Raising the minimum wage paid to workers employed by future federal contractors builds on a living wage initiative first launched by a broad based IAF organization in Baltimore, Maryland – BUILD – in 1994. Since that ground breaking public action hundreds of political subdivisions have followed suit.
Now, President Obama has turned to the IAF playbook for a centerpiece action in his State of the Union speech delivered two days ago. Going forward, by his executive order, federal contractors will pay their workers a minimum of $10.10 per hour.
It’s a step in the right direction but a very small step unless linked to other inventive local initiatives advanced in conjunction with the living wage. The Obama team would be well advised to explore places where this broader, more complex agenda has been initiated because it has implications for growing local economies and attacking inequality in concrete ways. In this regard the Obama administration has failed and will continue to fail until it looks in the right places for inspiration, strategic thinking, and road tested action.
The sad truth is that once elected Barack Obama turned his back on the very community organizing tradition that for a few years played an important role in his life journey. He lost touch with its vital center of innovation and impact. Now, in the twilight of his presidency, he has a fresh opportunity to mine a tradition that has delivered remarkable outcomes across a broad front of concerns voiced by poor and middle class alike.
Reading Gathering Power by MIT Professor Paul Ostermann is a good place to start his re-education in modern, broad based organizing and the strategic opportunities it breaks open. Valley Interfaith, an IAF organization in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, embodies precisely the grassroots driven, community tested, multi-issue change that the Obama administration so desperately needs to explore right now. In the story of Valley Interfaith he will find living wage ordinances coupled with labor market intermediaries, building and strengthening worker’s associations, immigrant integration, school reform, child development and large scale infrastructure investments that have made life better for tens of thousands of families.
It’s late in the game for President Obama to awaken to the creative opportunities advanced by a tradition he once briefly practiced. But it’s not too late. His legacy may well depend on it.
Frank C. Pierson, Jr.
Frank Pierson retired after forty years of work with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) as a professional organizer. He began his career in 1971 in Chicago, moved to Queens, New York City and migrated west to work in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado. He resides with his wife, Mary Ellen Kazda, in Oracle, Arizona. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org