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REVIEW: Justice at Work – the Rise of Economic and Racial Justice Coalitions in Cities

Justice at Work: The Rise of Economic and Racial Justice Coalitions in Cities By Marc Doussard and Greg Schrock University of Minnesota Press $25.00 (paperback) 252 pages, 14 b&w photos, 4 tables, 5 1/2 x 8 1/2, 2022

Doussard and Schrock propose a new approach to urban theory and practice. Rather than focus on elites— casting resistance as ill-informed and futile—they look at resistance first, finding new support for concepts that seek racial or distributive justice.

Do not look at city hall alone, they say, but think of city hall as part of a larger assemblage, responsive to external pressure from social movements. They look carefully at a voluminous literature on cities, but focus on the recent appearance of local “economic and racial justice (ERJ) coalitions” fortified by “urban policy entrepreneurs” who operate in networks of regional and national scale. They couch these new developments in theorizing on “post Fordist” industrial organization (i.e., a period that follows large-scale, standardized and highly unionized manufacturing), drawing out inferences that support the practices they have observed. They note a new willingness of community and labor organizers to foreground race issues alongside economic ones, thus beginning to erase a “silo” effect that has long constrained proposed changes in governance and policy.

Economic and Racial Justice (ERJ) Coalitions and Urban Policy Entrepreneurs

ERJ coalitions, they write, come from long histories of labor and community organizing—a tradition of “resistance.” But it had also been a long history of frustration. Labor had a history of racism and when the American Federation of Labor merged with the CIO in 1955 it was with a tacit bargain to avoid race and focus on class as Labor’s main claim on corporate profits. As a result, organizing among people of color lagged.

Parallel struggles existed around community issues—housing, for example. The authors quote Saul Alinsky, the most prominent figure among community advocates, who advocated the avoidance of race in favor of “pragmatism”—negotiation of smaller issues at the margins of a more fundamental conflict.

What Doussard and Schrock notice is the post-millennium increase in open calls for racial equity in these controversies and with that a productive convergence of racial and class claims. Compared to previous practice, they see these claims as now stronger.

Dousssard and Schrock also note a second, reinforcing element, favoring ERJ coalitions in the development of networks of “urban policy entrepreneurs” who could turn movement goals—often more general than specific—into concrete policy proposals, for example, a $15 minimum wage. John Kingdon argued for a role for similar actors using federal level cases, but the authors saw advantages as observations shifted toward less dense, less well-developed policy environments of state and local governments. Expertise would develop among sets of advocates for particular policies, who would then shop for localities that might favor them. They would then concentrate on these places and, even if defeated, learn from the experience and pass it on to the next area.

The Reorganization of Capital

That is the brief version. Ideals of equality and justice, long frustrated, now have strong new coalitions both locally and at the national level. Doussard and Schrock are persuasive about this, but what are their reasons?

Their first insight is “the upside of globalization.” Finance in particular is no longer purely local nor even national in scale, but rather global. Deindustrialization, scourge of anti-poverty activists in the final decades of the century, is not fixable in the factory or the streets, but a matter of decision points far away. But once the factories are closed and elites seek other occupants for their fixed capital, workers and local entrepreneurs begin to have other options. As Doussard and Schrock show, international finance still seeks outlets and local forces may have some leverage as a result .

This potential leverage was linked to the observation that instead of disappearing altogether, manufacturing needed to restructure into smaller units under less control from central firm headquarters. The authors follow Manuel Castells, who saw the emergence of grassroots resistance to large units and centralized control (1983) and posited new forms of control, a “network society” (1996). The authors began to see Castells’ predictions with their own eyes in the U.S. and other countries from the 1990s into the first decades of the new millennium.

Another part of the change to the network society was the increasing role of service sectors, displacing the primacy of manufacturing. This was cause for protest— note the shock of the “resistance” when the head of what had been U.S. Steel addressed a group in Chicago: the firm, now renamed “USX,” was no longer making steel, but making money through investments in fields like finance and real estate.

The second and probably most important part of the authors’ scheme is the recognition that, as finance sought new outlets, the prime vehicle it needed to cooperate with was the city. Now, investors began to see the need for new services to create a much more diverse economic base. The result was a flow of capital into central cities:

Once businesses made job security a relic of the past, they needed the density and diversity of central cities to provide the workers they used to train themselves: the city itself is the "factory” of contemporary capitalism. This arrangement makes central business districts the intellectual assembly sites of the new economy, strategic centers where highly specialized engineers and designers could combine and recombine to consistently generate new ideas, products, and services (p. 4).

The sectoral focus of investment followed:

Today, the amount of public investment, governance, and effort that goes into central business districts often defies measurement. In Chicago, for example, the city has authorized hundreds of millions of investment through tax increment financing and sunk billions of dollars into lakefront parks and facilities (Spirou and Judd 2016; Weber 2015). Those investments also spill over to the people who labor in downtowns. Federally funded, locally staffed and orchestrated workforce development programs, for example, devise job-training and retraining programs to mitigate persistent employment crises in small, unstable, and highly specialized manufacturing firms (Lowe 2007; Schrock 2013). Community college systems, labor unions, manufacturing standards organizations, and incubators all work, often quietly, to ensure that the production networks replacing large factories function smoothly (Clark 2013).

The Resistance Now

Doussard and Schrock also move on, focussing on the forces of resistance:

Community activists and organizers in U.S. cities have changed their approach to advocacy in ways that are nearly as drastic as the concurrent reorganization of capital and investment. Responding first to deindustrialization, and later to the normalization of inequitable growth and the calamity of the Great Recession, organizations that initially focused on neighborhood territory and incremental bargains with businesses and local government, built citywide networks. (p. 59)

Local officials and academics, resistant to these changes, at first did not see all that was happening. Justice at Work lays this out based on interviews in the field. But what they saw was as much a changing form of resistance as it was a change from the top. One should read their full account (p. 43-58), but here is a brief passage:

Rather than ask how the economies of cities are changing, we ask how communities and peoples’ organizations respond to those changes, and what their organized responses mean for how we think about action against inequality, because capital needs cities, cities provide key bargaining sites for community struggles against inequality (Lefebvre 1991; Castells 1983). (p. 3)

And later, presenting the details, they see a series of phases, identifiable by decade:

Beginning with deindustrialization and the deep, prolonged recession of the early 1980s, neighborhood coalitions attempted electoral takeover of city government by uniting predominantly minority neighborhoods and white progressives (Bennett 1993; Kaufrnann 2005). In the 1990s, citywide living-wage movements joined the remnants of this coalition to unions and issues-based organizers, seeking limited citywide legislation to mitigate the growth of service-sector jobs and working poverty. In the 2000s, these same movements turned to the goal of securing community benefits agreements—bespoke promises for the developers of large real estate projects to provide good jobs and mitigate negative impacts of new development The community benefits movement failed to scale up but advanced the important work of linking campaigns for work to campaigns focused on housing and other problems. Following the Great Recession, community activism changed again, with organizers embracing messages, strategies, and tactics they had previously downplayed: racial and economic justice, public confrontation, multiorganization networks, and increasingly ideological critiques of capitalism and institutional racism. (p. 39; emphasis added).

This was a sense of phases, not a theory with causal assertions. But Doussard and Schrock do assert a set of primary factors: the first being the primacy of deindustrialization and the shift to reindustrialization. This, they note, resulted in a new set of challenges for those who would resist what had come from the top, armed with an ideology soon identified as “neoliberalism,” advancing austerity in public spending, privatization, and ‘free markets’.

In the first phase of their scheme, activists found it useful to contest what they saw as finance capital— to simply stop plant closings and support new initiatives that would recreate what was being lost. But Doussard and Schrock began to see ways the “resistance” could tie their goals to what the neoliberals were proposing. Little by little, they saw advances through the phases they identified.

Their final observation is a clarification of the importance of race. What Doussard and Schrock saw, in the final post-millennial decade, was a new willingness to foreground issues of race and inequality in dialogues that had earlier pushed race to the background in favor of class arguments.

Over and over, organizers asked themselves: How can we dramatize austerity? How can we reduce a complex problem to simple proposals? Race and racism played a surprising role in the answers. While talking about tax increment financing, bonding, debt swaps, or other important finance issues resonated with neither movement constituents nor the press, labelling the entire enterprise of austerity as racist did. This led to a result that previous generations of organizers could not imagine. By foregrounding questions of racism they were supposed to avoid, ERJ coalitions gained real traction on what had been an intractable problem. (p. 84)

This comment from the authors, presented as a summary thought from themselves as – at least in part – information from field interviewers, needs to be brought out more clearly. It suggests an attachment across race lines that has long been sought by anti-poverty advocates, organizers, and researchers. How extensive are the sentiments it implies? As presented, in one of three introductory chapters that seem more like argument than factual presentation, one might have doubts.

But this comment is drawn from research reported in the last half of Justice at Work: four chapters on the emergence of social justice advocacy post-millennium, seen mainly as the work of “Urban Justice Entrepreneurs”.

By this logic, the authors provide at least some support for the contention that a new playing field had come into existence for the “resistance” to capitalist exploitation. What they now portrayed was a set of changes tied together: the reinforcing effects of race and class bias could now work together towards resistance. The advantages of central city location would be newly shared by the “have-nots.”

Social Movement Pressure on Cities

The rest of the book describes the social movement milieu. Chapters 4-7 present case histories of four social movements of the recent (post millennial) period and provide empirical basis for the argument of this new playing field. First, they look at the “Fight for Fifteen,” a social movement that became national, as activists sought city and later state governments that might enact minimum wage increases. These efforts were a notable success, as they saw the enactment of minimum wage established or increased in 50 cities by 2019. Next, they describe “Targeted Hiring,” measures to place specific groups into “better jobs.” A third set of cases focused on “Justice Beyond Work”: sick days, scheduling and related issues such as child and elder care. Finally, there is a chapter on what became an overarching struggle against inequality beginning with the Occupy movement of 2011 and reaching a peak, perhaps, with the “Defund the Police” protests following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May 2020.

Doussard and Schrock trace what is in effect a continuum from the concrete goals and tangible success of the “Fight for Fifteen” to the relatively complex and slippery nature of latter movements, but which in the end became more important for the ability of organizers to meld race and class appeals, and thus achieve what they see as surprising success.

Final Thoughts

The argument for incorporating race into class analysis gains relevance according to this assertion by the authors: increasingly multiracial cities have more or less routinized the convergence of race and economic issues, thus setting the stage for major advances in urban policy and beyond.

I cannot tell how persuasive this should be. Politics in the United States seems to comprise both new ideas and emerging constituencies on the left, and on the other hand an intense reaction threatening to sweep it all away. But Doussard and Schrock look at structural changes and responses that could transcend all that. What they suggest may last longer than the responses of the day. This book could have a long life.

It also provides a platform for a new focus on the “progressive city.” The vision is for a different sense of the urban politics context for planning: one of nationally reinforced policy advocacy networks alongside traditional forces and institutions. It is a vision that can open the city up to new influences that may be better aligned to tackle the complex struggles that mark the fight for urban social justice.

Pierre Clavel is Professor Emeritus of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University, where he’s been since 1967. He’s always been interested in writing about things city planners can do right – usually in small ways, but in the 1980s began to look at cases where they made a point of putting these small things together as overall city policy, so that they could claim to be looking toward the “progressive city.” For examples see and “Progressive Cities and Neighborhood Planning,” a Cornell Library web publishing effort.




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