Will Spring Cleaning Bring New Leaders to Progressive Movement?

Posted March 14, 2005 at 4:27pm

Spring is just around the corner, and for liberals and progressive organizations, this is a season of transformation and some much-needed dialogue regarding the state — and vision — of its leadership. From organized labor to the civil rights and women’s communities, these once-powerful institutions are reassessing their strategies and tactics after another tough, close and bitterly fought election. [IMGCAP(1)]

But what does it all mean?

The heated conversations and internal debates taking place within progressive leaning organizations such as the AFL-CIO, NAACP and Planned Parenthood Federation of America are long overdue and should cause some heads to roll. Although shock waves on the progressive left are still reverberating from losses at the ballot box, some of these groups are using the electoral results to justify much-needed spring cleaning and renovations of their infrastructure.

Some of the sweeping changes transforming the progressive movement are generational. For example, prior to the November elections, Elaine Jones, the former director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, NARAL’s Kate Michelman and the National Council of La Raza’s Raul Yzaguirre all stepped down to allow younger leaders to step forward and lead those important organizations. The changes inside those groups took place quietly, out of public view, and few wrote commentaries about what they meant. But this may not be the case with regard to the other organizations still assessing their status and fate.

The labor community, for instance, appears headed for a showdown in July when the AFL-CIO holds its annual meeting in Chicago. Judging from the public comments of Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, James Hoffa of the Teamsters and others aligned with their struggle to modernize, reform and rebuild the labor movement, the battle is not only about leadership, but also direction and allocation of resources. Stern wants the labor movement to get back to the basics of organizing workers, bringing more people into the labor movement and strengthening its arm at the collective bargaining table. Some of his initiatives appear reasonable and consistent with the philosophy of the labor movement. Some leaders beg to differ.

Stern, whom I have worked closely with in the past, would like to see individual unions keep more of their dues to rebuild internally. The AFL-CIO, according to press accounts, is prepared to once again organize its entire membership to fight not only at the factory gate, but also at the ballot box. Thus, Stern’s proposals are meeting fierce competition and objections from smaller unions who are alarmed that the call to reform labor may in fact cripple it further.

Everyone I know inside the progressive movement is watching the soul-searching taking place inside the “house of organized labor” because the outcome will have an impact on the entire progressive movement. It’s no secret that organized labor is both the backbone and legs of the modern Democratic Party.

From my perspective, the conversations, debates and changing of the guard can only serve to embolden progressive leaders and groups to fight harder and unite around a common agenda for the future.

When President Bill Clinton announced almost a decade ago that the “era of big government was over,” many leaders of the old left and the liberal elite initially yawned. But when they noticed Clinton moving to shift the role of government in the lives of ordinary people, they quickly adapted their strategies to defend the working poor and middle class.

Progressive institutions have far more political capital with mainstream Americans than they are credited with. Recent shakeups represent a reawakening of grass-roots leaders where it matters most — at home in their communities. People I meet across the country are spending this time wisely, trying to revive the local and state Democratic parties or to identify new recruits for their causes and organizations.

The current partisan debate over reforming Social Security has rallied Democrats and their progressive allies alike. The progressive groups are communicating more directly with each other and to their constituencies, which is hampering right-wing efforts to roll over Congressional Democrats on Capitol Hill. They are prepared not only to defend, but also to lead an affirmative agenda for the future.

Plans are under way to gear up for a major fight on judicial nominations and to respond to a vacancy on the Supreme Court. But, that’s only the beginning. These groups, as well as the Democratic Party, seem less anxious to form a circular firing squad and better prepared to launch a major offensive to derail the conservative agenda before it’s set in stone.

The long-awaited housecleaning is under way as the spring tulips and daffodils are preparing to make their entry. Newly energized progressive leaders are sprouting, too. We should expect to see some fresh new ideas coming from this crop of new leaders, not just more hot air.

Donna L. Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grass-roots political consulting firm.