The election is now over, and a transition of power upon us — but many realities of life in Philadelphia still loom over our heads. The poorest big city in America, Philadelphia lacks a public hospital. We lack the school infrastructure necessary to safely educate our children. We lack living-wage jobs, exacerbated by our minimum wage still being just $7.25 per hour. And the lack of continued stimulus funding during the pandemic and gutting of extended unemployment has workers teetering on the edge.
This is not equity. It’s barely survival.
Neither equity nor even long-term survival was on the ballot this election. While it’s a victory that Donald Trump has been driven from office, many people are disappointed by Joe Biden’s refusal to stand behind the kind of drastic change that reflects our drastic situation. We are still in the middle of a pandemic, which has killed 235,000 so far in America, many of whom likely delayed going to the doctor or were reluctant to call out of work sick for lack of health care and financial worries. Biden said in March he would veto Medicare for All if it came to his desk.
Many of us breathed a sigh of relief when the election result was called. But that sigh is accompanied by the grim knowledge that a “return to normal” is not possible — and for most of us, “normal” wasn’t livable either. As we return to calls for “unity” and “healing division,” we remember that the more palatable politicians like Biden didn’t put food on our tables, either.
The change we need was not on the ballot this election. How do we win it?
The reality is, while millions of dollars have been spent convincing workers to cast ballots this election, we have far more power available to us than just voting itself. In Seattle, Socialist Alternative and our independent City Council member Kshama Sawant led a campaign to tax Amazon for affordable housing and homeless services. While the eventual goal was to get the tax on the ballot, on the way we built a powerful coalition involving tenants organizations, climate activists, labor unions, and community groups to reach out to the broadest layer of people we could — especially those that usually don’t vote, like renters who move frequently.
It ended up that our tax was not won through a ballot initiative, but through City Council legislation: $200 million from the richest corporations in the city, directly to Seattle’s most vulnerable. We can do so much more when our ask of people is beyond voting, and we need to.
It’s right for activists to be thinking about what gives us power, including after an election. The power of working people lies in our ability to mobilize in the streets and workplaces. Ultimately, that mobilization can get us to a place where electoral work and grassroots organizing don’t conflict — where voters don’t find themselves having to rally the vote for someone who doesn’t support the policies that matter most to them. We should have a party where we can unabashedly represent ourselves, where we could write our platform for health care for all and wages on which families can truly live. We should have a party that is really democratic, rather than Democratic in name only. For years, left activists have been battling inside the Democratic Party to overcome corporate leadership. The time is right to build something new.
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We can flex our strength outside of, and within, halls of elected power. As things stand now, community and citywide organizations can begin to have meetings where the multiracial, multigender Philadelphia working class can discuss methods and tactics for struggle.
For people who were disappointed in Biden, organizing beyond the election was always a given. Philadelphia proved it this week, coming out in force to stop Trump from interfering with ballot counting: If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. For the regular people of Philadelphia — the unemployed, the cashiers, service workers, teachers, truck drivers, students, and so many more whose livelihoods are still on the line — what we can win is only limited to what we stand up and fight for.
Eric Jenkins is a Black activist in Philadelphia and a member of Socialist Alternative.