- Interview by
- Peter Lucas
Paul Prescod should be a familiar name to Jacobin readers. He’s the cohost of our YouTube show and a regular contributor to the magazine. As a rank-and-file teacher, Prescod has been an activist in the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT). And he’s running for Pennsylvania State Senate in its 8th district, pledging to make organizing around working-class issues and legislating universal programs his top priorities.
Prescod’s campaign is in its early stages, but he has already earned endorsements from Teamsters Local 623, Teamsters Brotherhood of Maintenance Way Employees, AFT Local 2026, Temple Association of University Professionals, and the Philadelphia Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
Peter Lucas spoke with him about his roots as the son of immigrant and labor activists, his experience with organized labor in Philadelphia, and what left elected officials can do to organize while in office.
How did you first become politically active?
My father is an immigrant from Barbados, and many of my family members there have been active with the Barbados Labour Party. My mom’s side has a history of trade union activism, including my grandfather who was a union teacher in New York City public schools. So before I identified as an activist, my family history had shaped my politics.
But my real beginning in organizing came as a student in Temple University in North Philadelphia, when Temple hospital nurses struck for patient safety and safe staffing ratios. I got involved in a strike support committee for that struggle. It was a successful strike. Not only did it win and make a material difference in that community, but it was also my first experience of working people actually standing up to corporate power and winning. That inspired me to get more involved in the labor movement.
That same year, in 2010, I went to my first Labor Notes conference, which opened up my eyes to the potential power of the labor movement at the national level, to what a labor movement with teeth could actually look like. I spent the rest of my time in school on student labor solidarity, getting to know local unions and building meaningful relationships. During Occupy Wall Street, I got involved in a broad coalition around public education in Philadelphia, so I looked into teaching. I began teaching in the district in 2015, and got heavily involved in my own union, the PFT.
This is also the same time I joined Philly DSA, giving me a foot firmly in the world of the progressive left and organized labor. A lot of my work with DSA has been chairing our labor branch for the last four years and building ties between labor and Philly DSA and similar types of left organizations.
Given your background in the labor movement, what prompted your crossover into electoral politics?
It’s ironic, because I wasn’t very inspired by electoral politics until Bernie Sanders came along and showed what’s possible. What became clear to me is that the movement is important, but without running for and winning elected office, there are limits to what any movement can accomplish — whether it’s because of restrictive labor laws or structural barriers to democracy. We need both things working at once: a robust movement that’s also reflected in the legislature.
Something inspiring about Bernie’s campaign was this idea of him being an “organizer-in-chief.” He wasn’t just asking his volunteer base for money or to knock on doors; he was letting them know when there was a picket line that they could get involved in. We need more elected officials who are not just going to put their names on the right bills, but actively help build a movement.
If there’s a strike in a representative’s district, don’t just put out some words of support. Find a way to materially support that struggle, to tip the scale in favor of the workers. That is something we’re missing in electoral politics: more candidates who are aggressively pro-labor and see their role as actively helping to advance the labor movement.
Labor law is not a magic bullet that’s going to solve all our problems. Because if the movement is not strong, you can’t take advantage of it. Having said that, we’ve seen with so many recent fights, like at Amazon, that labor law is set up to disadvantage workers. And making improvements on those laws for workers can actually make a huge difference in helping the movement grow.
What value do you see in electing someone from a working-class background?
While electing someone who comes from a working-class background does not automatically mean that they’re going to be fighting for working-class interests, it’s important to have public officials that are representative of the constituents they are serving. On a basic level, they are more likely to actually be in touch with the problems other working people face, and thus can better speak to those problems when addressing them.
As a public school teacher, for example, I know what teachers in our city are going through, as well as their students and their families. I know so many families who are struggling with housing issues, with food insecurity, with transportation issues; many parents with children in Philadelphia schools are working two or three jobs, making it near impossible to be more involved in their child’s education as they’d like.
The hope is that these kinds of candidates can actually connect more with voters. We have a huge problem in this country with low voter turnout and especially among working-class people of color. People don’t feel inspired by or represented in politics.
One of the ideas that the Sanders campaigns embraced (but largely failed to deliver on) was expanding the electorate. Is that part of your campaign’s aim?
The real answer is that you can’t pull that off in just one election cycle, but you can begin the process of bringing people who have been disenfranchised, left behind, or checked out back into the political arena. This is a long-term project that will involve electoral politics and other kinds of movement work.
One way we are trying to do this is with labor support. Most left-leaning insurgent challengers usually don’t get much labor support because unions often want to back who they feel is going to win. My campaign is starting in a unique position where we already have four union endorsements, and are seeking and anticipating more.
This is crucial — not just on principle because the labor labor movement is important to me, but as a concrete part of the strategy to mobilize nontraditional voters. To give one example, I have a strong relationship with Teamsters Local 623, which represents UPS workers. Many of their rank-and-file members in Southwest Philly, which is in my district, do not typically vote. Now they are being mobilized to canvass by the union, and they recognize me from their picket lines and meetings. They see a candidate their leadership is genuinely enthusiastic about.
That’s also going to be a big part of the equation of how we build a progressive labor coalition. We’re going to have canvasses with union members, DSA members, and members of other progressive organizations. From there, it’s simple: we’re going to have in-person conversations over a long period of time to try to galvanize as many people as possible.
You’re running in a majority black district in an election that’s not two years removed from the Black Lives Matter uprisings. What’s your vision for an anti-racist campaign?
Obviously the issues raised during the uprisings are very relevant to people of color in Philadelphia. But I think we need to do a better job connecting them to our broader vision for a better world. So many people in our district are struggling with underfunded public education, low-wage jobs, poor infrastructure, and local environmental issues — all of which disproportionately hurt communities of color. We also have to figure out a way to talk about gun violence, which is a huge problem in Philadelphia and especially in my district. It’s very visceral as I’m talking to people on the doors and is usually the first thing that comes up.
The approach needs to connect this idea of anti-racism to real material policy that will improve people’s lives. We have to connect our theory of anti-racism to investment in public programs that will address the problems people are facing day-to-day.
How do you see your campaign incorporating the message of class struggle?
Identifying a clear enemy is such a key part of class struggle, and our campaign has a great opportunity to do that. Pennsylvania has huge issues with tax evasion from some of the wealthiest corporations in this country. We have so many companies that set up fake headquarters outside of the state to avoid paying taxes. We are one of the largest producers of natural gas in the country, and our natural gas companies do not pay any taxes to our state. The rich need to start paying. This is something voters understand intuitively, because when they don’t, the working class gets the short end of the stick.
The revenue never comes back to our schools or our infrastructure or our neighborhoods. It’s important to clearly name the enemy and say, “this is who is getting in the way of the future that we deserve and we really need.”
It’s important that we concretize it, too. A big thing we are talking about on the campaign is creating green jobs to retrofit our public school buildings and expand public transit — creating tens of thousands of union jobs in the process.
There are several DSA-endorsed and progressive elected officials throughout Pennsylvania and in Philadelphia. Is there any plan to cohere a bloc working with these other officials to build working-class power in concert?
One thing that gave me hope and encouraged me to run was knowing that, if I were elected, I would not be the sole left elected in an establishment institution. There’s clearly a growing portion of progressives at the state level in Pennsylvania, but at the moment, the legislature is still Republican-dominated.
I’m looking at this, and the other electeds are as well, as a protracted fight. But the progressives there have already made a difference. Hopefully we can act as a bloc over the long term to push more ambitious policies while using our political power to help other insurgents get elected and to keep growing this base throughout the state.
Other socialists have had electoral success competing in blue-dominated areas, but the Pennsylvania state legislature is still a Republican majority, as you just mentioned. What do you think the fight is going to be like when you’re not only going up against conservative Democrats, but also the Republican Party?
Despite these structural and political barriers at the state level, there’s a lot we could do in our own district. If there is a union strike or a housing fight taking place in my district, you don’t need to pass a law at the state level to support those fights.
But at the state level, it is going to be complicated, because on the one hand, there will be pressure on the Left to close the ranks with others in the party to fight the right wing. There will be times where that is appropriate. But we also have to be willing to push our own party further.
We will use our weight as a block of progressives to help other people like ourselves get elected across the state. And we’ll hammer the bread-and-butter issues. Because so many of the things we are fighting for are universally popular, even in districts that are represented by Republicans.
In Philadelphia, we have a huge issue with underfunded public schools, but rural communities across Pennsylvania face the same problem. It’s the same situation with health care, jobs, and housing. We need to highlight those issues as much as possible, and try to build coalitions among voters in these places.
If elected, how do you plan to use your office to go beyond simply passing bills?
I’m going to actively support movements in my district and throughout the state by providing material support to unions that are striking, or to housing activists that are fighting against skyrocketing rents. Also by maintaining a very close working relationship with groups, such as DSA, to work on organizing infrastructure that we can maintain and build upon over time.
Elected officials have a unique opportunity to pull together strong coalitions that can fight for bold proposals. Not only introducing green jobs legislation, but also helping convene both labor and environmental activists. I want to organize with the people I represent.