The Weight of History

Lauren Jacobs, a longtime labor and community organizer, talks about building the Left at a time of opportunity.

Lauren Jacobs is a longtime labor and community organizer who now leads the Partnership for Working Families. Puya Gerami spoke with her about building the power of the Left at a time of opportunity.

What is the Partnership for Working Families?

The Partnership is a network of permanent coalition organizations in 20 different metropolitan regions across the country. Our organization arose during the urban construction boom of the early 2000s. We were part of the movement that focused on the central question of how to increase the power of workers. Who benefited and who suffered from development? How were public dollars used? How did development affect workers, community members, and the environment? We worked to bring together labor and community so they weren’t pitted against one another but in fact could act as allies in the struggle. This work led to the creation of the community benefits agreement, a key tool that our members like the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) developed and many organizations use today.

But we’ve also grappled with self-criticism. Although our campaigns have improved the lives of working people, we as a Left still haven’t tipped the balance of power. The work that our organization is doing right now still uses the tactics we’ve used in the past, but pursues a long-term strategic agenda for our regions. Every fight we’re taking on targets the forces harming working-class communities and tries to build permanent organization and leadership among our base.

How do you balance this long-term strategic agenda with the need to win immediate, concrete gains?

One of the folks in our network put it best, so I’ll paraphrase him: “Death to incrementalism! Long live incrementalism!” Of course, in a way we have to be incrementalist in our thinking, because if we sat out and refused to fight except for our ultimate goal, we’d never get anything done. We can’t reach it in one fell swoop. What we can do is ask ourselves in the present, How is what we’re doing shaping the common sense? What is the hegemony we need to secure to reach our goal? What is every action we’re taking in the present laying the ground for in the long term?

Building off of André Gorz’s view of non-reformist reforms, we need to think about enacting change not for the sake of reform but for the sake of advancing our long-term agenda. The opportunities in this moment aren’t the endgame; they’re steps along the way.

What do you mean by hegemony? What steps are required for us to begin building that hegemony? What are the pitfalls to avoid?

The kind of hegemony we need is to shift the common sense by advancing the demand of abundance for all. One of neoliberalism’s first hegemonic attacks was against the very idea of society itself—an attempt to return to the nuclear family as the central political subject and not the commons. We have to revive collective responsibility.

Activism around Medicare for All is a great example. We’re arguing that healthcare is sacrosanct, a right that shouldn’t be commodified. We have more than enough resources if we wrest them away from those at the top to ensure that everyone receives the medical care they need.

If that’s the shift we want to make, we have to think about who we need to ally with us. What is the historical bloc required to win? What is the collection of forces we need to drive this shift in how the public thinks about a particular issue? One big pitfall is mistaking mobilizing for organizing by focusing only on the people who absolutely agree with us, as opposed to searching for alliances with those who may have different points of view but who align with us on the central issue and should join our bloc to advance it.

Rising labor militancy has sparked a new conversation about rebuilding and even restructuring the labor movement. What’s your take on this debate?

I’m excited we’re having the conversation about revitalizing the labor movement, thinking big about legislative changes to expand the chance of recreating mass organizations, and imagining how to organize industries where we don’t yet know what structures and strategies are required.

But let’s remember that the last period of rapid union expansion relied on mass unrest: not symbolic actions, but actions meant to shut down the economy in a particular city or region. That’s how legislative reform was won. The question today is, “What kind of worker power do we need to generate so that the forces against us won’t dare get in the way of the right to organize?”

Our movement—including trade unions, worker centers, and other labor organizations—also has to find ways to overcome our fragmentation so we can formulate strategy in a more coordinated and cohesive way.

You’ve been organizing in the labor movement for more than two decades. How would you characterize the possibilities we face in our current moment?

Gramsci said, “The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters.”

This is a moment where we have the potential to achieve a great hegemonic leap forward. Twenty years ago, I never would have thought that we’d have popular candidates, even on the presidential stage, calling for expansion of the social safety net by taxing the rich. I wish we were better organized going into this moment. A lack of institutions and organizations at scale is a challenge we face today. But this is an opportunity to make a major shift—an opportunity we have to seize.

At the same time, we have to understand that if we lose, we’re not just going back to the neoliberal status quo of the last 40 years. The White House regime has moved further toward an authoritarian state. We should take seriously the incredible weight of history that’s upon all of us.