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Social Justice Groups Impacted by Recession

Social Justice Groups Impacted by Recession

UC Riverside researchers find that economic crisis revived campaigns for economic justice even as organizations lost revenue.

(June 7, 2011)

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Social justice organizations in the United States lost revenue as demand for services increased during the economic crisis that cost 15 million workers their jobs and millions of families their homes. The Great Recession also helped to revive or stimulate various campaigns for economic justice, according to researchers at the University of California, Riverside.

In a report published today in Policy Matters – a quarterly journal published by UC Riverside – the researchers found that the economic crisis has created or increased financial hardships for many organizations, and at the same time has inspired or revived popular demands for jobs, housing, and social services. However, for many organizations focusing on non-economic issues it is business as usual, with little or no shift in their political agendas or coalitions.

The UCR research team surveyed participants and attended workshops at the second United States Social Forum (USSF), held in 2010 in Detroit, Mich., attended by 20,000 activists affiliated with a variety of organizations and social movements. The USSF is the largest meeting of progressive social justice activists in the United States.

“The Great Depression of the 1930s paved the way for the New Deal and the introduction of Keynesian economic policies in the United States and Europe, and ultimately lent important credence to social democratic policies in Europe,” the researchers wrote in “Is the Economic Crisis a Crisis for Social Justice Activism?” “The current recession could serve as a similar catalyst for a major rethinking of economic and social policies.”

Activists such as those involved with the USSF are at the forefront of advocating for such changes. The recession, could lend these organizations the necessary traction to influence political trends and policy processes, said Ellen Reese, associate professor of sociology and corresponding author of the report. In addition to Reese, study authors include Juliann Allison, associate professor of political science; Katja M. Guenther, assistant professor of sociology; graduate students Ian Breckenridge-Jackson, Elizabeth Schwarz and Michael Walker, and current and former undergraduate students Ali Lairy, Miryam E. Ruvalcaba.

The team analyzed survey data collected from 564 USSF participants on the perceived impacts of the economic crisis on political organizations in terms of their access to resources, membership, agendas, framing of issues, and alliances. They also analyzed descriptions of 1,039 workshops listed in the forum agenda, and examined field notes from 20 workshops attended by members of the research team, considering how and to what extent these groups addressed problems associated with the economic crisis that began in 2007.

Half of the participants surveyed said the economic crisis had reduced their organizations’ access to resources, and about one-third said their groups had shifted how issues were framed to link them to the economic crisis. More than one-fourth said their organizations shifted their goals and priorities in response to the economic crisis. And about one-fifth said their organizations were spending more time trying to meet the material needs of their members.

Of the 1,039 workshops listed in the online program, 124 mentioned the economic downturn in some way and addressed a range of topics. The greatest share focused on workers’ rights and job creation.

“Activists are linking the economic crisis to campaigns opposing public sector cutbacks and privatization and supporting workers’ (including unemployed workers’) rights and consumer-friendly policies and practices among financial institutions,” according to the researchers. “The workshops we observed focused on three types of campaigns: defending the public sector against cuts, organizing the unemployed, and organizing homeowners and consumers against predatory financial institutions.”

On the other hand, activists seeking to address the problems associated with the economic crisis face considerable challenges in pushing forward their policy demands. About 88 percent of USSF workshop descriptions did not mention the current economic crisis, and most of the workshops attended by UCR researchers made no mention of it either.

Most activists surveyed, particularly those with more mainstream political beliefs, reported that their organizations had made no change in their political priorities or alliances in response to the economic crisis. In addition, the report suggests that “although the economic crisis has generated intense pressures on social justice activists and their organizations to respond to growing material hardships, they may be more tightly constrained financially than ever before.”

Finally, the economic crisis has mobilized the right as well as the left, as evidenced by the rise of the Tea Party movement, the resurgence of nativist organizations, and Republicans wresting control of Congress from the Democrats in the 2010 election.

“Nevertheless, protest movements are under way among students, unemployed workers, evicted homeowners, and social service clients,” Reese and her co-authors noted. “This was perhaps most visible in Wisconsin and Ohio, where thousands of demonstrators mobilized against proposed cuts in public services and efforts to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights. Whether or not such popular mobilization will continue to rise and lead to major progressive policy shifts as they did during the Great Depression, or simply attempt to stave off further efforts to dismantle the public sector and workers’ rights, remains to be seen.”



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