by David Sprintzen
Initially written for the Grassroots Organizing Newsletter
Founded on June 6th, 1979, on the eve of the Reagan Administration, the LIPC has grown and prospered in spite of the right-wing tide that swept across the United States — even removing from office in the mid-90s three reasonably progressive Long Island congress members.
The LIPC was born at the initiation of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (since become Democratic Socialists of America) and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, seeking to realize DSOC Chair Michael Harrington’s vision of being “the left-wing of the possible.”
Initially the LIPC was an entirely volunteer effort, with a handful of activists supported by a nominal coalition of some 60 progressive organizations. In those early years, while the Coalition supported a range of progressive causes, lacking staff, money, or resources, the primary focus of its activity was essentially determined by the interests, commitment, and efforts of those activists. Thus our organizing tended to focus on one or two issues, most particularly, the promotion of a democratically elected public utility to replace the Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO), in connection with the campaign against the Shoreham nuclear power plant. (While the campaign to stop Shoreham eventually proved successful, the utility was effectively bought off by the State, with the public committed to paying off through guaranteed rate increases LILCO’s entire investment in the failed nuclear plant — some $5.5 billion plus interest.)
Over the years, the LIPC’s scope has broadened, its funding expanded, and it has moved away from the coalition structure to becoming a grassroots membership organization. It has developed a staff, a series of projects generally directed by citizen activists, and most recently an emerging network of neighborhood-based chapters. Around 1990 the LIPC affiliated with Citizen Action of New York (CANY), becoming an autonomous regional affiliate. In 1994 a house was donated to it (technically, to our tax-exempt sister organization, the Research and Education Project of Long Island (REP-LI)) by Katharine Smith, a long-time socialist and human rights activist who hosted Norman Thomas and James Farmer, among others. Katharine died on May 4th of 1997 at the age of 104.
Under the motto, “Think Globally, Act Locally,” the LIPC’s goal has been to create a multi-issue, non-electoral party of the democratic left. It seeks to become the “legitimate opposition” to the established structure of corporate power. It has sought to build an effective progressive movement by avoiding unnecessary duplication of activities and resources, particularly through facilitating the work of single-issue and locally-based civic groups. It has assisted with networking, coordination, and mutual support. And it has then taken the initiative in developing projects that address fundamental issues of power and strategy that are either not being addressed, or being addressed in ways we find inadequate.
Currently, we have five major project initiatives:
- The Campaign for affordable, accessible, and high quality Health Care For All, as our long-term goal, while we actively promote Child Health Plus, Family Health Plus, an improved and effectively monitored Managed Care Bill Of Rights, the inclusion of prescription coverage for Medicare recipients, and the preservation and strengthening of Medicare and Social Security;
- Clean Money, Clean Elections state legislation that will get money out of politics and restore electoral democracy;
- Building effective labor-community cooperation through the Coalition to Save Long Island Jobs (& its companion project, the Labor-Religion Coalition);
- Promoting sustainability, environmental protection, and downtown revitalization; and
- The development of a network of neighborhood-based local LIPC chapters.
The sustainability effort continues the path-breaking work that we initiated on Long Island first with our 1992 conference Long Island: A New Vision, and then with the 1996 publication of the 167-page Long Island 2020: A Greenprint for a Sustainable Long Island. That document presented a vision of, and practical program for, the ecologically sustainable economic development of Long Island. A major undertaking, six years in the making, it offered practical proposals for local initiatives in the context of theoretical critiques of globalization and conventional economic theory and practice. The program of Long Island 2020 is centered on replacing quantitative growth with qualitative development, with a primary focus on revitalizing local business and democratically controlled neighborhood communities and hamlets. The aim of the document was to inaugurate a campaign that would place the issue of sustainability at the center of public consciousness and the political agenda.
In addition to these grassroots, issue-based campaigns, we played a key role in successful efforts to create a new political party that could give electoral expression to the concerns of working men and women across the Island and the State. That Party, the Working Families Party, on whose decision-making bodies we (and our statewide affiliate Citizen Action of New York) serve now functions as the primary vehicle for our political action.
Programmatic development requires political organization. Progressive values thus need to be embodied organizationally, and in a way that enhances collective efforts. In trying to effectively realize democracy in vision and practice, the LIPC has long struggled not only with the usual differences among its constituencies, as well as those with single-issue or locally focused organizations, but also with those generated by efforts to create a cooperative work environment that merges staff with project activists and board. How, for example, does one maintain cooperative decision-making while insuring responsibility, accountability, an appropriate use of and respect for expertise, and political effectiveness? Or deal with either inexperienced new staff or with those who either do not work well with others, have difficulty working on their own, or insist on “doing their own thing?”
At present, our practice only partially realizes our vision of a citizen-run community agency whose staff supports, sustains, and helps to coordinate the activity of board, project, and chapter activists — all on the basis of equality and mutual respect. Staff participate on all committees — except in matters of personnel — including the Steering Committee, with voice but no vote. (Though staff may be members of the board — & vice versa.) Staff or board serve as liaison-coordinators for each chapter or project, while seeking to cultivate leadership from within the activist group. Projects and chapters are urged to have representatives participate in board meetings, and all have been invited to our planning retreat. The rule for decision-making is that policy decisions are made by the operative group, with individuals or small working groups charged with implementation and authorized to make daily tactical decisions. The press of events, however, and the difficulty of coordinating the schedule of project activists often requires a less representative decision process that can only be reviewed after the fact.
In general, economic and social pressures impede regular coordination and complete democratic participation. Chapter development is particularly labor-intensive, requires much skill and the careful nurturing of group identification and leadership development, and the detailed organizing of practical tasks for individuals to carry out. Racial and cultural divides are remarkably intractable, and have been only partially overcome, while the geographical extent, residential dispersion, and general lack of civic centers remain continual impediments to effective community organizing on the suburbs that are Long Island. Nevertheless, the LIPC, through the dedication and time-consuming hard work of its volunteers and staff — has established an effective progressive presence on Long Island from which activists across the country can take heart.