Judy Atkins and David Cohen

Digging in on Issues at the Local Level Works!

Digging in on Issues at the Local Level Works!
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The Western Mass for Bernie float in the Franklin County Agricultural Parade in fall 2015; photo by Judy Atkins and David Cohen

By Judy Atkins and David Cohen

In 2015 a group of activists met in Franklin County, Massachusetts, to work on the Bernie Sanders campaign. We didn’t all know each other. Some of us supported Bernie due to his long-time support of union struggles. Others were drawn to various aspects of his program: health care, free public education, climate change, taxing the rich, Black Lives Matter, and cutting military spending.

We called Bernie’s national campaign and told them we wanted to work for Bernie. They responded, “There’s nothing to do until the primaries start in February of 2016.” We ignored their advice and formed “Western Mass for Bernie” in the Spring of 2015.

THE FIRST BERNIE CAMPAIGN

We launched our Bernie campaign work in the fall of 2015 by entering a float in the Franklin County Agricultural Parade at the County Fair, the traditional place for political candidates to start their campaigns. We enlisted marchers and had a booth at the Fair promoting Sanders for President. We sold bumper stickers and buttons, we developed literature and passed it out. We signed up more members and found strong support for Sanders over Clinton.

Throughout the campaign we attended protests and demonstrations, tabled with Bernie literature at music festivals and farmers’ markets, and did lots of fundraising including a “Boogie for Bernie” dance extravaganza at a local Veterans Club which raised $4,000.

The vote for Bernie was over 70% in Franklin County, even though Bernie lost to Hillary 49-51% statewide.

FRANKLIN COUNTY CONTINUING THE POLITICAL REVOLUTION IS BORN

Everyone expected that Hillary would win and that we would continue to work on the issues. To do that we decided to form a new organization, converting Western Mass for Bernie to “Franklin County Continuing the Political Revolution” (FCCPR). We held our founding meeting in September 2016. About 35 people attended and pledged to continue to fight on the issues that were at the core of the Bernie campaign.

We created seven Task Forces, agreed on our organization structure and adopted organizational principles:

  • While we would participate electorally, we would only support candidates who were movement builders and activists;
  • We would not only do electoral work; we would also educate, organize and demonstrate around issues;
  • This would be a membership organization, with nominal dues (people pay 10 dollars per year if they can afford it) and quarterly general membership meetings; and
  • We would not duplicate good work already being done in the county.

BACKGROUND ON FRANKLIN COUNTY

Franklin County is a large county in Western Massachusetts with 26 towns on both sides of the Connecticut River. It is home to 70,000 people, and its largest city, Greenfield has 17,000. People identify with Franklin County, not only with the town that they reside in.

A former industrial area, Franklin County is now the poorest county in Massachusetts. There has always been an active union movement in the area. In Greenfield, United Electrical Workers Local 274 organized the large workplaces. In the early 1980s there were plant closings, but a union consciousness still existed.

Before the 2016 primaries, the people of Western Mass had united to stop the building of the Kinder Morgan pipeline. The pipeline would have run from the New York border through state parks and conservation areas as well as through 400 private properties. Several towns took legal steps to bar the pipeline survey teams. The protests were imaginative, for example some people built “Thoreau Huts” in the path of the pipeline, and the campaign won.

The fight for Single Payer Health Care has also had a long history in Western Mass, beginning with the Franklin Hampshire Health Care Coalition, and as part of the Labor Party program. Our area is also known for its support for the peace movement through the work of Traprock Peace Center and Francis Crowe and the AFSC.

THE ELECTION OF DONALD TRUMP

The shock of Trump’s election led to a sudden explosion of meetings of local people coming together to share their concern about the future.

In Pittsfield, Massachusetts, over 2,000 people showed up to what was expected to be a gathering of 60. They began a loose coalition of community groups to defend against Trump. The coalition was named The Four Freedoms Coalition in honor of Roosevelt’s famous speech.  Chapters of Indivisible and Our Revolution sprung up across the Commonwealth. Some small-town Democratic Parties took on the challenge as well.

Over 200 people came to our meeting at the local Grange Hall in Greenfield.  Many of the people who came were concerned about Trump, but not necessarily ready to fight for the Bernie program.

We decided that we would stick with the Bernie program and continue to organize on the issues. FCCPR would be on the offensive on the issues and also take defensive actions against the Trump presidency and the Republicans.

ORGANIZING ON THE ISSUES

One of the most active task forces was the one working on Single Payer. Every town has budget problems, and there’s a limit on how much they can raise taxes. Schools were having budget problems too. One local School District was in the red by one million dollars and had to close some elementary schools and ask for a state bailout.  We came up with a town-by-town formula showing how much they could save if Medicare for All was in effect.

Our calculations showed that all the towns in Franklin County would save money. The largest, Greenfield, would save $4,000,000 annually. The School District that was in trouble would save $1 million – the same amount they were currently in debt.

Task force members also put forward town meeting resolutions in favor of Medicare for All. Our biggest push was for a non-binding ballot question in the First Franklin District.  We had 40 people collecting signatures in every town in the district. The ballot question passed with support ranging between 70 and 76 percent in 26 different towns.

In the November 2018 elections, all seven candidates running for the local open position of State Representative came out in in favor of Medicare for All. This would not have been the case without the work we had done.

Other task forces were active as well. The Education task force attended school committee meetings to promote our views on testing and support for public education. A Civil Rights and Immigration Task Force called for demonstrations to oppose Trump’s wall. We protested the separation of families at the border. We demonstrated for Black Lives Matter. The Climate Change Task Force worked against the proposed electric rate hikes. They conducted research, talked to experts and showed up at the public hearing. And won!

When a well-funded right-wing organization mailed postcards to every household in Greenfield denouncing immigrant rights and “safe cities,” we immediately organized a demonstration. A local Republican politician was the treasurer of this group. He sat on the boards of the local community college board and the local hospital. We demanded his removal; eventually he resigned from the boards.

We did strike support for nurses’ unions and the union workers at Greenfield Tap and Die, including a rousing march from the hospital to the picket line at the Tap and Die Factory.

We also fought to protect public institutions against privatization. When the Greenfield Mayor floated the idea of privatizing trash pick-up and recycling, FCCPR mobilized 65 people to attend a public hearing. The initiative was killed.

ELECTORAL WORK

There is no county government, but Greenfield has a Mayor and a Town Council. Smaller towns are governed by volunteer boards. All the towns except for Greenfield have annual town meetings that vote on town budgets and policies.

In 2017 Greenfield FCCPR got involved in city elections. A committee met with each candidate individually. To receive our endorsement, candidates had to be FCCPR members and publicly support our program.

The Democratic Party wasn’t doing much in Franklin County – especially in Greenfield. The town elections are non-partisan – that means that candidates run as individuals without a party label. In the fight to get support for a new library and for supporting safe cities, we learned that there were more conservative Greenfield Town Council members than progressive ones.

Could we run candidates who were members and who agreed with our program and would organize around the issues?  What would the relationship be with them after the elections?

We actively worked for the candidates and as a result we elected four new Town Council members and two School Committee members.

That success encouraged us, and in the next town election in 2019 we decided to run Sheila Gilmore, a young mother, union activist and Town Council member for Mayor as well as run more candidates for Town Council and School Committee.

Over 40 Greenfield FCCPR members developed a local program, which we distributed at public events and door-to-door during the Mayoral campaign.

This time the Democrats in town fielded their own candidates. They were not going to cede the field to us. Most were familiar older candidates who had held office before. The candidate furthest to the right was eliminated in the primary. In spite of the vote the local newspaper continued to include the losing person as a legitimate candidate, making the election into a three-way race. Sheila came in second by 88 votes. Sheila ran a great campaign but the familiar face won. The middle of the road Democrats used the fear of the Trump supporter winning to gain the edge.

Some City Council and school committee candidates wanted an FCCPR endorsement, but since they were endorsing the Democrats’ candidate for Mayor, we did not endorse them (we had decided we would only endorse candidates who supported our mayoral candidate).

Greenfield has, for now, returned to the old politics. The right wing was knocked out but the Democrats returned.

STATE-WIDE BALLOT QUESTIONS AND THE 2020 PRIMARIES

In 2018 there were three questions on the statewide ballot: nurses’ safe staffing, election finance reform, and defense of the legislation protecting transgender rights. We saw all three as working class issues.

We won two of these! Unfortunately, while the majority of voters supported safe staffing early on, the hospital industry spent 25 million dollars to defeat it, and threatened hospital closures if it passed. In the end it was defeated.

In 2020 we had to decide: Are we still a Bernie organization? Do we only support Bernie or give some room to the Elizabeth Warren supporters? We debated this at a General Assembly and the vote was to support Bernie for President but when we finally endorsed Bernie there was no time left to do anything but the electoral work. We sent 30 people at a time to New Hampshire over a three-week period. The Bernie campaign worked very hard in New Hampshire but because it was assumed that Massachusetts would go for Elizabeth Warren, the Bernie campaign put very little effort into that primary.  As it turned out, Biden won, Bernie was second and Warren came in third. If the national Bernie campaign had given the campaign more support, he might have won.

MUNICIPAL SOCIALISM

In 2019 we held a conference on public non-corporate solutions to common problems on the local level. We decided to call it Municipal Socialism. The program covered topics including affordable non-profit housing, municipally owned broadband, public and cooperative ownership of solar and hydro-power, and state banks.

We were not sure how many people would show up to a conference titled Municipal Socialism but it was a huge success. People aren’t all socialists but most are anti-capitalist, and there are more people who see themselves as socialists than we think.

LESSONS FROM ELECTORAL WORK

The Massachusetts state-level Democratic Party is tightly controlled by the House and Senate leadership, which is very responsive to the needs and wants of the financial institutions and businesses.  That is why the people have had to resort to the statewide ballot questions to get progressive legislation passed. We have elected very progressive legislators from Franklin County and yet we cannot get legislation such as Medicare for All even brought to the floor for debate. The Democrats in the legislature will only go so far. Money still rules.

The shortcomings of Bernie’s presidential campaigns are the shortcomings of the Democratic Party. He has not changed the way the party works.

Bernie has created a national movement, but we have not formed a viable national organization to carry on.  While he has remained a voice of reason and continues to influence other candidates and the people, we – US progressives – have not yet figured out an electoral strategy to challenge the two corporate parties.

Nevertheless, political organizing on the local level can provide us with a lot of practical experience. A “party” has to do more than to support its candidates when elections come up; it must organize and develop candidates and have a program.

We need a new vision of local and state progressive parties with a class perspective. There are several examples in different localities in the U.S. that we can study and connect with.

ORGANIZING LESSONS

We’ve learned a lot through our work in FCCPR. One key lesson is to build on the history of fight-back in your area. Similar to organizing a union, find examples of when people stood together against a firing or a change in working conditions and build on that.

We also learned to educate through the issues. We held educational events at our own meetings as well as for the broader public.

Meetings don’t grow the organization, actions do. So keep meetings short! Start on time, end on time. Every meeting should include educational components or activities.

Other Lessons:

  • Encourage working class leadership.
  • Send out regular newsletters.
  • Seize the moment!

Franklin County is 90% white. There is long-standing discrimination against African Americans and Hispanics, but the people have risen to the occasion with large Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police rallies. Two thousand people marched to the police station in memory of George Floyd and other victims of police killings, and last week two or three hundred people showed up on the Greenfield Common to oppose a Trump rally of five people. The important issues in our future will be jobs and housing and the climate crisis, all fought for within a racist, white male dominated capitalist society. The challenge is how to bring these issues together in working class based local struggles.

 

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  • Phil Fiermonte
    Phil Fiermonte August 30, 2020 at 1:34 am

    Loved the Portside article about your FCCPR work. Important lessons for social change activists. Great to see you both continuing to do class based politics at such a high level. Solidarity!

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