By Brian Zug
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity
Brian Zug (BZ): Would you give a brief description of your role as an elected official, and then compare that to your role as an activist and organizer?
JT Scott (JTS): As City Councilor, I am an elected member of our legislative branch, accountable only to the 11,000 residents of Ward 2, who are packed into about half a square mile. Like other legislative branches, our functions are to create and modify laws. We also have some limited budgetary authority. Legislatures across cities, towns, states, and the Federal government all have different degrees of that. We have very limited budgetary authority here, because of the city’s strong-mayor charter structure. But, ultimately, the general public does not care what our government structure is; what they care about is that they have a representative that they get to vote for every so often, and when stuff is broken, they want us to fix it.
How is that different from my life as an activist? Well, it’s exhausting — but both are exhausting! — and I don’t believe I’ve left my life as an activist behind. I really do enjoy being a part of, and in, the movement. What’s changed for me is that I don’t have as much time to go out and knock doors for a specific campaign, or as much time to spend in planning or organizing meetings, because in some ways I’m serving as the tip of the spear, legislatively, for the goals of the movement. It works best when those two can dovetail. For example, with the wage theft ordinance that we passed here in Somerville, the working group of the activist community was enormous, and did a ton of work bringing together the coalition, making sure all the voices were represented — from the Brazilian Workers’ Coalition, from MassCOSH, from the trade unions — getting all these different pro-labor groups together to make sure that every aspect of wage theft was addressed. While I wasn’t in all the different planning meetings and coordinating conversations, I was able to talk to the group, coordinate strategy, and then we were able to implement something that’s the best in the state.
So I think those roles definitely dovetail, and trust me, there are times I’d trade my committee meetings at City Hall for getting to march out in the streets. But, honestly, running for office was motivated by the fact that we had been marching in the streets, we had been protesting outside and inside of City Hall for years, and been completely ignored. One of the functions of having a movement candidate in office is to create space for that protest to happen, and then for it to be registered and reflected in policy. I’m glad that the movement has a seat at the table.
BZ: One of the principal tasks of DSA right now is to reconnect the socialist movement to the labor movement. As a Councilor, what is your relationship to organized labor, and to the working class in general?
JTS: I mean, I’m in it! A lot of my interaction with working class people is them calling me to complain that their sidewalks aren’t being taken care of, or their street wasn’t plowed, or city services aren’t meeting snuff in a variety of ways. Governments can be big and complicated and scary apparatuses. Anybody who can find the City of Somerville’s website can get lost in it very easily, but there is a person that they know is responsible for just their neighborhood, and they can call me and yell at me about it. So that’s why it’s important that my phone number and my email address are right on the website. This is a very small gig. I don’t have any resources, or staff, or an office, so I pick up my phone when people call. Being out there, handling those kinds of day-to-day concerns with people, is ultimately what keeps me connected to the concerns of the working class beyond larger policy questions or ideological questions—just the questions of living conditions. If you’re out there in the neighborhood talking to people, they’ll tell you what’s on their minds. If you want to hear about a given topic, or how it intersects with something else, you ask—and folks ain’t shy.
I don’t have regularly-scheduled sit-downs with labor unions. If any of them wanted to, I’d be happy to! I’m always happy to hear from folks. When labor unions have called for support, be it for a protest action, or it’s having some increased visibility, or it’s wage theft or other unsavory practices I’m always happy to show up on the line, I’m always happy to raise an issue in the public forum or the local government body. Again, I think part of that is just being “of it.”
BZ: There is a picture of you and Ben Ewen-Campen standing with Harvard Grad Student Union organizers in City Hall. I guess it’s like you said, elected leaders need to show up
JTS: Yeah, it’s showing up. It’s going down to walk the picket, whether it’s Marriott workers, or Stop and Shop employees, or the Harvard Grad Student Union, or Tufts employees. And sometimes it’s about creating a forum for people to come. When the Harvard Grad Students’ Union came to speak at City Council, it was because somebody put in an item to give them a forum to talk so City Council could pass a resolution in support of their organizing. For the Tufts employees’ unions, it was about safety conditions related to COVID, where, not only did they have all these foodservice workers back in person, supporting an on-campus student population that frankly shouldn’t have been there, but they were also violating the workers’ contracts, putting them in unsafe situations, and then suspending and retaliating union representatives who made complaints. We had a hearing about it, and I’d like to think that shed some light and gave the union another forum for letting people know what’s going on, but it also helped document some of the behavior that they’ll need to prove when they get settlements.
It’s about showing up when called, but also creating space for the message to be broadcast further, and in some cases passing resolutions from the City Council supporting the organizing effort. And that’s been not just with labor unions, but, for example, the Union Square Neighborhood Council. It’s a body that I helped create, that I helped draft the bylaws for—before I got elected—as a way to create a more democratic, hyper-local… call it a fourth layer of government. It’s basically a small legislative body for just that neighborhood. They have annual elections; it’s directly democratic. They are the ones who have been negotiating and signing community benefits agreements (CBAs) with major developers. They’ve been creating project labor agreements, as part of these CBAs, that ensure a certain percentage of minority hiring, of hiring women, ensuring that all labor used on a project is going to be union labor. That organization exists because of the drafting effort that myself and several others in the neighborhood engaged in, and now my role as an elected official is to generate space for them to operate, because all of that community organizing could, again, be ignored inside City Hall, except for people like Councilor Ewen-Campen and myself, who are willing to hold up votes, or not bypass those voices in the process to ensure that those community processes are reflected in decision making.
BZ: At the intersection of ideology and labor, have you faced any resistance from unions in your district? For instance, locals that tend towards conservatism.
JTS: Well, the police union, but I’m not sure we should count them as labor. I think that’s a really important discussion to be had until the AFL-CIO kicks out the law enforcement unions. We continue to be confronted with that in this country, and it’s a problem.
There’s always a question of solidarity. Some of the trade unions, whether or not they’re more conservative, when going into negotiations, maybe they get their piece. Maybe they’re guaranteed that the local contractor who’s a union shop is getting the contract for this building, and now they send all their members to testify in support of a project which isn’t using a scrap of other union labor or has other problems. So that’s a question of solidarity, and I’ve definitely run into that. There are definitely times when there’s tension that I think all goes back to a lack of solidarity and understanding that the working class, and the needs of the working class, are more universal than whether or not an individual, or a company, or a particular union gets a paycheck on a given project.
J.T. Scott can be contacted at JTforWard2@gmail.com and by phone at (857) 615-1532. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JTForWard2 and visit his website at www.jtforward2.com to sign up for his newsletter.