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How Keith Ellison brings movement politics to Capitol Hill

Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., considers the Congressional Progressive Caucus to be "the legislative arm of the broader progressive movement." Here's why.
Keith Ellison
Rep. Keith Ellison, (D-MN) joins low-wage workers at a rally outside the Capitol in Washington, on April 28, 2014, to urge Congress to raise the minimum wage.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) isn't passing a lot of legislation these days. The math doesn't allow it, not when Republicans control the House and hold enough seats in the Senate to block any unwanted attempt at cloture. As a result, plans to legislate an increase in the federal minimum wage are perpetually on hold, stymied by an unfriendly House majority that seems likely to become even more powerful after the 2014 election.

Yet over the past several months, the CPC has managed to win a handful of small but crucial policy victories. In February, the caucus -- led by co-chairs Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz. -- successfully lobbied President Obama into issuing an executive order that sets a $10.10 minimum wage for federally contracted workers. On Thursday afternoon, he signed yet another order cracking down on labor law violations among federal contractors. This time, the president gave a personal shout-out to several members of the caucus, including Ellison and Grijalva. Those two -- along with Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and CPC members Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C. -- "always stand up for America's workers," said the president.

The president's executive orders regarding federal contractors were a victory in particular for Rep. Ellison, who was present at Thursday's signing. For over a year, he has been lobbying the White House and doing media appearances to talk about the need for lifting federally contracted workers' labor conditions. But he and other CPC members have also been taking an unusual step for members of Congress: On repeated occasions, they've joined the picket lines of striking federally contracted workers.

While other Democratic members of Congress might sometimes profess their solidarity with a particular social movement, the CPC has taken steps to blur the line between electoral politics and movement organizing. According to Rep. Ellison, that's all part of a conscious strategy.

"We really see ourselves as the legislative wing of the progressive movement," he said during a panel at the progressive convention Netroots Nation in late July. "We work hand in glove with our progressive partners."

Those progressive partners include Good Jobs Nation, the group organizing federally contracted workers, and its parent organization, the labor coalition Change to Win. For Ellison, they also include the fast food workers' movement, which over the past two years has led a series of increasingly large day-long strikes at fast food locations around the country. Ellison has attended fast food strikes in the past, and listened in on movement strategy sessions; in late July, he delivered a speech at the first-ever fast food workers' convention outside of Chicago.

"The Progressive Caucus, which I represent, is here in Washington, D.C. We're here to stand with you here, we're here to raise your voice, and demand that you get $15 and a union," he told the crowd of about 1,300 fast food workers.

"We really see ourselves as the legislative wing of the progressive movement."'

Speaking to msnbc, Rep. Ellison said that building "durable, sustainable, enduring relationships" with progressive groups was the only way to provide CPC with any meaningful leverage within the Democratic Party.

"There's nobody to the left of the Progressive Caucus, so we can't say we're going to vote with the Greens or something," he said. "So how do we get some power? Well we partner with our progressive allies. We have strong relationships with labor, with the environmental community, with the civil rights community."

This version of the Progressive Caucus is a relatively recent phenomenon, and Rep. Ellison wondered aloud whether it could have made a difference in the 2009 health care reform debate.

"What if we could have deployed 50,000 people on the Capitol demanding that single-payer be in the dialogue?" he asked. "Would that change it? I don't know, but I'd like to try."

Although the CPC casts a wide net in terms of its partner organizations, its alliance with labor groups like Good Jobs Nation may be the most significant bond it has formed. Change to Win deputy director Joe Geevarghese said Ellison played a key role in promoting the voices of the federally contracted workers on the Hill.

"We would not have gotten the executive orders without Congressman Ellison's steadfast support, and the steadfast support of all the members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus," he said.

The relationship between the CPC and Good Jobs Nation began in early 2013 when the latter group brought federally contracted workers to speak at a policy summit hosted by Progressive Congress, the non-profit partner organization of CPC. Three or four low-wage, federally contracted workers told CPC members about their working conditions.

Immediately after they spoke, said Geevarghese, "Congressman Ellison stood up and said 'this is wrong, this should not be happening on federal property in federal buildings, [and] the CPC is going to send a letter to the president on your behalf.'" Other members of the caucus agreed. When the federal contractors went on their first strike in May 2013, the CPC publicly supported the action.

Now that Good Jobs Nation has won another executive order from the president, the movement will likely go through a retooling period before the next big action occurs. But in the meantime, Ellison plans to introduce a bill that would turn union organizing into a civil right. He's also indicated that the CPC might eventually change its position on the minimum wage and argue that the president's favored $10.10 proposal is no longer sufficient. Instead, Rep. Ellison indicated his support for the $15 hourly wage which is one of the fast food strikers' key demands.

"The Progressive Caucus has not had a vote on introducing a bill at $15, but it is something that I don't mind telling you that we've had informal discussions about," he said. "We don't have a formal position on it yet."

Ellison's strategy of having the CPC work closely with various social movement groups doesn't have many analogs in modern federal politics; the closest thing might be on the right, where various Republican legislators jockey to identify themselves with the tea party grassroots. But there is historical precedent on the left as well: Geevarghese suggested Frances Perkins, Franklin Roosevelt's Secretary of Labor, as one predecessor. Otherwise, the closest points of comparison might be on the local level, where politicians such as Seattle's Kshama Sawant have explicitly rooted their legislative work in the social movement politics of grassroots organizations.

Now that model has met some limited success on the federal level. The question is whether the CPC and its allies can build on that success, especially given the hard strictures of the legislative branch.