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The Promises and Limitations of Radical Local Politics: An Interview with Steve Early and Mike Parker

Steve Early (hereinafter SE) has worked as a labor journalist, lawyer, organizer, or union representative since 1972. For 27 years, Early was a Boston-based national staff member of the Communications Workers of America. He has published many books and articles about labor-related issues. His work has appeared in The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The Progressive, and many other newspapers and magazines. His most recent book, Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of An American City (Beacon Press), describes the building of a what is very likely the most successful progressive political organization, The Richmond Progressive Alliance, in the United States, in Richmond, California, a blue collar city long dominated by Chevron Corp.

Mike Parker (hereinafter MP) is a leader of the Richmond Progressive Alliance. He was its candidate for Mayor in 2014, dropping out for another candidate as part of a coalition to defeat Chevron’s multi-million dollar attempt to take the city council. He then became the campaign coordinator for the successful Team Richmond campaign. Before moving to Richmond, Mike worked in the auto industry in Detroit as an electrician and trainer in new technology. He is on the Labor Notes Policy Committee and has coauthored (with Martha Gruelle) Democracy is Power, and (with Jane Slaughter) Working Smart: A Union Guide to Participation Programs and Reengineering, both published by Labor Notes.

This interview was conducted by Michael D. Yates (hereinafter MY) by email.

MY: Steve, after a long and admirable career in the labor movement, you moved from the east coast to Richmond, California. Why Richmond?

SE: Through three decades of involvement with Labor Notes, a national network of rank-and-file activists and union reformers, I knew longtime UAW activist Mike Parker and his wife Margaret Jordan. They moved to this East Bay city of 110,000 from Detroit and then got involved in the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA). In 2008 and 2010, while working on several previous books about labor for Monthly Review Press, I stayed with Mike and Margaret during what looked to me, from the sidelines, like some pretty exciting local political campaigning.

Richmond, at the time, was the biggest city in the country with a mayor who belonged to the Green Party. Under the administration of Gayle McLaughlin, good things were happening, there was a terrific sense of community, and local organizers were making steady progress building a multiracial, working class-oriented political formation with real ballot box clout.

Personally, I’d never been much involved in local electoral politics. I was always pretty turned off by my own union’s longstanding fealty to the Democratic Party, although, over time, the Communications Workers of America in the northeast did come to appreciate the importance of a progressive independent in Vermont named Bernie Sanders. In Richmond, CA. (there is a Richmond, VT too), I encountered a local-level, left coast counterpart to the very successful Vermont Progressive Party (VPP), which Bernie helped spawn.

In Richmond, left-wingers were running for municipal office and then using their elected positions to help strengthen grassroots movement-building—in a majority minority city long dominated by the global energy giant, Chevron. By the time I moved to Richmond in 2012 and began writing about local politics, there was a three-member progressive bloc on our seven-member city council. But the RPA wielded wider influence because then-Mayor McLaughlin used her elected position to promote innovative solutions to local manifestations of poverty, inequality, and corporate greed.

MY: Much of your fine book, Refinery Town, centers on the success of the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) in radically altering the political landscape of Richmond. What is the RPA? How was it formed? In your view, what have been its most important achievements?

SE: The RPA is a 14-year-old membership organization and community-labor coalition that runs candidates for mayor and city council. Since 2004, RPA candidates have won 10 out of 16 municipal races, a track record far better than most like-minded groups (and we need far more of them).

Richmond progressives have succeeded because, with patience and persistence, they built a political organization which functions year round, not just at election time. The RPA has a dues-paying membership, a multi-issue organizing program, and elected leadership that includes both individual activists and representatives of allied labor and community organizations. Instead of branding itself, narrowly, as a Green Party branch, the founders of this Alliance included and welcomed dissident Latino Democrats, socialists of different types, progressive independents, along with voters registered as Greens or members of the California Peace and Freedom Party, a relic of Sixties’ radicalism in the state.

Last November 8, two first-time RPA candidates—Melvin Willis and Ben Choi—placed first and second in a field of nine running for Richmond city council seats. By January, the 7-member council had an unprecedented progressive “supermajority” of five. It was busy implementing a rent regulation plan, approved in a local referendum sought by the RPA and its allies. As a result of this 2-to-1 vote, many Richmond tenants got a rent roll back to 2015 levels, permissible future rent hikes are now tied to the overall increase in the cost of living, and landlords must have just cause for evicting their tenants.

Rent regulation has been a longtime goal of Richmond housing activists, including Willis, a 26-year old, African-American organizer for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE). In several other Bay Area communities where the same issue was on the Nov. 8 ballot, the combined spending of the landlord lobby and real estate industry defeated this reform.

In 2016, Richmond progressives won because of the grassroots organizing capacity developed in earlier campaigns to stop police brutality and harassment of Latino immigrants, which led to a model community policing experiment. They won because of the door-to-door canvassing and systematic voter turnout that overcame $3.1 million in spending by Chevron against progressives and their allies who were on the ballot two years earlier. And they won because past progressive efforts to make Chevron pay its fair share of taxes and insure that economic development benefits everyone in the city are popular with its poor and working class majority.

MY: Mike, would you describe the RPA as an anti-capitalist organization? Certainly its enemies claim that it is much too radical for Richmond. Its most important adversary, Chevron, a model of predatory capitalism, has fought tooth and nail against the RPA, and the RPA has waged constant battle against the company. If it isn’t an anti-capitalist organization, is its trajectory toward the left or the liberal?

MP: No, the RPA would not describe itself as an anti-capitalist organization, although many of its activists would readily accept that designation. In fact, the RPA generally insists that it is pro small business and happy to work with large corporations in projects good for Richmond. The RPA is clear, however, that corporations in general have too much power in society and particularly in politics. That the job of government is to represent the people of the city in dealing with these powerful forces and that in no way should corporations be viewed as or have the rights of people. The RPA takes no corporate contributions and will not support candidates who do not pledge to refuse all corporate contributions.

The RPA actually adopts organizational positions on relatively few subjects and takes even fewer stands on issues outside Richmond. But RPA-backed council members take personal positions and have proposed city action on some national and some international issues. So people often identify these positions with the RPA. Most recently, Richmond was the first city—we believe—to adopt a resolution calling for Trump’s impeachment. The city council has called for lifting the U.S. blockade of Cuba. The RPA is viewed by both members and opponents as part of the left. Even RPA opponents who would describe themselves as liberal Democrats or centrists sometimes describe the RPA as “socialist” in contexts—for example, our recent rent control debate—where that political label is not meant as a compliment.

MY: Richmond’s population is diverse racially and ethnically, with African Americans and Hispanics comprising a majority. Can you discuss the racial, ethnic, and gender makeup of the RPA, and how the organization dealt with criticisms that it was dominated by older white men. Has the RPA has been able to reconstitute itself to better reflect the diversity of the city’s population?

MP: First a clarification. From the very beginning, women like Gayle McLaughlin. Marilyn Langlois, Kay Wallis, Tarnel Abbott, and others were very much strong leaders of the RPA. From the beginning, there was also a very strong Latino Leadership—Juan Reardon, Andres Soto, Roberto Reyes. African Americans have been involved but are way under-represented in the RPA. There is a long history to this.

The list of tasks of the RPA are huge. We get a lot of people to give up a lot of time during elections, but we also have to maintain a high level of activity between elections. We participate in, help build, and sometimes lead campaigns on issues as they come up. For example, recently we have been very much involved in the campaign to stop the County Sheriff from adding hundreds of new beds to the jail. He cooperates with ICE and houses immigrants that ICE detain. We also have to provide a lot of support for the Council members we elect. They have one city staff person for the entire council. We need people to spend a lot of time going over the hundreds of pages of documents on which council members are supposed to base their votes and decisions.

Volunteers who do consistent and hard work even when the glamour issues have moved on are hard to maintain. Comradery, fun, social networking, and political commitment are all ingredients in making it happen. The kind of political commitment usually requires a long-term vision and a willingness to see the future even in defeats. People who develop this kind of vision are frequently radicals or religiously inspired. We need to pay attention to attracting and developing more leaders like this.

A real test for the RPA came following our defeat in the 2012 election. Our key issue was the tax on sugary drinks, and it was defeated decisively as were our candidates, as Steve describes in his book. That is the kind of situation that can produce internal finger pointing, demoralization, and collapse of a volunteer effort. We had some of that. But we had leaders and activists who took the longer range view, tried to learn from the defeat, and then worked to rebuild. The result was not only our success in 2014, but also the recognition that we really had to work on our weak base in the African American community and find a way to develop younger leaders and to make the generational shift.

It was a structural problem. In an all-volunteer organization the most active people become the leadership. The people who tend to have the most time are retired people. And it is disproportionately whites who can afford to retire while they are still healthy enough for activity.

We have been somewhat conscious of these problems for years and tried for several years to incrementally add people of color and young people to our steering committee after our 2009 reorganization. While the great majority of new steering committee members were young and people of color, most shifted their activities elsewhere while staying friendly to the RPA. (Formal membership was very loose.) The culture was not their culture and it was hard to break into the dominant culture. The steering committee as a whole was only marginally changed.

MY: How has the RPA managed to overcome a lack of membership diversity when so many other left-leaning organizations have repeatedly failed to do so?

MP: After our successful 2014 election campaign, we had many discussions of our diversity problem and resolved to find a new a way of addressing it. First, we set up a committee weighted with our younger members and some friendly individuals who were not members to examine this problem and make recommendations. They did a series of interviews with people who were not active in the RPA to find out why not. The committee then made a series of recommendations to help change the organizational culture.

Second, we worked to make our bylaws more formal so that new people could more easily understand how we do things rather than relying on past practice. Third, we maintained a serious discussion about how bringing new people into the leadership meant that some of the previous leadership had to step back but not leave. That we had to be willing to continue the work without as much recognition while others made the key decisions.

Fourth, we elect our steering committee by the slate system. The idea is that the steering committee should not simply be our most active members or the best individual leaders. The steering committee has to work collectively and it needs on it people with different skills, people who bring different experiences, people who are more in contact with different geographic, racial, or work communities, and people who are links to different progressive unions and organizations functioning in Richmond. It needs people who are active in RPA projects and people who are mainly active in other organizations whose views need to be reflected in the RPA.

So we go through a fairly elaborate process for a nomination committee to propose a slate which includes officers, chairs of standing committees, at large members, and members who represent some allied organizations. Right now allied organizations represented on our steering committee include SEIU 1021, the California Nurses Association, Richmond Rainbow Pride, and ACCE, a successor to ACORN, which has rallied Richmond tenants and helped low-income home-owners resist foreclosures. We also need experienced RPA members and newer RPA activists who are developing leadership.

The nominating committee interviews potential members and recruits so that we end up with a steering committee that represents where we want to go not what we are. The membership can vote for or against members of the proposed slate or vote for independent candidates running without the backing of the nominating committee, steering committee, or either. For details, see our by-laws at: richmondprogressivealliance.net.

MY: Steve, how solidly rooted is the RPA in the working class? What has been its relationship to organized labor? Do organizations such as the RPA have an important role to play in building a new labor movement in the United States? A movement broader than one centered only on workplaces (and interested in developing other types of collective and cooperative centers of production) and one in which solidarity rises to the fore? I mean, Rich Trumka met with Trump and offered profuse praise for Trumps’ first address to Congress. This seems almost a new low to me.

SE: As Mike just noted, two unions with members either employed by the city or working in Richmond have formal organizational ties to the RPA. Along this support from SEIU 1021 and CNA, RPA candidates have been endorsed or received financial support from the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), UniteHere Local 2850, AFSCME Local 3299, the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, which represents BART workers, and the ILWU local, which represents workers in the Port of Richmond.

As I report in Refinery Town, Local 3299 has several hundred members who live in Richmond but work on the UC Berkeley campus not far away. AFSCME rank-and-file leaders joined the RPA and others in a model campaign to get a community benefits agreement from UC-B, covering a proposed expansion of the university in Richmond, a project that has now been shelved for the time being.

In that effort, as far as it went, local building trades unions were allies in the community-labor coalition to thwart non-union sub-contracting by UC-B. But, too much of the time, their Richmond-area leaders are part of photo ops with Chevron not very different from the White House meetings that Trump held recently with labor and management officials who favor expanded fossil fuel extraction, transportation, refining, and use.

In Richmond, construction unions—joined by police and firefighter organizations—have been part of Chevron political action committees that have strongly opposed RPA candidates in the past. Nevertheless, the RPA has always maintained channels of communication with members of these unions and tried to find some basis for working together, In general, however, the craft union officialdom sides with Big Oil in public hearings on refinery issues, and won’t participate in coalitions with environmentalists seeking curbs on refinery emissions or stronger workplace safety rules. As I describe in the book, members of United Steel Workers Local 5 have done a much better job of trying to uphold the old Tony Mazzocchi-inspired OCAW tradition of building “blue green” alliances between oil workers and refinery neighbors.

MY: Mike, how did the RPA overcome the argument that environmentally progressive programs must come at the expense of jobs?

MP: While there are times that stopping specific projects to protect the environment will cost jobs, cleaning up the environment in general generates many more jobs than expansion of fossil fuel extraction and processing. The problem is there is little or no profit in stopping global warming or cleaning our air and water. So there is very little interest from the private sector in creating these jobs unless they are forced to so. Once people understand that this is the real issue, the policy implications become clear. This is the educational job we have tried to do.

But as you can imagine, Chevron and developers frame the issue in terms of the jobs related to the specific proposals. They greatly exaggerate or distort. Few of Chevron projects mean jobs for Richmond residents. When they were trying to bust or weaken the construction unions, Chevron brought in construction workers from as far away as Texas. When Chevron and the construction unions have a détente, most of the workers still come from well outside of Richmond. The city presses hard to increase “local hire,” especially within those craft unions with a membership that is still predominantly white.

Steve has well described the challenge facing USW Local 5, which represents hourly workers directly employed by Chevron. We have worked hard to maintain a relationship with this local, whose members depend on oil refinery work to feed their families. Short term, it would actually have created more union jobs, if we had succeeded in forcing Chevron to take additional steps to reduce pollution as part of its current $1 billion refinery modernization project in Richmond. Where job loss is a longer-term possibility due to governmental efforts to slow global warming, we and many others have promoted the idea of a “just transition.” That means that any societal move away from fossil fuel dependence must guarantee jobs, retraining, and equivalent benefit coverage for the people who currently work in industries that would be affected.

MY: Is Richmond a model for other towns and cities? Or do you think it is a special case? What do you think are the major lessons Richmond can teach other towns and cities? Have there been active efforts by the RPA to spread the word around the country?

MP: Much of what we have done can serve as a model. Every city has its own issues and own unique case. Not every city will have a Chevron whose dominance and arrogance made exposing it easier. But every city has issues with police, race, developers, and corporate greed. What made us successful was not so much Chevron but the fact that we built an ongoing organization independent of the Democratic Party. That organization committed itself to fighting for what the people in the city needed, not what the powerful corporations and developers needed. We built on many issues before the fight with Chevron fight came to a head in 2014. In some ways, the RPA is a good model because Richmond is not a university town like Berkeley or Madison, Wisconsin, and Burlington, Vermont. Instead, it’s a blue-collar city with a very diverse population.

I think there are two less understood components of our success. First is our candidates’ principled refusal to accept corporate financing. Lots of people urged us to take business money “but with no strings attached” or only in the form of donations from small businesses. They would say: “I agree with you about the role of big money in politics, but campaigns are so expensive and you can’t possibly win without taking some of those contributions.” This was something like Hillary’s line nationally. Bernie’s campaign proved that wrong, and we have been proving that wrong for 14 years. More importantly, it gives people confidence that we walk the talk. Nobody believed Hillary on that, but they believe us.

The second is that, all along, we understood that we were independent of the Democratic Party. This position enables our movement to include not only progressive Democrats but many activists who are fed up and want nothing to do with that party. Many of RPA members are registered as Democrats and some are even active in local Party politics. But we understood that, as an organization, we were fighting the Democratic Party machine. Despite all of their liberal positions, leading California Democrats—both state and federal office-holders—have routinely supported conservative corporate-oriented Democrats in Richmond elections where RPA candidates were on the ballot.

Our resources are limited, but we have been making efforts to help groups similar to the RPA get started or get stronger in other places. We have an active outreach committee which tries to provide speakers and consultation with interested folks in other cities. Steve’s book is becoming a must-read for anyone who wants to build a local progressive movement. Later this year, Gayle McLaughlin will also be publishing a book providing a more detailed account of what it took to build the RPA. Those who would like to know more can email us at Info@richmondprogressivealliance.net.

MY: Do you think local politics is the wave of the future in terms of ultimately creating a radical alternative to capitalism, that is, a society that is ecologically sustainable, egalitarian, democratic, and one in which work is cooperatively organized? If it is, how do we connect local political organizations nationally, and even internationally? Our major crises are national and global in scope, especially environmental crises, immigration, economic stagnation, and so forth. Local politics cannot allay these crises much less build national and international movements. Also, to the extent that organizations like the RPA concern themselves with national and global issues, how do they deal with criticisms that these are not the business of local politics?

MP: Local politics are important. There are concrete things that cities can do to improve the quality of life for poor and working class people, increase public safety, and reduce economic inequality and injustice.

But involvement in local politics also helps you understand how much cannot be done locally. In Richmond, for example, we have no control over property taxes. We are not allowed to have a local income tax, and most other taxes require a 2/3 vote for passage. Meanwhile, the wealth of the state has moved out of its urban centers. Chevron executives and top managers don’t reside in Richmond anymore. They live and work in San Ramon, a wealthy Contra Costa County suburb, where the company has its global headquarters. So progressive local politics necessarily pushes you in the direction of greater involvement in state, national, and international politics.

Our successes also spread the message that people really do have power and that good organization, grass roots activity, and clarity on key political issues can help you overcome the seemingly overwhelming power of big corporations and their big money. Once people feel empowered at the local level, they are ready to embrace bigger challenges. As a result of our experience locally and the Sanders campaign nationally, more people are now considering what can be done at the county or state level. Richmond progressives are already active in coalitions trying to rein in the grown of charter schools and seeking statewide tax reform that would benefit urban areas. The Richmond model of running what we call “corporate free” candidates may soon be tested in races for higher office.

So I don’t think of “local politics” as the wave of the future. Rather, they are an important part of building a progressive movement. To become more successful, the labor movement must also rebuild itself as a force of, by, and for its members. Social movements must cohere with greater organization to be able to take the amazing energy we have seen in Black Lives Matters, immigrant protection, environmental protection, and the women’s movement to higher and more sustained levels.

Our opposition does try to attack us for involvement in non-Richmond issues. But that criticism has less and less impact—in part, because we do put an enormous amount of time into “taking care of business” on local issues. And also because more people now recognize the relationship between “outside” issues and what happens in Richmond.

MY: Mike and Steve, can you speculate on what will happen to the RPA and local progressive politics in the age of Trump? How will Richmond resist what his administration will almost certainly do, in too many areas to name?

MP: Frankly, I don’t think what we have to do has changed much because Trump is in the White House. We have to be constantly prepared to defend our immigrant neighbors but this is not new. Mass deportations were taking place under Obama and Bush too, which is why Richmond became a sanctuary city more than a decade ago. Today, we definitely have to act more quickly and more intensively. But, under Trump, lots of people are rethinking politics and getting more actively involved. Nationally, we have to keep in mind that, even if Trump had lost in the Electoral College, almost half the U.S. voters were willing to support a racist, sexist, vicious, capitalist egotist for president. As Bernie tried to do in his primary campaign last year, we have to address the economic distress that led some union members and non-union workers to vote for Trump.

SE: One way that progressives in Richmond have responded to Trump’s election is by joining forces with like-minded former Bernie supporters in the post-Sanders campaign network known as Our Revolution. Last Fall, Our Revolution helped raised thousands of dollars for our two RPA city council candidates, just as Bernie did when he came to Richmond and personally campaigned for Gayle McLaughlin and her “Team Richmond” running mates in 2014. If OR is going to achieve its full potential as a force for change inside or outside the Democratic Party, it will need two, three, many RPA’s or VPP’s at its base, not just a Bernie donor list of 2.6 million, a national office staff that is very social media savvy, and lots of resulting email blasts from Washington, D.C.

The RPA formally affiliated with OR in January and is now doing outreach to other like-minded local groups in California. As Mike noted, Richmond activists have to become part of a broader progressive movement to defend past municipal gains and make real change at levels of government higher than Richmond city hall.