In the spring of 2020, early in the pandemic, I heard Paul Getsos — veteran community organizer, creative strategist, and effective coalition builder — articulate an experiment he planned to launch focused on building a base in some of the red states and communities deprioritized by national progressives. I was then Managing Director at Community Change, and Paul was inviting us to collaborate and support the experiment. I was impressed with the organizing insight and startup mentality that Paul brought to the project, as well as the serious need for the work being proposed. We soon decided to provide resources and serve as fiscal sponsor for the project that eventually became United Today, Stronger Tomorrow (UTST). 

As I prepared to interview Paul — along with some of the organizers and members of UTST  — about the power analysis informing their work, I reflected on my own view of the power that progressives need to build nationally. As I’ve also argued in Power Concedes Nothing: How Grassroots Organizing Wins Elections, I believe that our progressive movement ecosystem must eventually constitute a political super-majority — not just the 50% +1 needed to win an individual election but the 70-75% needed to boldly and durably govern. Achieving this breadth and depth of power will require that we organize and align large majorities of all communities of color as well as a significant base of white people. We can’t win with our current base of activists alone, nor can we win by organizing people of color alone. We can’t wait for demographics to shift. They aren’t destiny. Plus, the world is on fire and people are dying — now. 

We have to build a super-majority base to consistently win statewide elections and move our agendas. On the national level — as we’ve all been reminded over the course of 2021 and 2022 — truly governing the country and implementing our vision for boldly progressive government action will require us to build that base in a super-majority of states. UTST is one of a number of groups building that common vision in areas that progressives typically ignore. They start with organizing basics and relational outreach, layering on creative coalition building and some smartly scaled digital organizing — all while staying grounded in the day-to-day realities and concerns of people in the cities and counties where they’ve begun to work over these past two-plus years.

Initially, UTST focused on organizing communities to respond to the COVID crisis — calling for mask mandates, vaccine equity, and the equitable allocation of federal COVID relief, among other issues. They’ve done thousands of conversations over these past couple of years — via surveys, organizing meetings, one-on-ones, and town halls. What they’ve heard from people across the political spectrum is that they want solutions to issues including inflation, housing, education, childcare, healthcare access for rural people, support for small farmers and ranchers, and clean air, water, and energy. One leading campaign focus is on how federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) funding for state and local governments is actually deployed and how it can reflect community priorities. 

For this installment of the power analysis series, l talked with founder Paul Getsos. I then did a second interview that included Paul as well as UTST Utah coalition member, Brandon Dew. Brandon is the Utah District Representative for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 3, and he also serves as President of the Central Utah Federation of Labor (AFL-CIO). These two conversations have been combined, edited, and condensed into this one piece. 

Editor's note: You can read the companion interview with UTST coalition members from Iowa and Colorado here


Can you tell me the origin of United Today, Stronger Tomorrow. What ideas were you trying to test? And from a power analysis perspective, what were you hoping to build? 

Paul Getsos: I had decided to move on from my work at the People's Climate Movement (PCM). When COVID hit, I saw a number of the same things start to happen that I’d seen happen during previous crises, whether it was Trump or the economic recession of 2008 or welfare reform in the ’90s or HIV/AIDS in the ’80s. I saw a lot of people self-organizing. Unemployed folks, unemployed actors, there were these reports of massive petitions. I was like, "Here we are again. We're in a crisis moment.” That was the origin of it. The idea was built off my experience at PCM. When Trump got elected, there were all these people that were motivated to start doing political work and a lot of traditional community organizing groups, particularly through the PCM network, really struggled to figure out how to absorb people. I think if I have an organizer superpower, it isn't being the best organizer or the best trainer. My organizer superpower is understanding the moment and where it's going and how to build something for a couple of years down the road.


If I'm right, from the beginning of United Today, Stronger Tomorrow, there's been a national power analysis informing some of the ideas and choices. Say a word about that national power analysis.

Getsos: This also goes back to my PCM days. We did the big People’s Climate March in 2014 in New York City: 400,000 people, a mass mobilization, which changed the narrative about who cared about climate change and bolstered world leaders’ commitment to address it. The next mobilization we did was this national day of action [in multiple locations]. Through back channels, we were in conversations with the White House. It was when Obama and others were trying to pass the Clean Power Plan. What people told us then was that we didn't really need to get people [on the streets] in New York or California, but what they needed was unusual constituencies in unusual places like Pittsburgh and Cleveland and Colorado. I was working through this distributive model with this principal in New Mexico who was organizing their high school and was going to put 200 people into the streets. And we had a couple of hundred green energy workers mobilized in Phoenix. What was really successful about that day was action stories from places that you wouldn't normally expect around climate. We did that in 2015, and then I led a process within PCM to think about where the climate movement should grow and move in the next 10-to-25 years. There was a lot of interest on my part in rural areas and rural states. That experience informed the idea for United Today, Stronger Tomorrow. From a national power mapping view, we have to move elected officials and senators in those places to support our agendas. Is it going to be the most radical policy? No. Is it going to be policy that makes improvements in people's lives? Yes. 

Recently, we saw it with the bipartisan infrastructure bill in 2021, the technology and innovation bill, we see it even with the gun safety legislation. Now, are these the most liberal, progressive, left, ambitious programs ever? No. But are they good organizing tools? Do they deliver things to people? Yes. And so I think that's based on the power mapping at the national level.



Paul, tell us how UTST started to build and organize and campaign in Utah. What shifts in the power equation do you think have already happened and how has it played out so far?

Getsos: In March of 2020, UTST hired an organizer to work in Utah and test the idea of building a new organizing project in the state. Community Change, which helped to support the project through fiscal sponsorship and funding, was interested in building a relationship with Senator Mitt Romney on a set of issues, namely the Child Tax Credit. The UTST organizer, who previously worked for the Industrial Areas Foundation, was able to quickly convene an organizing committee of mostly faith leaders but that also included an antipoverty advocacy and rural organizing group, plus a few union leaders. One of the first things we did is we asked for a meeting with Mitt Romney and we got a meeting. We believe we got access to Romney because we had faith leaders. In our first year of organizing, we realized that our organizing committee members, because they were faith-based, also got us access to high-level decision-makers in the governor's office and in the state legislature.  

What was unique about that moment was, because all this federal American Rescue Plan money came into the state, nobody was prepared for it. We had this opening where we could influence how elected officials were thinking about the money. We did a quick six-week campaign. We created the digital survey and then essentially got a thousand surveys from across the state — every county, every zip code, every legislative district — around how the money should be spent. So we were able to come back to the legislature and the governor's office and say, we just surveyed a thousand Utahans across the state and the top lines are affordable housing, mental health, childcare, and then we used a press strategy. We were able to use our organizing committee leaders’ access to elected leaders but then we had to show through a very at-scale project in a short amount of time, people were like, "Wow. You spoke to a thousand people."

And then at the end of that, we had 115 people show up on a Zoom call with eight decision-makers to release the results of the survey. And so again, I think it was the combination of access, a quick, scalable survey doing issue ID, and then a turnout mechanism to fill a Zoom room. We had a representative from the administration, we had Romney staff people. It showed that we had some kind of base in the state.

What was interesting was that the campaign I just described was in 2021. Then in 2022, everyone knew the ARP money was there and they'd been through a budgetary cycle. In Salt Lake County, some of our organizing committee members, myself, and the organizer went and did meetings with the Salt Lake County council members. They were pleading with us to start to organize on ARP because they were getting drowned out by anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, and the anti-CRT crowd. They were like, "There's all this money here," and they were begging us, "Please do surveys. Please show up at the county committee meetings because everything's getting drowned out by anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers."

And so that is when we started that campaign. And we did our second campaign at the state level and we were fighting for affordable housing and then childcare. But the other thing we were fighting for was expanding kindergarten to become full-day. We thought between the access and the commitments that we had from the governor that we were good. Then about a week before the budget was finalized, we heard that things were cut — including the full-day kindergarten money and our affordable housing demands — because in red states, Republicans fight [with each other].

And so we had to mount a campaign and eventually we won back 12.5 million in expansion to full-day kindergarten. We didn't lose, but we only won half of what we wanted. We were debriefing with our leadership committee, which included the head of the Central Trades Council, the Catholic Church — these are big players. And I was like, "Well, what happened?" And they were like, "Yeah. We didn't win as much as we thought," but everyone across the room, particularly around the full-day kindergarten, was like, "You don't understand. If we weren't organizing, we would not have won this much."


Brandon, can you share why you got involved with UTST? 

Brandon Dew: I was what's called an HDR — heavy duty repairman — for a local concrete asphalt construction company. I got active with the union, had good mentors that basically just brought me along. And I was pretty much pulled into the union that way. So 28 years as a member, but I've been 21 years on staff for the operating engineers union here in Utah. We're the largest construction union in the United States. My local, Operating Engineers Local 3, has 38,000 members over four states, covering Northern California, northern Nevada, all of Utah, and the Hawaiian islands. About 10 years ago, I got involved with the Central Labor Council as Secretary Treasurer. I became President after a couple years, and I’ve been doing that for the last eight years. I learned here in Utah — when I started getting involved with the Central Labor Council — how the various unions can have a direct impact on each other. I think sometimes we get in these silos and we see the silo as the world. And when you peek out the roof of the silo and you start looking around, you realize there's other silos and how they directly impact your silo. So, you look outside the labor silos, and then you start seeing there's progressive or moderate organizations that have a direct impact on workers in the state of Utah. With UTST we had this organizing committee. Everybody's been grabbing an oar and rowing in the same direction, and we are making significant change. 


When you think about your political and economic context, how would you describe the power relations in Utah before UTST began?

Dew: Utah is such an interesting state. In California, which I'm very familiar with, you've got different pockets and different power structures within those pockets that work with each other. In Utah, I think it's about 85,000 square miles roughly. I don't know that we could take central Utah and say that there's a power structure there that's not the same as the power structure statewide.

You got bankers associations, realtors associations, labor groups, environmental groups. Labor sits in the power structure in Utah in a unique situation. In California, where I had an opportunity to lobby with our labor union, you walk in and the politicians are rushing to talk to you. I was taken back because I definitely have friends on Capitol Hill [in Utah]. But I go up to lobby here in Utah and everybody runs like cockroaches knowing that I'm going to come talk to them about workers' rights. In California, they come rushing to us.

The way that the unions recognize power here, we know that the power is in our members. But we have to have a different relationship than say labor unions in California or New York. We have to take a much more moderate tone. It's about labor.


You talked about the bankers, the realtors, and I'm sure there are other industry and employer associations. How do you understand how they exercise power? 

Dew: I think it's very similar to us. We have the AFL-CIO — that's our umbrella. Contractors have the Associated General Contractors. So there's a lot of associations and lobbying groups that way. I sit on the state Democratic executive committee. And what I would say is all of these organizations understand that you have to really pull to the moderate. In Utah, we definitely have some extreme right and some extreme left, but the majority of the legislature is in the middle.

So as a labor organization, you'll learn who your friends are and who are not your friends. But we understand that if we had 100% of the Democrats [in the legislature] support our issues, we still wouldn't get anything done. And so we have to find that middle ground with good Republicans in the State of Utah who are moderate and understand that we're just looking out for the interests of our members, for better wages, benefits, and working conditions. 


Can you think of an example where there was going to be a close vote on something you were trying to move in the legislature? How did you win (or lose)? What was your analysis of which side brought more power and how?

Dew: There's a wind power transmission line — the Transwest line — that's coming out of Wyoming. It comes all the way through Utah into Southern California. And it's a wholesale line so there's no spurs coming off. From a labor perspective, it creates a lot of good-paying jobs. From a state perspective, it brings in some revenue. There was a lot of opposition on both sides because we have a huge coal industry. In fact, we have a county named after coal — it's Carbon County. And these families are generational coal miners. They look at a transition from coal-powered power plants to green energy, and I understand this perspective of like, "This is all I know. What do we do now?"

So from labor, we're representing a lot of those miners down there. We have a clear understanding of the impact that it has on members of those unions that have grown up in that community. But long story short, there was definitely a coalition that was against the line and a coalition, which we were in, for the line. Ours was specifically job-related. But you started seeing those coalitions of groups come together. I don't know that in my time working in politics for 20-plus years now that I've ever seen as much lobbying done as on that specific bill, which is pretty crazy because there's a lot of bills in 20 years. But I had never seen so many lobbyists be brought in on one issue. And ultimately the side of getting the line prevailed; it came down to a midnight vote almost on the last day of the session.


What is your after-the-fact power analysis? What made the difference in that wind power transmission line getting approved? 

Dew: Our coalition had better talking points, a better understanding of what the future looked like, how it impacted the state of Utah long-term. Sometimes, that's the hard part. All too often, the state legislature misses the mark on what their constituents want. And it's about the power grab. I think you look back at medical marijuana, which the majority of Utahans voted for. You look at Better Boundaries, which was creating an independent redistricting committee, which the state legislature completely ignored and did whatever the RNC told them to do to retain power. There were several things that happened that the citizens voted for and the legislature immediately jumped in to make sure that their power wasn't taken away and given back to others. 

I think that what UTST was able to bring that maybe opened a lot of our eyes is understanding the whole conversation that we're having here today. If we just look for people that have similar values, similar ideas, maybe it's outside of that silo I keep going back to, but it's all still part of the big world we live in even though we're only in our own silo. 

Getsos: Brandon, how important was the faith aspect to the coalition in Utah? 

Dew: Absolutely. The one group that we just don't have is the LDS [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints] faith. But I think almost every other religious organization from a broad perspective is related to UTST and that gives merit to the group. 


Is there an example you can tell at the county level of one of the choices that was made about how to spend the American Rescue Plan funds?

Dew: As Paul talked about earlier, UTST did a survey regarding what people wanted to see with the American Rescue Plan funds in our county. And we were able to have a press conference with great speakers that came and talked about their personal experiences. The county council's been unique because there's an extreme faction of that council. I am perplexed oftentimes of what I see out of some of these council members. I'm a member of the LDS faith and these individuals claim to be members of the faith as well. And it's such an extreme version of what I was raised in that I just don't even know where it comes from.

And so there's definitely this extreme faction. And Paul and myself, we went in and met with the council and presented these [UTST survey] findings. And the council has pretty much pigeonholed that money. They've held it. And so a lot of that money at this point hasn't even been distributed. I had a call with the Mayor's Office this morning because we're working on some apprenticeship funding — not just the union's apprenticeships. What we're seeing is through these conversations, through the data, as this money is now starting to be looked at from the ARP funds, we've been able to direct that. We've got good Republican friends that are also looking at ways to help spend this money and utilize it for homelessness and apprenticeship programs.



What have you learned about power that you didn’t know a few years ago?

Getsos: So I think a lot of the movement, particularly with the national tables, like on Build Back Better, is trying to impact Congress and US Senators, and that's always important. But Congress and the Senate, they don't have to worry about the schools being open. They can play political games, on both the right and the left, right? 

Governors, city council, county commissioners, mayors, it doesn't matter what political party they're from. If the schools don't open, if the traffic lights don't work, if people don't get clean water, they're going to lose their jobs. They’ve got to deliver, to some degree. 

What we learned in Utah is a hybrid institutional and direct membership organizing group is actually what we need to build there because the faith leaders get us access and get us legitimacy, but we need to organize Republicans and LDS members, we need both a massive base and the existing institutions.

Another important thing to remember — if it's South Dakota or Iowa — the far right, it's not that they have more numbers than us, but they are effective at being very loud and sucking up a lot of space continuously. The vast majority of Utahans or South Dakotans or people who live in western Iowa are aligned with our priorities: affordable housing, good healthcare, clean air, clean water, and good schools. Republicans, Democrats, Independents, in our experience, all want those things. There are differences around how you implement them, but everyone agrees on those things. People aren't even saying they want to give the money back in taxes. But what does end up happening is there is a loud and extremely well organized small minority of folks who just suck up a lot of air. And that's why contesting for power is so important.

I just think we're in this moment of rapid transformational change. And so while community organizations are an absolutely important piece of what we need to address these changes, it can't be the only thing. We just have to experiment and figure out new models, new structures, new platforms that are additive. Not that they replace the tried-and-true community organization, but we need more things that add value and add to the strength around scalability and winning and power. 

Dew: An interesting part about this coalition is being able to get each other into different areas that we haven't been able to get in front of before, like with the White House and UTST. It's those relationships that get you in those rooms. And without those relationships, you're not able to voice concerns. Sometimes our [elected] leaders believe they understand what's going on out in the world and then have no grasp because the people that are talking to them are only telling them what they want to hear. We've been able to get in front of Senator Romney. We've been able to get in front of the White House and the US Treasury Department and have these discussions about real-life situations and community needs, and change the narrative for those decision-makers.

We've got this group, Utah Parents United. And this is the anti-mask group and the anti-CRT group. And the majority of Americans, the majority of Utahans don't believe this stuff. It's really a vocal minority, but they bring 20 or 30 people and they disrupt a meeting and they get on the news and then it becomes more and more and more. And it spins out of control. Well, we've had those same results. We've been able to advocate for homelessness and get in the media and make those results. So I think, Deepak, when I understand what our purpose is here today, and I didn't really come into this conversation realizing this, but having the data and having people and sending those emails. And I know from talking to legislators that when they see just a blanket [form-letter] email come through, that doesn't have a real big impact. But when you fill up a room, when we have these extremist groups fill up rooms and they're screaming and yelling at legislators…. It's not that the legislators believe what they're hearing. It's just that that's the message that they keep hearing over and over and over again. And so those of us that are trying to move the country forward and help individuals need to keep screaming from the rooftops until people hear us.

Looking back at my whole career now, being with labor unions for 20-plus years, there's a lot of people looking for leadership. They're more than willing to follow a message. If you come out with a message and you have an idea and you're willing to go and talk to people about that idea, people will follow. They'll follow that power. So I think from a power perspective, power is about just having something you're willing to go fight for and continue to fight for. And people will follow. Now, not everybody. But you're going to get people that are willing to follow you if you have good ideas and if you're willing to just go talk.


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