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At Netroots, progressive activists turn to traditional organizing

Organized labor and other forms of traditional organizing had a big showing at this year's Netroots Nation.
A \"Run Liz Run\" poster sits on the floor in front of LaNae Havens, center, as she cheers for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., at the Netroots Nation conference in Detroit, Mich., July 18, 2014.
A \"Run Liz Run\" poster sits on the floor in front of LaNae Havens, center, as she cheers for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., at the Netroots Nation conference in Detroit, Mich., July 18, 2014.

DETROIT - At this year’s Netroots Nation conference, where speakers included Democratic luminaries like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vice President Joe Biden, the honor of delivering the opening keynote address went to Rev. William Barber, the president of the North Carolina NAACP and the driving force behind the state's Moral Mondays demonstrations.

If one speech captured the tenor of this year's Netroots Nation, it was Barber's.

"Movements never came from D.C. down," he bellowed. "Movements always come from Birmingham up, from Montgomery up."

The conference -- and potentially the American left as a whole --  appear to be following Barber's lead. While the official program still included plenty of events like "Changing the Meaning of a Super PAC: Ready for Hillary," there were more panels than ever about community organizing and individual labor battles.

"I think there's just this sense of activism, that people are finally like, 'We've had enough,'" said Liz Shuler, secretary-treasurer for the labor coalition AFL-CIO. "It's been building for the last few years with the changes in the economy."

Those changes include not just a long period of elevated unemployment and spiraling inequality, but also an explosion in low-wage worker agitation.

Ever since the first conference in 2006, Netroots Nation (née YearlyKos) has served as a kind of institutional mood ring for the progressive left. Even an informal survey of the crowd will say a lot about the state of American liberalism; Netroots organizers report that 61% of the speakers at this year's conference were women, and 53% were people of color.  

Just two months prior to the conference, thousands of fast food workers in 150 cities went on a day-long strike, the largest coordinated work stoppage in the history of the industry. That strike was accompanied by solidarity rallies in 33 countries, on six continents.

"Movements never came from D.C. down. Movements always come from Birmingham up, from Montgomery up."'

Netroots organizers made their own show of public solidarity at the conference, screening brief videos about the strike before some of the keynote speakers and inviting low-wage workers to talk on the panels. Warren even gave a shout-out to the strikes during her speech.

"We believe that fast food workers deserve a livable wage, and that means when they take to the picket line, we are proud to fight alongside them," Warren said, to raucous applause.

The interest in local organizing battles went beyond just talk. On Friday, hundreds of Netroots Nation attendees protested Detroit's water shutoffs, joining with hundreds more city residents. Many of the conference-goers said they felt compelled to participate in the march because they see what's going on in Detroit as part of a national struggle.

Attendee Michelle Coyle Edwards said she was "absolutely" concerned that water shutoffs could eventually occur in other cities.

"I'm just out here to lend my presence and my voice, to make it bigger," she said of the march. "I want the cameras out here, I want everybody to pay attention to what's going on here. I need everybody to know that this is how Americans are treating Americans right now."

But that was just one protest, and it’s not yet clear whether progressives' current enthusiasm for social movement politics will turn into a durable model of social change. The Washington-centric political model still figured heavily into this year's program, even if it was not as ubiquitous as in prior years.

Yet labor leaders and other community activists were encouraged by their growing presence at the conference, and by the opportunity it afforded them to interact with other segments of the progressive base.

"There's so much that the online world and the traditional organizing world need to get from one another," said Restaurant Opportunities Centers United co-founder Saru Jayaraman. "And I think that could happen in a space like this."

In at least a handful of cases, Netroots speakers already did seem to be practicing a kind of fusion politics, integrating the work of political operatives and online activists with traditional movement organizers. At a panel called "Underwriting Good Jobs," low-wage workers, the labor coalition Change to Win, and Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., all spoke about their coordinated efforts to press the White House on lifting the wage floor.

The groups represented on the "Underwriting Good Jobs" panel scored a major victory five months ago, when President Obama signed an executive order lifting the minimum wage for federally contracted workers to $10.10 per hour. Now, said Ellison, the Progressive Caucus would press for further improvements to federal contractors' workplace standards.

"It was a powerful combination of inside and outside that got President Obama to issue the $10.10 executive order," said Change to Win deputy director Joe Geevarghese at the panel. 

Ellison gave the issue visibility in the mainstream press and the halls of power, workers applied pressure by going on strike, and the liberal think tank Demos produced economic research on the projected benefits of the $10.10 wage. Having made that gain, the group is now demanding another wage increase, along with other measures related to collective bargaining and job advancement.

"We really see ourselves as the legislative wing of the progressive movement," said Ellison, who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus. "We work hand in glove with our progressive partners."