If a progressive revival takes place in this country, historians
will look back at the political breakthroughs that occurred in Los
Angeles in the first years of the 21st century as harbingers of that
change. For it is in Los Angeles, with its economic disparities, its
ethnically diverse population and its sprawling geography, that
progressive politics are making more headway than in any other U.S. city.
In many ways, L.A. resembles New York City at the turn of the previous
century. New York was plagued by poverty, slums, child labor, epidemics,
sweatshops and ethnic conflict. Out of this turmoil, activists forged a
coalition of immigrants, unionists, middle-class suffragists and
upper-class philanthropists. While speaking many languages, this
"progressive" movement found its voice through organizers, clergy and
sympathetic politicians. Its victories helped provide the intellectual
and policy foundations of such landmark New Deal reforms as Social
Security and the Wagner Act.
Comparable political forces are converging in L.A. today. By June 6,
following the first citywide election affected by term limits, we will
have a new mayor, a new city attorney and a half-dozen new members of the
City Council. Although the dialogue among the candidates so far may not
reflect a major political sea change, change is coming.
Consider the housing issue. In recent months, leaders of the Sierra
Club, several major labor unions, churches, immigrant-services groups,
community organizations, senior-citizen groups, nonprofit developers and
tenant groups have been meeting regularly to devise a strategy to make
Los Angeles' severe housing shortage a central political issue.
Or take jobs and the environment. A series of meetings organized by
the Progressive Los Angeles Network (PLAN) has brought labor unions,
environmentalists and neighborhood organizations together to craft a
common agenda for creating decent paying jobs that reduce or eliminate
hazards to workers, the community and the environment. Some of the
tensions among these groups are still palpable and have created conflict
over specific projects. But the PLAN meetings are laying the groundwork
for what may constitute a new vision of a livable city and a politics
that can overcome years of mistrust.
This political shift results from painstaking organizing by a new
generation of grass-roots leaders. They recognize that coalitions are
necessary to address the city's problems and that a new politics--and
vision--for the city are not only possible but essential.
The different advocacy groups have begun to recognize that they need
to identify a clear alternative agenda, backed up with a winning
political strategy. It has happened before. Several years ago, a
coalition of labor, clergy and community groups scored an impressive
victory over most of the business community with the "living wage" law.
Now, almost every elected official in the city supports the idea. During
the janitors' strike last spring, even Mayor Richard Riordan, who had
opposed the living-wage ordinance, told the city's building owners they
should pay their workers a living wage.
Since then, leaders of a wide spectrum of organizations and
constituencies have been building bridges. For example, a number of local
unions have become a solid institutional base for organizing, research
and coalition-building, allying with community and advocacy groups to
wage innovative organizing campaigns among health-care workers, janitors,
public employers and others.
In addition, new networks of community organizations have established
a presence in Los Angeles, mobilizing a broad constituency of poor and
middle-class people across the racial divide, focusing on housing, parks,
schools, health care and food. A number of environmental groups have
linked up with parent and community organizations to challenge the
widespread presence of polluters in low-income neighborhoods, such as
school buses that run on diesel fuel, which affects the health of
schoolchildren as well as surrounding communities.
Single-issue go-it-alone politics can win occasional victories. But
addressing Los Angeles' widening economic divide requires more than
short-term coalitions of convenience. It demands a broader vision: a
common view of Los Angeles' future and a common policy agenda. It also
requires constituencies that rarely joined forces in the past to find
ways to work together politically.
L.A.'s progressive mosaic is starting to find its voice. It is
learning to say living wage, social justice and a livable city in
English, Korean, Spanish, Vietnamese and other languages. Its leaders are
developing trust and finding common ground. Whether it can translate its
voice into a powerful movement with political staying power is still to
be seen. But for the first time in years, progressives are optimistic.
Peter Dreier and Robert Gottlieb Are Professors of Politics and of Urban and Environmental Policy at Occidental College and Are Co-chairs of the Progressive Los Angeles Network
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times
see also from the March 9-15, 2001 issue of the LA Weekly:
A Vision for the City:
A Weekly roundtable on the issues, movements and prospects for a progressive Los Angeles