“Refinery Town”: A Model for Local Political Action

by Ryan Haney

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Steve Early, Photo by Robert Gumbert

Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and the Remaking of an American City will be available from Beacon Press on January 17th, 2017.

Steve Early’s Refinery Town is a compelling read on multiple levels. It paints an interesting portrait of Richmond, CA (pop. 110,000), a Bay Area city that is home to a massive Chevron refinery. It also works as a journalistic deep dive into contemporary municipal politics, with a cast of reformers and establishment actors clashing over approaches to problems in a city wracked by disinvestment, toxic waste, corruption, and crime.

In November 2016, the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) won a majority on the City Council, overcoming massive campaign funding for their opponents by Chevron.

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(Pictured, left to right: Gayle McLaughlin, Eduardo Martinez, and Jovanka Beckles, three members of the Richmond Progressive Alliance who now serve on City Council. Photo by Tom Goulding, Richmond Confidential.)

Written before this success,  Refinery Town excels as a case study for activists looking to build power at the local level through grassroots organizing and independent electoral work. Early, a longtime labor activist and journalist who moved to Richmond five years ago, counts himself among the reformers. His book is an invaluable documentation of their journey and a testimony of what might be possible in other cities. Continue reading

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Labor After Bernie

An organizer with Labor for Bernie argues that the gains won within the Democratic Party must be defended and expanded.
by Rand Wilson & Dan DiMaggio
Jacobin magazine 11.23.16

The 2016 elections saw the labor movement behave largely as it usually does, backing the presumably most electable Democratic Party candidate in an effort to ensure a Democratic victory and win influence in a future administration. National unions like the Service Employees International Union, National Education Association, and American Federation of Teachers went all-in for Hillary Clinton’s doomed campaign early on, despite her cozy relationship with Wall Street and checkered record on pro-corporate trade deals like NAFTA and the TPP.

Can the US labor movement ever move beyond its one-sided adherence to transactional politics? The 2016 election did provide some hope on this question, as the all-volunteer Labor for Bernie campaign built a network of hundreds of local unions and tens of thousands of rank-and-file union members to push for endorsements of Sen. Bernie Sanders and his unapologetically pro-worker campaign.

Ultimately, six national unions — the Communications Workers of America, the Amalgamate Transit Union, National Nurses United, United Electrical Workers, International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and the American Postal Workers Union — backed Sanders in the primaries.

In the most recent issue of Jacobin, Seth Ackerman argues that if there’s any hope to build an independent left-wing party rooted in the working class, it will require the involvement of significant sections of the labor movement. “On the Left only unions have the scale, experience, resources, and connections with millions of workers needed to mount a permanent, nationwide electoral project.”

To get a sense of some labor activists’ thoughts on the path forward following the elections, Dan DiMaggio, assistant editor at Labor Notes, spoke with Rand Wilson, a volunteer coordinator of Labor for Bernie, in the wake of the election. Wilson works for SEIU Local 888 in Boston and is now working to build the state-level structure of Sanders’ political organization Our Revolution in Massachusetts. Continue reading

The Primary Route: Review of a Political Pamphlet

by Paul Garver

In December 2015 Tom Gallagher self published a pamphlet entitled The Primary Route: How the 99% Take On the Military Industrial Complex (Coast to Coast Publications).

Drawing on his own experiences as a Massachusetts legislator and as an elected delegate for a number of  progressive Democratic challengers in presidential primaries, long-time democratic socialist Tom Gallagher argued in considerable historical detail and humor that the American Left had to engage in Democratic primary races at the national level to be taken seriously as a political force.

Bernie Sanders had recently announced his Presidential candidacy, but his campaign had not yet demonstrated its capacity to rally millions of voters behind his progressive ideas.   The successes of Sanders’ campaign strongly supports the thrust of Gallagher’s argument, while simultaneously making his thesis  seem somewhat outdated and obvious.

As Gallagher recently stated with his characteristic humor, there was either going to be a good book or a good campaign, and would not be both.

As I read Gallagher’s pamphlet today, its relevance to 2016 feels limited.  Gallagher himself, as a Sanders delegate from the 12th Congressional District of California, will be using his persuasive skills at the DNC in Philadelphia.

Yet I strongly suspect that when 2019 rolls around, the pamphlet should be reissued.  Already the spin doctors of several sectarian socialist groups are making use of the “failure” of Sanders to become the Democratic presidential candidate as an argument for retreating back to the safe and sheltered sanctuary of the Green Party.  In 2019 much of the U.S. Left may be spinning its wheels once again as it did in this electoral cycle, rehashing the same old arguments about the inevitable doom the Left faces if we engage in Democratic primaries.

The Primary Route will be useful reading then.

Tom Gallagher is a member of the United Educators in San Francisco.  You can view his other writings and buy this pamphlet at https://tomgallagherwrites.com/

United Electrical Workers Endorse Sanders

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. – U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders on Sunday welcomed an endorsement by the 35,000-member United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America.

Peter Knowlton, the union’s national president, called Sanders “the most pro-worker pro-union presidential candidate I have seen in my lifetime” and said electing Sanders “is a unique opportunity that workers and unions must not pass up.

“We are proud to endorse Bernie Sanders and support his campaign,” he added.

The endorsement was approved unanimously by rank-and-file local delegates from the union’s three regions over the past six weeks.

Knowlton said the labor organization and Sanders have longstanding ties in Vermont. “As more of our members around the country have seen and heard Bernie over the past few months,” he added, “they’ve seen that his policies and priorities match our own. So, there has been a groundswell of support for Bernie with members volunteering for the campaign.

Sanders welcomed the news while he was campaigning in Rhode Island ahead of Tuesday’s presidential primary elections here and in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Delaware and Maryland.

“I thank the 35,000 members of the United Electrical Workers for their endorsement,” Sanders said. “During my 25 years in Congress, I have been proud to stand side by side with the UE fighting to increase the minimum wage to a living wage; to guarantee health care to every man, woman and child as a right; to make it easier for workers to join unions; to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure; to transform our nation’s energy system; and against disastrous trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement and normalized trade with China which have destroyed millions of decent-paying jobs in America.”

Altogether, more than 100 national and local unions, representing over 1.5 million workers, have endorsed Sanders. They include the Communications Workers of America, the American Postal Workers Union, the Amalgamated Transit Union, National Nurses United, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the United Electrical Workers.

After the New York Primary: Analysis from a Bernie Volunteer

by Chris Horton

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What I heard on the phone calls to New York State was heartening, even amazing.   We saturated New York State in an absolutely unprecedented national volunteer phone-bank operation – our goal was 2 million calls on Saturday and Sunday and we hit 3 million – and huge numbers of doors were knocked by volunteers, including many from Worcester County.  Bernie supporters in New York were lit up!
 
Hillary won (or captured) New York State, 58%-42%. I’ll admit to being very disappointed, but not discouraged. The New York State Democratic Primary was rigged against us from the start. 
 
  • Polls in most of Upstate New York where Bernie was expected to run strongest opened at 12 Noon, while polls in New York City and suburbs, Buffalo and a few other cities opened at 6am.
  • Only registered Democrats could vote in the primary. Voters registered in another party or no party needed to have changed their registration by last October (!), long before many voters had even heard of Bernie thanks to the corporate media blackout!
  • Hundreds of thousands of people (over 100,000 just in Brooklyn!) reported their voter registrations changed without their permission or lost.
 
Bernie won big in Upstate New York, winning in every county except Erie (Buffalo), Monroe County (Rochester) and Onondaga County (Syracuse) and nearly broke even in those, losing Erie County by less than 1000 votes. He won in Albany County and every other upstate county, rural or urban, some by nearly 3 to 1! Three cheers for the many Worcester volunteers who travelled to Albany and Poughkeepsie to knock on doors! (See  http://www.nytimes.com/elections/results/new-york)
 
The Sanders Campaign is alive and well, … But there’s still the disastrous issue of the urban Black and Latino vote.
Looking at the election results of New York City precincts, nearly every Black-majority precinct and most of the Latino-majority precincts were won by Clinton. This is important,  but this is where the corporate media stops. Luckily, the Times also provides a breakdown of precincts by income (http://goo.gl/la7KdW).  I spent some time scanning over these, comparing them to the results by race and ethnicity.
 
  • -Not surprisingly, precincts with average income over $100,000 nearly all went to Hilary, the wealthiest, such as Central Park East and lower Park Ave., by margins of nearly 10 to 1.
  • Precincts with incomes under $50,000 – including nearly all the Black and Latino precincts – overwhelmingly went for Clinton, with a few clusters of white- and Latino-majority and a very few Black-majority precincts that went for Sanders.
  • Bernie showed considerable strength in precincts with incomes between $50K and $100K – roughly, the stable but struggling working class – winning about half. Most of his wins in Black and Latino majority precincts were in this income group.
 
So how do we account for Clinton’s strength among the urban poor – black, brown, Latino and white?  This is critical for us to understand if our Political Revolution is to build a coalition strong enough to confront the billionaire class.  

  

Here are some of my thoughts:
The people of the Bronx, Harlem, northern Brooklyn, eastern Queens – and Main South, Quinsigamond Village and South Worcester – are already organized in
  • Churches and other religious institutions and charities
  • Grant-funded movements around anti-foreclosure work, ex-prisoners rights and criminal justice reform, immigrant rights, anti-repression, civil rights, public safety and health, education, job training, welfare rights and many more.
  • Union-sponsored low-wage organizing through SEIU, the AFL/CIO and Jobs with Justice, such as Fight for 15.
  • Small businesses and their customers, everything from bars and taverns to black-market distribution systems.
  • Clubs and lodges.
  • Schools and parents groups.
 
Also:  
  • the system of elected officeholders providing constituent services – mostly fixing problems, a kind of institutionalized corruption – and their campaign organizations, 
  • many who would have been active in a movement like the Sanders Campaign in bygone eras now work for government and government-funded agencies.
 
Some of these groups are already working and fighting for Bernie’s program – but won’t touch the Sanders Campaign. Their struggles need to continue – with our support – regardless, but we have to solve the problem of drawing them into the political revolution. They, or at least their members and activists, naturally align with us, but nearly all are blocked from supporting it by:
 
  • tax laws forbidding political activity by non-profits and churches.
  • laws forbidding political activity by government employees and government-funded agencies.
  • the unspoken but very real agendas of foundations and their wealthy donors, and of wealthy board members.
  • the institutional ties, relationships and commitments of political and labor leaders.
  • the blind-spots of many top leaders who live in other communities and don’t share their members’ experiences.
  • fear of being targeted by police, regulators and inspectors of all sorts.
 
These constraints are widely internalized as the belief that politics is dirty and divisive – fed by the media’s constant pushing of hot-button issues – and a widespread belief that only local efforts can make a difference.
Of all the ways poor communities are organized, perhaps the one least walled off by these barriers may be small businesses such as variety and liquor stores, auto repair and tire shops, barber and beauty shops and more. Their owners are independent-minded, deeply connected to their communities and often opinion leaders.  It’s certainly worth exploring.
 
This tension, this disastrous division in the progressive forces in the US at this critical moment of political and economic crisis, must be solved, and quickly, because only a political revolution with Black, Latino and working class leadership can fully take hold, last and win!
 
Back to the bright side: my calls to New York voters, as with my calls into Wisconsin two weeks ago, uncovered truly remarkable evidence of a self-organization process underway, such as we would expect in the early stages of a revolution.  Whenever I spoke to someone who said they had voted for Bernie or definitely would, I asked them if they had any friends, family or relations who they knew wanted to vote for Bernie, who might possibly forget until too late, who maybe could use a reminder call.  Most, regardless of their age, apparent ethnicity or what part of the state they lived in, insisted that they had already talked to all their family and friends and were confident they felt strongly enough to be sure they would vote.  Some said they had all gone to vote together!  Some said their friends had called them to remind them!
 

We need to continue working toward knitting this process together into a movement that can endure and continue despite the inevitable setbacks we will face, confident in the power of a united and determined people!

 
Chris Horton is a volunteer for  We Want Bernie – Worcester and the Worcester Unemployment Action Group.  He can be reached at chris44horton@gmail.com.
 
 
 

Organizing for a Sanders endorsement from an SEIU Local

by Russ Weiss-Irwin

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I just wanted to share a hopeful little story from my hopeful little SEIU local, tucked away in Central NJ. I’m a food service worker at Princeton University, and together with 425 or so other blue collar Princeton workers, I’m part of SEIU Local 175. I’m pretty new on the job; just moved to the area from NYC in August, only started working in my current position in November, while many of my coworkers have been here for years or even decades. However, I’m a socialist, a big-time fan of Bernie, and I’ve never been one to be shy about my politics, so a lot of people on the job have heard me talk about him. Nevertheless, I’ve been a little nervous to try to push my local to endorse him, because I’m so new and don’t know how everything works yet.

Last weekend, however, I went to the Labor Notes conference in Chicago and attended the Labor for Bernie session and heard a report from an IBEW member, Carl Shaffer, who talked about how one of the most politically important endorsements Bernie has gotten from a union so far was from the IBEW local in Kansas City, MO, because it was decisive in helping prevent a national IBEW endorsement of Clinton, which in turn helped block a national AFL-CIO endorsement. And apparently the push for the KC endorsement was led, improbably, by a 27-year-old woman apprentice. The message that even a very junior person in the union can make a difference hit home. So I thought to myself, “If she can do it, I should at least try!”

Then, just a couple days after I got back to work, I was taking my break with some coworkers and we were talking about various things, and the topic turned to retirement. One of my coworkers, who grew up in Haiti, was asking how the Social Security system works. We began to explain it, and I started to say how unfair it is that millionaires are all taxed as if they make only $118,000 for the purposes of SS, while everyone else is taxed for every dollar we earn. Before I even finished, another coworker, a middle-aged white woman, said “That’s Bernie’s whole thing, right? Get rid of the SS tax cap?” And she started to talk about how much she supports Bernie. The Haitian coworker who started the conversation concurred, and then we went around the table, as each of my coworkers in turn– white and Black, immigrant and US born, Millennial and middle-aged, woman and man– expressed why we are supporting Bernie (and how much we don’t like Trump). It was like one of Bernie’s ads. I thought, “Here’s my chance!” I said, “Well, since we all feel this way, do you think we should try to get our union to endorse him?” People all agreed it was a good idea, and several said it hadn’t occurred to them before that our union was a space in which we could push for a politician who we support.

Only half an hour later, our local union president came into our cafeteria to get his own lunch (he works upstairs in the same building where we do), and my coworker urged me to talk to him about the endorsement idea. He told me that, with the NJ primary coming up in June, he was actually just getting ready to start the endorsement process– he had to discuss things with the International, then with the state leadership, and then poll the local membership to make a decision. Well, I know what that means: we need to get all the Bernie supporters in our local organized so that the results of that poll are overwhelmingly pro-Bernie and then convince the local leadership that the membership’s opinion should count more than the International’s. This will be hard, but not impossible! I know that SEIU members at Dartmouth and Columbia Universities have already bucked the International and endorsed Bernie, and the giant public workers local in New Hampshire as well.

So, SEIU sisters and brothers, here in Local 175, we’ve got our work cut out for us, but there’s a glimmer of hope. I wanted to share that story with all of you, hoping that inspires you the way the IBEW sister’s story inspired me, and also to ask for your advice and support. And can anyone put us in contact with the leaders of the locals in New Hampshire and New York that have already endorsed Bernie? Thank you in advance!

Solidarity from the heart of New Jersey,
Russell Weiss-Irwin
Local 175, Princeton University

Labor, The Left and Sanders

A Michael Albert interview with Steve Early and Rand Wilson

First posted at ZNet, February 17, 2016 (https://zcomm.org/znetarticle/labor-activism-sanders/)

Steve Early (SE) was a national staff member of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) in New England for three decades. He has been active in the labor movement since 1972 and is the author of three books about union issues and problems. He is the author of a forthcoming book entitled Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City (Beacon Press, 2017), which reports on progressive policy initiatives and electoral campaigning in Richmond, CA. He is a Labor for Bernie volunteer and has been a member of Jill Stein’s Green “shadow cabinet.” He belongs to Solidarity, the Democratic Socialists of America, and the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism.

Rand Wilson (RW) has worked as a union organizer and labor communicator for more than thirty-five years. He has worked for the national AFL-CIO, CWA, IBEW, the Teamsters, Carpenters, Massachusetts Teachers Association, and other unions. He is currently on the staff of SEIU Local 888 in Boston and, in his spare time, volunteers for Labor for Bernie. He was one of the early members of the Labor Party, campaigned for State Auditor in Massachusetts as a candidate of the Working Families Party, and is active in local politics in Somerville, Mass.

Here are their responses to questions I put to them about their impressions of and involvement with the Sanders campaign.

Michael Albert, co-founder of ZNet and Z Magazine: You both have been working on the Sanders Campaign for some months now? First, I wonder, what made you each decide to join the effort? Surely it must be taking time away from some other priorities you have.

SE: For me, assisting Bernie’s campaign is, first of all, a matter of personal solidarity and political reciprocity.  During his 25 years in the House and Senate, Sanders has used his public office to help workers get better organized, in their workplaces and communities, in a fashion quite unlike any Democrat I ever encountered as a union rep in New England. I first met and worked with Bernie forty years ago; as a third party candidate for governor of Vermont in 1976, he was as committed to labor then as he is now. (For more on that record, see: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/05/bernie-sanders-president-primary-hillary/)

Bernie has not only urged Vermonters to vote “yes” in union representation elections like CWA’s 1994 campaign among 1,500 telephone company call center workers, he would annually convene meetings of local labor activists to help them develop more successful union-building strategies. To stimulate new rank-and-file thinking, Sanders and his staff invited out-of-state labor speakers who were part of national efforts to revitalize organized labor; he himself became the only member of Congress ever to address a national Labor Notes conference—and donate money to Labor Notes too.

He has been a staunch ally of the Vermont Workers Center, the Jobs With Justice affiliate in his home state. The VWC is a community-labor coalition that fights for single-payer health care, immigrants’ rights, paid sick leave, and other working-class causes. When members of IBEW and CWA opposed Verizon’s sale of its northern New England landline operations in 2006, Sanders was campaigning for the US Senate seat that he now holds. He convened a public forum highlighting the reasons for our “Stop The Sale” campaign and brokered a meeting with the proposed buyer, FairPoint Communications, that enabled us to confront top managers about the company’s record of anti-unionism.

More recently, as labor opponents of the sale predicted, Verizon’s successor has floundered financially and tried to impose contract concessions on its workforce of several thousand. During their four-month strike last winter, several thousand FairPoint union members had no stronger ally, in public and behind the scenes, than Bernie Sanders. So telephone worker locals went all out for Bernie in Iowa and New Hampshire this winter, plus the CWA national union—after a binding poll of the membership—officially endorsed Bernie’s presidential campaign. I’ve been active in CWA since 1980 and haven’t voted for a single one of its endorsed presidential candidates during that time. This year, the union finally had a candidate really worth endorsing and fighting for.

RW: — I saw building a rank-and-file network of labor-based Sanders supporters as a rare opportunity to tap into widespread union activist discontent with corporate Democrats like Hillary Clinton. For all the failings and weaknesses of the labor movement, most unions are still structured democratically enough—at least at the local union level—so that members’ voice can have a real impact, if they get organized. So we’ve encouraged union activists to speak out, wherever they can, before their local or national union endorses a presidential candidate this year.

Through our on-line endorsement mechanism, Labor for Bernie website, union member-created Facebook pages, and outreach to the media, we’ve helped give members the tools and resources to make sure their voices are heard—both in the three national unions that have endorsed Bernie and the others that haven’t. At the local level, more than 60 labor organizations are now backing his campaign—regardless of what position top labor officials have taken. About 11,000 individuals have become Labor for Bernie endorsers. Most people on that list are elected local union officers, organizers, shop stewards, and bargaining and political action committee members, in affiliates of every national union and many independent groups as well.
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