Manuel Pastor

Professor of Sociology, University of Southern California

LAANE’s establishment 30 years ago pioneered a new kind of hybrid institution: one based in the labor movement but not entirely of it; one tied to organizing but also focused on research; one set up to push government to adopt more progressive policies but to do so by working with elected officials and allies within government; and one created to design policy packages to address economic problems often caused by irresponsible corporations and help build power for the labor, community organizing, and environmental justice movements. Over time, LAANE’s campaigns have been developed in a uniquely comprehensive way to include organizing, research, policy, and communications – a “team model” with expertise in each area working collectively toward systemic change.

Organizing has always been the core of that model. With partners, LAANE first evaluates the organizing landscape – the interest of organized workers and community members, the capacity and needs of unorganized workers and communities, and the mobilization needed to move policy. But policy is not the end game.  LAANE’s commitment to organizing and power building is fundamental rather than instrumental: they are not vehicles for a policy win but ends in and of themselves that will help to correct the long-term imbalances of the current economic system. This translates to a dedicated effort to build a cohort of leaders among workers and communities in order to give them an enduring voice.

Beginning with their living wage study in 1996, LAANE’s research has been used as a tool to assert the collective benefits of increased wages to cities and communities. LAANE’s research also demystifies the mechanism of industries, allowing campaigns to craft nuanced solutions. Careful research – for example, learning how the recycling industry or the ports really work – has profoundly informed the design of policy mechanisms that could help raise wages and shift conditions for workers. Research reports also convey rigor, urgency, and confidence in both the analysis of the problems being exposed and the policy changes being proposed, making them central to crafting a communications strategy.

As for policy, in a world wracked by deindustrialization and slipping union strength, policy change is a critical, efficient approach to changing conditions. Over time, LAANE built the internal capacity (and the broader capacity of L.A. movement ecosystem) to craft policy language and design policy mechanisms. LAANE leadership, staff, partners, and lawyers from across the ecosystem helped design policies – from community benefits agreements to project labor agreements, community shared solar, and exclusive waste franchises – that busy and understaffed public officials could adopt as their own and champion.  

Part of LAANE’s unique strength lies in narrative and communications. LAANE staffs each campaign with a communications specialist, who seeks to generate media attention so that the public and policymakers, as well as corporate targets, understand that the “problem” has become an “issue” – a matter of controversy that needs to be debated and resolved in order to improve people’s lives. The research staff helps identify the problem and craft a solution. The organizing staff helps to mobilize workers and allies, and to train leaders to tell their personal stories. The communications staff seeks to generate public attention to the problem, and the campaign and policy solution to address it.

LAANE’s 1996 living wage campaign set the tone for its future: the campaign established the notion that both government and business held a responsibility to ensure that the companies that were benefiting from taxpayer money were using that money to sufficiently support their employees. But equally important was that this sort of measure – and everything else LAANE would go on to propose – would be good for the economy as a whole. At the time, this was not a well-trodden argument in the labor movement, nor was it a solid part of labor communications; unions tended to expand on why something would be good for workers rather than for the whole economy.

But the idea that equity was not a special interest but rather key to prosperity has steadily gained ground in academic research – including my own – and thanks to organizations like LAANE, the need to center racial equity, economic inclusion, and environmental justice has made its way to the public square as well. In a world where divides have been widening and where awareness around structural racism has been growing, LAANE’s mission and its model are needed more than ever.

I’m proud to have been an early supporter – indeed, I was on the board of LAANE before it called itself LAANE and instead labeled itself the Tourism Industry Development Council, with the idea being that lifting wages for hotel workers would actually generate a thriving hospitality industry and thriving communities in Los Angeles. I remember when the effort consisted of a poorly paid part-time employee, a tiny corner office, and a mal-functioning fax machine. LAANE has grown up to be a powerhouse – and our city and our region have benefited.

Most importantly, what happened in Los Angeles did not stay in Los Angeles. LAANE has become a model for the nation and this is key to our American future. When people talk about moving the country in a progressive direction, their attention often drives to Washington. But a federal strategy is not a national strategy – for that, we need to move the needle on power city by city, state by state, and linking that work to shift the direction across differences of race, class, and geography. By showing that another city is possible, LAANE has shown that another world is possible.