by K. Wilson
In previous essays, we have made it clear that we believe that the future of the workers’ movement depends on the creation of new forms of working class community. But this is not just an abstract idea. In fact, it is already happening – even if not yet widely or in a manner that will lead to a resurgence of working class struggle. A brilliant example can be found in the June 13 issue of The Nation, in an article by Sally Kohn entitled A New Grassroots Economy. Kohn briefly chronicles the history and activities of the Alliance to Develop Power, a membership organization of around 10,000 mostly African-American and Latino workers in western Massachusetts. Whatever the limitations of its ‘progressive’ vision, this project can serve us as an inspiring and instructive example. (All quotes in the following commentary are taken from Kohn’s article, which I highly recommend reading.)
Alliance to Develop Power (ADP) is one of many community-organizing groups that have emerged in the United States in recent decades – others include the nationwide affiliates of the Alinskyite Industrial Areas Foundation, the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association in New York City, and (here in Seattle) the Washington Community Action Network and Casa Latina. Such organizations generally focus on mobilizing poor workers to fight for economic and social justice: better housing and public services in ill-served neighborhoods, immigrants’ and workers’ rights, and so on. In ideology, ADP is not markedly more radical than any of these other groups. But in practice, it is more radical – indeed, in practice it is more radical than most of our self-consciously ‘revolutionary’ organizations. Why? Because ADP does more than just campaign. They build:
“At the end of every issue campaign, our goal is to create an institution that our members control,” says outgoing executive director Caroline Murray. ADP members don’t want to continually fight those who own the economy. “We want to own stuff, too,” says Murray.
ADP began with housing, buying up federal properties and turning them into tenant-run cooperatives, which now comprise 1,200 housing units. Then they started a worker-run landscaping business to service the housing co-ops, then “a worker center for immigrant day laborers and several food co-ops.” Several more projects are in the works: a business to weatherize homes, a money services bureau, and an urban farming program. “Today, 106 people are employed in ADP’s community economy and, perhaps most notably, their economy continued to grow even when the national economy contracted.”
ADP is not alone in its concern for the cooperative ownership and management of resources. As Kohn explains, most of ADP’s projects have been inspired by the activities of other organizations. In fact, since the recession of the early 1980s there has been a minor renaissance of interest in worker cooperatives (some of the resulting experiments being more genuinely worker-owned and worker-run than others) as a response to economic hardship. This movement has gathered steam in the past few years, the most ambitious recent example being the Evergreen Co-operatives in Cleveland.
What is most remarkable about ADP is its impressive growth, and its strategic use of campaigns to obtain access to resources that are then administered co-operatively through member-run institutions. For instance, the home-weatherizing initiative will be funded “with money secured from the local utility company through an organizing campaign.” Furthermore, “ADP’s businesses even turn enough of a profit to fund significant portions of the group’s organizing work – which will ensure that ADP’s model keeps growing.”
This should be a lesson to us radicals. Imagine an organization of this size – 10,000 members – but permeated by a culture of class-consciousness, prepared to mobilize on behalf of workers’ struggles in the workplace. Imagine a community rooted not only among the poorest and most marginalized sections of the working class, but instead consciously bridging the divide between these sections and that downwardly-mobile and debt-ridden section that, together, form the core of the working class today. The ‘community of workers’ is already beginning to happen, as the example of ADP shows – the time is right. As the economy continues to deteriorate, the need for this kind of mutual aid will only spread and deepen. The sooner we can get our act together and put the organizing of new forms of community on a radical foundation, the sooner we will be able to launch a real offensive struggle against global capital.