In Seattle’s 2013 election, Nick Licata broke the city’s record for the most votes received citywide for a city councilor in a contested race. That same year he was named the country’s Most Valuable Local Official on The Nation’s list of most valuable progressives.
During his time on council, Licata sponsored and passed legislation like paid sick leave and supported a plan to raise Seattle’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, two social-justice objectives sought by activists around the country. At the end of last year, the veteran Seattle city councilor retired after 18 years in office.
That’s not the end of Licata’s social-justice crusade, however. This week he’ll visit Pittsburgh to attend two conventions on social-justice issues and share insights from his recently released book, Becoming a Citizen Activist.
“My primary mission right now,” says Licata, “is to work with both citizens and elected [officials] to recognize that no matter what happens after November, it’s critical that we maintain an activist space at the local level, because we’ve shown at the local level we can accomplish things, and we can continue to accomplish things no matter who is president.”
Pittsburgh and other cities haven’t seen as much progress on paid sick leave and the Fight for $15 as has Licata’s native Seattle. Pittsburgh City Council passed a paid-sick-leave bill last year, but a judge struck it down in December as unenforceable. And while the city and some employers have raised their minimum wage to $15 an hour, a mandatory minimum wage citywide is a ways away.
But Pittsburgh must be doing something right because it was selected to host those two social-justice conventions. The People’s Convention will bring more than 40 national activist organizations to the city, while the Local Progress Convening will see the arrival of hundreds of progressive municipal elected officials.
“Pittsburgh was identified as a place where [the] movement is very real,” says Erin Kramer, executive director of social-justice group One Pittsburgh. “There’s more workers organizing per capita in Pittsburgh than any other city in the country right now. There’s something happening in Pittsburgh right now, and folks want to come see it and learn from it.”
The pairing of the events isn’t an accident. They’re both sponsored by the Center for Popular Democracy, a group that works to build alliances between progressive organizations and politicians. Participants say collaboration between the two bodies is integral to ensuring progressive laws are passed and enacted.
“It is very important for elected officials who are trying to advance social change to have a direct understanding of the specific concerns of communities,” says Ana Maria Archila, co-executive director of Popular Democracy. “And it’s very important for community members to have relationships with elected officials. We know in the places where working families are winning we need both the pressure on the outside and the strategy on the inside.”
Jimmy John’s employee Chris Ellis has worked in the fast-food industry for more than two decades and has become a leader in the local Fight for $15. At the People’s Convention next week, he’ll have the opportunity to meet leaders from movements in other cities throughout the country.
“[I hope to learn] better organizing skills not just for the Fight for $15 movement but for all movements in general,” Ellis says. “I’m the type of person who sees myself trying to organize other fights, because once this fight is over, I’m looking for other fights.”
The interconnectedness of social-justice issues is widely recognized by activists. The People’s Convention will focus on topics like workers’ rights, health care, gun violence and education — issues that One Pittsburgh, which is part of the hosting committee, has been working on for more than a decade. The idea is to collaborate on these issues to build momentum and produce results.
“In Pittsburgh there’s lots of progressive work on half-a-dozen different issues at any given time, and increasingly those organizations are building partnerships with each other,” says Kramer, from One Pittsburgh. “We’ve been getting together to learn from each other and build our campaigns together. What I think folks are increasingly realizing is whether it’s housing, minimum wage or education justice, it’s really the same people who need to come together to build power to build a city that works for all of us.”
The event will develop strategies for appealing to lawmakers, but will also address barriers in cities where the majority of elected officials are already supportive of social-justice movements.
“Increasingly, we find ourselves literally preempted from solving problems at the local level by state legislatures that are unfriendly to the solutions we would propose,” says Kramer. “A good example is where we passed paid-sick-day legislation for tens of thousands of people in Pittsburgh and immediately it goes in front of the court because the restaurant association [the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association] objects. The reason we don’t have a $15-an-hour minimum wage for the vast majority of Pennsylvanians is because you can’t do that at the city level.”
Combating these barriers that stifle progress at the municipal level — and particularly, developing strategies for fighting lawsuits against progressive laws — is something that will be discussed at the Local Progress convention this weekend as well.
“It’s the strategy,” says Licata, a Local Progress co-founder. “It’s smart on [the opposition’s] part, and I think that’s what we’ll see in other cities — corporate strategy to try to limit [these laws]. What I would like to see as we see more of these lawsuits being filed is Local Progress use our network to work on national strategies to fight these corporate challenges through the court system.”
To ensure laws fall within a city’s jurisdiction, Local Progress has also been holding workshops to examine the power that states hold over local municipalities. And they’re also looking into legislation that is being passed to further limit cities’ rights.
“As a rule of thumb, cities are creatures of the state,” says Licata. “Over half the states limit the authority of cities, and one of the ongoing battles we’re having that impacts local politics is the whole issue of states limiting citizens’ rights. We’ve been fighting on that. It’s a major concern.”
Ultimately, as a former activist turned politician turned activism author, Licata says the intersection of the two events and collaboration is important to ensuring that things like paid sick leave and a $15-an-hour minimum wage are realized.
“People at the People’s Convention and the politicians at Local Progress are literally the same people. A lot of the people at Local Progress were activists,” he says. “When someone gets elected to office, people who got the person elected to office think he or she will take care of the problems, and the person who gets elected thinks, ‘Oh, I have to act differently.’ But you have to continue organizing and use the power you get as an elected official to amplify your organizing.
“Government is a tool. It’s not an end-product. I think getting into office does give you more power, but you want to distribute that power so other people have access to power. The main ask of progressive politicians who want to build communities is to disperse the power that was given to them to as many people as possible.”
According to Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, who as city councilor joined Local Progress nearly a decade ago, the group can counterbalance those organizations that are trying to get conservative legislation passed.
“Certainly we’ve learned from other cities through these organizations,” says Peduto. “We hear a lot about ALEC [American Legislative Exchange Council] and how it is a network that is putting state legislatures into very conservative, Tea Party-type of policies, and it networks nationally. Well, this is the answer, and these organizations have become the network that helps progressive policies to work their way into implementation in city halls. And the fact that they chose Pittsburgh to do it shows that we are a part of that network and one of the areas that the rest of the country looks towards.”
Like Peduto, event organizer Popular Democracy hopes its network of activists and politicians will have the ability to shape the future of the country.
“It’s a really important moment politically because our nation is at a crossroads between the politics of hate and xenophobia and the politics of opportunity and interdependence,” says Popular Democracy’s Archila. “We are in the process of a presidential election where the issues that matter to the working-class community are really centrally positioned in the debate. How the solutions are advanced will depend on who is in motion. And we will have in Pittsburgh thousands of people who are in motion across the country and who are helping define the debate for what’s possible in their cities.”