Interview: The Working Class Movement Fighting for Local Authority

by: Posted on: May 25, 2015

Editor’s Note: Make the Road New York is a membership-based grassroots immigrant organization that leads and supports local lawmaking efforts, including recent initiatives to end collaboration between US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and local police, establish paid sick leave, introduce municipal ID and protect human rights. Simon Davis-Cohen sat down with their co-executive director, Deborah Axt, to talk about the rising tide of local law making in the United States.



Simon Davis-Cohen: Implicit in Make the Road New York’s (MRNY) work is a belief that local governments should have power to improve state and federal discrimination protections. You have clearly found ways to do this. Have you encountered legal obstacles or doctrines that limit MRNY’s work? What are obstacles to increasing such protections, locally?

Deborah Axt: We believe it is critical for local governments to adopt and implement affirmative policies to ensure that working-class immigrant communities can live a life of respect and dignity, with protections against discrimination in the workplace, at home, and throughout their lives. In New York, a key obstacle has been policy areas where the state has authority over New York City and other localities, and state lawmakers are able to block local action—for example, on the minimum wage and the rent laws. We approach this problem in two ways: first, by identifying policy-making opportunities at the local level where the city or locality can make a difference. And second, by organizing with allies across the state to pressure Albany to respond to the needs of localities like New York City and Long Island and allow local governments to adopt the affirmative policies they have blocked.

Many “Liberals” are weary of local lawmaking. For example, they may agree with the LGBTQ movement’s ideals, but they don’t agree with its tactics—local lawmaking. What do you have to say to these people?

We believe strongly that we must work at all levels of government that are relevant to the issues our members identify as their priorities. Federally, we continue to work with partners across the country on issues like the minimum wage and education policy. But while Washington stalls, we cannot wait to take action at the state and local level to ensure that our members’ needs and rights are heard and protected. Our members are very savvy about identifying local campaign targets as well as federal priorities like immigration reform, and they feel it’s critical to engage at multiple levels to achieve the just society towards which they are working every day. Besides, local lawmaking is the arena that is most accessible to everyday folks; it is the arena where we train and test and cultivate the candidates and leaders that will step onto the state and national arenas in the future. We either organize and push the conversation on the local level or concede the future to our opposition.

There are arguments to be made that if you give one locality power to pass laws about immigration, you open the door to discriminatory laws like those we see in Arizona and beyond. Legally, what is the difference between a law that offers immigrants sanctuary, and one that criminalizes their existence?

In general, Federal policy preempts states and localities that wish to adopt misguided policies to make immigrants’ lives miserable. The same preemption does not apply to affirmative policies geared at making a particular locality welcoming to immigrants and taking measures to break the link between immigration enforcement and local law enforcement.

With movements like those to raise the minimum wage or win paid sick leave, the national narrative has moved away from Washington DC toward local lawmaking. Work like MRNY’s that utilizes local lawmaking is on the rise. However, there are significant efforts by state legislatures to preempt these movements. How can these movements work together to counter preemption?

We have to keep fighting and winning on all levels. When we have enough people in the streets demanding that their cities protect and respect them, then there will be a real backlash against the state governments that squash those city-level efforts. We have to build that kind of momentum and back-and-forth conversation between cities and states.

The Fight for $15 nationally, and coalitions across states like New York, are working together in lock-step to ensure that state legislatures respond to working people’s demands and raise the minimum wage. In New York, members of grassroots organizations around the state are mobilizing together to pressure Albany to raise the statewide minimum wage and allow localities to raise their wages even higher. Ultimately, we are fighting for a speedy path to $15 per hour, indexation, and the ability to join a union. As Governor Cuomo’s May 6th announcement to convene a fast food worker wage board showed, the momentum is on our side. We are winning concrete victories, and we are going to keep working to achieve our broader goal.

New York City does not have the power to increase the minimum wage because the state has long-defined the state minimum wage as a “ceiling” (a maximum minimum wage) that localities cannot raise. To what extent can the various movements we have discussed work together to redefine state law as a “floor” localities can improve upon?

We know that the same structural obstacles stand in the way of meaningful progress on many of the fronts that matter to working people—housing, minimum wage, fair elections. And organizations are working together on each of these, and we ARE talking across “movements” and campaigns. But the opposition knows when to fight back hard, and they will continue to strongly oppose our efforts to free up municipalities to deliver more for working class and low income folks. We simply have to continue building enough power to break through.

Though private corporations have constitutionally protected rights in this country, local governments enjoy no such protection. What are your thoughts on a movement for a constitutionally protected right to local self-government?

There are moments in history and areas in the country today where progressives would be wise to side with the federal government over the locality. Let’s focus on winning an enforceable right for every person to live with dignity, and on ending the current reality where the wealthy drown out the voices of others by forming corporations with their own “rights.” Whether municipal, county, state or federal, we need to stop the wealthy from rigging both the political and the economic game in their favor.



Photo: Make the Road New York and others take to the streets at 59th St. and Columbus Circle in Manhattan, April 2015. (Courtesy of Make the Road New York)

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