“We are invisible to the majority in this country at this moment,” said Ben Jealous, President of the NAACP, a key coalition partner for One Nation. “Prosperity is decreasing while diversity is increasing. We look at this and say we’ve got to tell the nation that job creation is priority number one in America, so we can not only impact the national debate but give the disempowered a sense of being part of something bigger than themselves.”
The event comes at the height of campaign season, after Congress has left to return to their districts and when some critics have said this coalition’s time would be better spent in an electoral context, working for candidates that share their message and concern. “It’s not an either/or thing,” said Richard Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO, who promised that his labor forces would bring up to 100,000 people to Washington. “People within a 10-12 mile driving radius are coming to DC. But we have neighborhood walks in over 300 sites outside of DC.”
Indeed there will be a local component. In Los Angeles, a day of action at LA City College will feature voter outreach to, they claim, 200,000 voters. NAACP President Jealous mentioned big rallies in New Orleans and Seattle. “People are mobilizing and reuniting, around an agenda of shared prosperity,” he said.
Traditionally, these rallies on the left end up having a scattered message. While organizers portrayed it firmly about showing a progressive economic vision for the middle class, a flyer I received for the event posited it as an anti-war march. “Every coalition partner has agreed to come together for one nation for good jobs, justice and education for all,” Trumka said. Of course, that’s pretty broad in and of itself, encompassing the economy, small business, infrastructure, civil and human rights, immigration, gay rights and education. But Jealous wasn’t concerned about this. “If people are inspired to stand up and shout on their issues on which they feel passionate, if it’s the DREAM Act or jobs or peace, that’s a beautiful thing.”
The challenge of building a mass movement along a concept of a progressive economic vision is the terrible toll that the economic crisis and the Great Recession has taken on the psyche of America. Velma Hart, the women who described her “exhaustion” with President Obama at a town hall meeting, has become something of a touchstone for the nation. With millions unemployed and despairing, how do you get them to commit and engage, instead of retreating within and running from the frustrating freak show that our politics have become.
Each of the leaders I spoke with sounded a hopeful note. Trumka said that the labor rank and file has not been slow to embrace the election or this new economic vision. “Our members are starting to get excited,” he said. “It’s slow to start and then we pick things up.” Trumka described how labor would work just as intensely with the unemployed this year as with their employed members. “We do it in a conscientious concerted manner,” he said. “Our organizers talk to 25-30,000 members a week, and help the unemployed find out what’s available to them and show that they have someone who can help.”
Jealous, of the NAACP, was more philosophical. “If we want people to stay engage, we have to raise our voices and come together,” he said. “People ask, if I go to One Nation, will I get a job. I say, if you don’t show up, it’ll be harder to find a job. We have to tell the people in power, whoever they are, that we must create jobs as priority number one.”
Jealous raised the importance of not retreating, and talking over both the despair people feel, and the new economic vision that can keep them going. He didn’t sugar-coat the problems with creating a movement at a time of recession. “The true cost and impact of recession has become known. You have to now lift up the voices, give them a direction and a goal. What’s the next battle, what’s the piece of geography. The Ted Kennedy Service Act hasn’t been funded, could create hundreds of thousands of jobs. George Miller’s bill would create 1 million jobs with a Keynesian infusion into the states. We can only get these by building a movement and ensuring country moves toward building a better future.”