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Case #115

The Economic Opportunity Institute, a progressive think tank


The Economic Opportunity Institute (EOI), in Seattle, is a progressive policy institute working to develop populist majoritarian policy and push that policy forward into the public eye. Because of them, Washington State is now the first state in the country with a minimum wage adjusted for inflation, and it also has a program to develop a childcare career ladder, providing professional respect and better pay for a generally minimum wage work force with major responsibilities.

EOI supported a bill that would use unemployment fund surpluses to create a paid family leave program - standard in Europe, unimaginable in the United States. It made it through a State Senate committee, then died, but EOI's founder and executive director, John Burbank, is working with Washington's US Senator Patty Murray, who is interested in proposing it as a federal pilot program.

In 2001, the EOI announced its second statewide ballot initiative, for a measure that would add a 60 cent tax to a pack of cigarettes, using the proceeds for healthcare for 50,000 working poor Washingtonians. EOI developed the measure, did preliminary polling and helped assemble the coalition. The institute will undertake statewide media tours, meet with editorial boards and reporters, develop one page blurbs on different parts of the measure and go to places where progressive activists have rarely gone before - like talk radio.

John Burbank has thought that progressive forces weren't just losing the struggle, they weren't fighting the right one. While progressives talked social theory, the right turned to the ballot box and the airwaves. And it was winning.

The EOI started 3 years ago to take on Washington State's four conservative think tanks. Burbank also intended to challenge progressive forces, which he saw as focusing too heavily on foreign policy and social issues, losing some of the bread and butter focus that appealed to both poorer and middle class voters. EOI likes to focus on gritty, practical issues like healthcare for the working poor and childcare development. It also works to present the issues in a media-savvy way that appeals to middle class voters.

Burbank argues that some activists insist on portraying themselves as advocates for the poor, which leads to a double trap: They can't draw enough mainstream, middle class support to win anything, and they "tend to isolate the lower income constituency."

EOI's successful minimum wage campaign confirmed Burbank's feeling that the initiative could be an effective liberal tool. This is what right wingers understood when they seized on the tactic. Burbank now wants liberals to reclaim the initiative. To him, the initiative is not only a tool but an opportunity. A campaign to collect the 225,000 signatures to put something on the state ballot, he notes, is a chance for "building a terrific database from signatures and donors." Which, at least potentially, can help in building a real grassroots movement.

To compete at the ballot box, activists need tight connections to the sympathetic institutions on their side. "The right wing institutes are powerful not just in how they define the terms of the debate, but how they're linked to their financial power," Brown points out. Practically, that means progressives need unions in the room. And it means expanding progressive efforts beyond their bridgehead in Seattle and Puget Sound.

From the outset, EOI has focused on the role and use of media, of making connections in a world of quick hit consciousness. "We can pursue all the policy development we want, but if we correspond only with the policy elites, we have failed in our mission." We must develop and implement a comprehensive media plan that brings our issues to the public and engages them."

The poor, and people who have dropped out, aren't "easily organizable politically, but they do listen to and are influenced by the media," argues Burbank. "To me that's very important stuff, talk radio. We shouldn't shy away from it." So Burbank goes on any talk radio show that will have him. The goal is to battle on every front, including the ones that progressives have generally evacuated.

In focusing on media strategies, broad alliances, and the initiative process, EOI has begun to turn around a battle progressives have been losing. "They seem to be doing a better job than anyone I can think of in our region at building a program for economic security for Working class and middle class people," says Jeff Malachowsky, founder of the Western States Center.

Burbank's approach may be more mundane than some progressive strategies, and his vision of the middle class as the new liberal constituency - and the media as the new barricades - may lack a certain work shirt romance. But he insists, and he's beginning to pile up some evidence, that on issues such as minimum wage increases, healthcare coverage and childcare subsidies, progressives can build successes and alliances. The first step is to retake the initiative - the one on the ballot.


Location: US
Action: Political, Direct
Setting: Developed World, Urban
Extent of Action: National
Issues: Worker Rights, Resources
Year(s): 1998
Outcome partially successful
Source: The Nation, 6/18/01


Prepared By: alb, 7/01
Rating: 1
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