social spending, led to growing homelessness, malnutrition and hunger, and pressures to lower wages in such areas as janitorial work. Groups such as the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank and the Los Angeles Coalition to End Homelessness and Hunger became major de facto service providers. With the collapse of the public sector and government solutions, progressive L.A. organizations and advocates became the only significant Reagan Age forces to develop programs and strategies addressing protracted social problems that were greater than at any time since the '30s. These initiatives included a successful drive to raise the state minimum wage, the efforts of dozens of community groups engaged in the creation of low-cost housing, and campaigns to reverse decades of environmental degradation.
1997: With the city transformed by an explosion of low-wage jobs, and with the rebirth of the city's union movement, a new coalition of labor, religious and community groups convinced the City Council to enact a Living Wage Ordinance. The new law, passed over Mayor Richard Riordan's veto, required firms with municipal contracts to pay employees wages above the poverty line and provide them with health benefits.
The riots of April 1992 signaled that life in the city's poorest neighborhoods had become intolerable. The city's business and political establishments were shocked by the civil unrest and unprepared to respond in any coherent way. But progressive leaders of black, Asian, Hispanic, Jewish and other constituencies and movements forged new coalitions to address racial tensions. The uprising, and the backlash that followed, also helped energize a new set of progressive initiatives. In the wake of federal welfare "reform," community groups began mobilizing to reshape riot-torn communities. They demanded that the "welfare-to-work" program provide opportunities for jobs at decent wages, that food programs be developed for those who were continually dropping in and out of hunger, that liquor stores in poor communities be replaced by genuine initiatives for community economic development, that bus service be expanded for the city's mostly low-wage bus-dependent riders, and that affordable child care be made available to all who needed it. Immigrant-rights advocates also continued their efforts to mobilize their constituency, in part through dramatic campaigns to force the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service to speed up the process of granting citizenship.
During the past decade, local unions undertook ambitious campaigns to organize workers in the tourism, garment and building-service sectors; the Service Employees' Justice for Janitors campaign and the Hotel and Restaurant Employees organizing drives became models for labor activists across the nation. Drawing on a greatly expanded pool of union activists, the L.A. County Federation of Labor transformed itself into an election-day powerhouse for pro-labor candidates and causes.
If a new EPIC-type campaign sprang forth today, on what issues would it focus? What constituencies and social movements would be mobilized? A modern-day EPIC could certainly build on the extraordinary level of activism that exists today around workplace, economic-development, environmental, neighborhood-improvement, education, ethnic and other issues. But these organizations and advocates tend to be dispersed across the metropolitan area and isolated from one another - a patchwork of progressivism with no unifying theme, agenda or movement.
How can the forces of Progressive L.A. recapture charisma of an Upton Sinclair to unite these presumably disparate constituencies around a common agenda and strategy? A revitalized labor movement, based in low-wage manufacturing and service industries and increasingly reflecting the region's multicultural reality, may well provide one such anchor for this new politics. The emergence of a new type of community activism - of groups dealing with basic issues such as housing, transportation and food - deepens the potential agenda for a progressive renewal. The social activism of women, gays and lesbians, and immigrants can make significant gains if they join forces with these workplace and community movements.
Can the city's fragmented progressive movement seize the opportunity and become a potent force reshaping the future of Los Angeles? Stay tuned!
Robert Gottlieb and Peter Dreier are professors of politics and public policy at Occidental College. Thanks to Kelci Lucier, Sarah Cooper, Mary Tyler, Torie Osborne, Harold Meyerson, Regina Freer, Norman Cohen and Jan Breidenbach for their assistance.