Politics Done Differently

Protesters gathered outside a Chevron shareholders meeting in Richmond, California, May 30. Chevron is the biggest foe of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, the labor-community coalition that is continually besting the corporate giant that used to dominate city politics. Photo: Rainforest Action Network.

If we were designing a way for unions to be involved in politics on a clean sheet of paper, would we choose to spend hundreds of millions of dollars and countless thousands of hours on millionaire candidates, financed by the super-rich and selected by party leaders who view unions as an embarrassment?

To put it politely, this “strategy” has produced unreliable allies. To put it bluntly, the policy of hitching labor to the Democratic Party has given us virtually nothing to show for it. That President Obama and the national Democratic Party practically boycotted the Wisconsin struggle is only one more proof.

Bitter though we may be, labor can’t turn its back on political action. These institutions set the legal rules for labor’s struggle and employ a majority of the organized workers in the country. Political strategy doesn’t have to center on electing officials, but it must impact the institutions of government.

What we need is a political movement that unabashedly challenges corporate control over our daily lives. The Occupy movement brought this perspective out from the fringes of American politics.

The focus of political organizing has to be identifying, reducing, and then eliminating the power of the class of people who control the corporations, rake off giant wealth for themselves, and restructure jobs for still-greater profits, at the expense of most of the population. We call out the 1% and say that the solution is putting the majority in charge.


The changes in the labor movement, the economy, and politics since the first issue of Labor Notes came out in February 1979 have been profound.

For our 400th issue, Labor Notes asked several activists to address what happened to labor—and what we should do given the spot we're in.

Are We at a Tipping Point?
Mark Brenner

Organizing: Aim the Slingshot Well
Hetty Rosenstein

Politics Done Differently
Mike Parker

The Labor Law Reform We Need
Rand Wilson

Donate today and support the movement you want to see.

Tragically, despite the educational value of advocating a labor party to carry out this working-class politics, organized labor is now too small for such a project. Its leaders are turned in another direction and isolated from their members.


If national unions can’t be counted on to be the solid center of an anti-corporate movement, how do we get there?

The first step is rebuilding our unions from within, through fights to defend members against their bosses. If you don’t see the need to stand up against the boss at work, you won’t see the need to do so in politics.

At the same time, national and local political efforts should feed off each other. Unfortunately, we are pretty much starting from scratch in both cases. Educational efforts, independent efforts like the Green Party, and struggles within the Democratic Party may all contribute to a national political movement down the road.

The other place to start is in local coalitions of labor and community. A workshop at the recent Labor Notes Conference examined some efforts, including the New Lynn project in Massachusetts, the Working Families Party, and an attempt to remake a local Democratic Party in New Jersey.

Another effort is the Richmond Progressive Alliance in California, where a community-labor alliance has reshaped local politics.

Richmond lies on the east side of the San Francisco Bay, a few transit stops north of Oakland. Home of a Chevron refinery, it has been used as a dumping ground, like most older industrial cities. Its shoreline is still plagued by toxic wastes from chemical companies and its air is polluted by the refinery and other industries.

Richmond is about 40 percent Latino, 30 percent Black, and 15 percent Asian. Its unemployment rate is around 18 percent—about twice that of the state and the surrounding communities. Every corporate proposal, from tax breaks for Chevron to shoreline property deals, is always presented as a job-creator. The Richmond Progressive Alliance is tagged as a job-killer.


In the 2010 election for mayor and city council, Chevron, other industry, land developers, the building trades, the central labor council, and the police and fire unions united against RPA candidates. Altogether these groups spent several million dollars against the progressives. They lost.

Two RPA leaders won. Mayor Gayle McLaughlin won re-election despite a vicious personal campaign against her, and Jovanka Beckles, a Black Latina, won a council seat.

RPA’s string of ballot-box victories started in 2004 and includes electing and re-electing the mayor and two city council seats, and winning ballot measures to defeat a casino and greatly increase Chevron’s tax bill. Our campaign for an increase in Chevron’s utility tax produced a settlement which added to the general fund.



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Our non-electoral campaigns have also made significant progress. We participated with others in actions to reduce pollution from the refinery. We effectively ended ID checkpoints aimed at catching undocumented workers. We helped mobilize the community in a campaign to attract a new campus of Lawrence Berkeley National Labs.

What are the keys to success?

All of our work was done with no corporate contributions and with an all-volunteer organization.

RPA refuses to accept any corporate contributions and will not endorse any candidates who accept such contributions. Corporate domination is the prominent issue in every campaign.

Turning back contributions was hard. An organization needs money to send out mailings, print literature, pay for offices and phone lines. But it earned trust. RPA politicians do not vote a certain way because they were bought.

RPA is not just about elections. We are year-round activists in the community and actively support other community organizations, like those seeking to aid returning prisoners or undocumented workers who need municipal IDs, those fighting foreclosure, and those fighting for environmental safeguards like cleaning up toxic wastes or limiting greenhouse gases.

We strongly defend unions and pro-union policies, backing organizing drives, contract campaigns, and Project Labor Agreements. We get solid support from public employee and teacher unions and continually push against outsourcing good union jobs.

We have minimum core beliefs: unity against racism and the politics of division; democracy is about people, not corporations; respect for diversity.

We make door-to-door canvassing our primary election tool.

We have made the most of the fact that the council is technically nonpartisan. We invite registered Democrats, Greens, and independents to join. We depend on volunteers committed to the RPA as an independent local movement.

Some of our most active members will have nothing to do with the Democratic Party, while some strongly support liberal Democrats at the state and national level and believe that we must do so until there is something better. We understand that our model would face serious problems if or when we challenged for partisan offices.


Official organized labor plays an important part in the RPA story. Much is negative: The building trades endorsed a Chamber of Commerce candidate for mayor and opened a Richmond office to defeat RPA, largely because of our opposition to the casino and our support for holding up a Chevron project until pollution concerns were met.

But the fact that central labor council and building trades opposition didn’t hurt us much is a sign of the weak link between official labor and its members.

At the same time, the support of the public employee unions was critical. Their money and endorsements were a major source of support, as was their participation in our grassroots campaign. But clearly we need to win over the support of more of labor, working from the inside and outside simultaneously.

Nothing for the future is guaranteed—least of all for an all-volunteer political organization that takes on the largest corporations in the world. We aren’t resting: We are campaigning to fight obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, which especially plague low-income communities of color, by taxing sugary drinks to pay for athletic fields and health programs.

Even a fight for healthy kids means a fight with Corporate America. The Big Beverage industry has moved in with money flying, buying “experts,” media, and support. It’s an uphill fight, but so is every fight worth winning.

Mike Parker is on the Labor Notes Policy Committee. See richmondprogressivealliance.net.



Charles T Smith (not verified) | 09/19/12

When Richmond residents stood up to Chevron several years ago they made national news. Richmond voters taxed Chevron and stopped them from processing heavy crude without adequate environmental protections. Today Richmond is again making national news with a proposed regressive tax on sugar drinks. On the surface, considering the obesity rate among economically challenged residents, this may look like an attempt to help people develop healthier lifestyles by slowing down their consumption of sugar drinks. Under closer inspection, however, it reveals a callous middle class bias against the poor.

The tax was authored and promoted by Richmond Council Member Dr. Jeff Ritterman, the former head of the Richmond Kaiser Cardiology Department. It is Dr. Ritterman’s current position that sugar drinks are responsible for the high rate of obesity in Richmond’s minority community and, therefore, it is in the community’s interest to discourage the consumption of such drinks by adding a hefty City tax on them. Interestingly enough, in a 2008 National Geographic Special, “Stress: Portrait of a Killer,” Dr. Ritterman expressed a broader view, stating that the daily stress of being poor is what leads to health problems. The relationship between the stress of poverty and obesity was one of the primary points in the documentary. So what could change in four years that would lead Dr. Ritterman to change his emphasis and focus exclusively on the issue of sugar drinks? I would suggest that he is leading his middle class constituency to take the reactionary position of blaming the victims and he is doing so for political reasons.

Where the poorest members of Richmond live there are no supermarkets but only liquor stores and quick-stops. This has been the case for years. Richmond has a very high rate of unemployment particularly amongst its minority population. Richmond has a high rate of drive-by shootings and homicides. Its schools are not known for their high academic performance and they have been cash-strapped for years. These are many of the daily stressors under which the poorest members of Richmond must live. As a result of these and other stressors they suffer from serious stress-related health problems. The abuse of sugar drinks is a symptom, not the cause, of these health issues which affect a large portion of Richmond’s residents. There is a proven correlation between poverty and serious health problems including obesity. You don’t need to be a scientist or a doctor to Google “what states have the highest rates of obesity?” and then Google “which are the poorest states in the US?” to see that the results indicate the very same states. Clearly, the relationship between serious health problems and rates of poverty is glaring. Health issues are class issues.

So then, why would these obvious social facts lead “progressives” to support a regressive sugar tax in the first place? The answer is that capitalism teaches us to attribute our economic problems to our own inadequacies rather than to the economic system itself. Rather than fight capitalism we blame the most oppressed members of our society. We blame them for the consequences of being poor as if it were their fault. This is the reactionary response to our problems which creates the cynicism that leads well-intentioned people to support regressive taxes.

This is precisely the same strategy that is currently being used by the media to blame public workers’ pensions and benefits for the failure of state and local governments to balance their budgets. The attacks on public workers’ benefits are merely distractions so that citizens forget the impacts of non-stop wars and the largest theft of public funds in the history of the world which we, the tax payers, are paying for.
This strategy is so effective that even the most liberal citizens are falling for it.

People who are still comfortable understand that their economic situation is changing fast. They are getting caught up in the downward economic spiral. When they are told that the increased cost of their health insurance is due to other people’s unhealthy lifestyles, they quickly support a regressive sugar drinks tax. They support increasing the health insurance rates for obese people or smokers or just denying them health care altogether. The same attitude is being applied to public workers who have paid into their retirement plans but are now under attack for having a retirement plan at all. Politicians and the media clamor for the reduction of their benefits while advocating for them to work longer before retirement. Voters who have fewer benefits or none at all are now supporting these shortsighted attacks. They don’t understand the causes of their own current economic situation. The easy answer for them is to attack their neighbor. We need to stop these mean-spirited, divisive, reactionary attacks on our friends and neighbors, focus instead on the real problem: work to defeat capitalism before it crushes all of us. Progressives should never support regressive taxes.

NancyEJ | 07/30/12

union staff members and staff wannabes pretending to be "Occupiers" do not represent 99% of anything. I'm sure as hell not in the dreaded 1% and you sure as hell don't speak for me. You don't speak for the vast majority of small business owners and professional and it's a fair assumption you don't "speak" for the 46% or so who say they intend to vote for Romney. You don't speak for those whose religious beliefs are in direct opposition to the social agenda of the Left and you have absolutely no right or business claiming to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves based on your own inflated sense of self importance.

And frankly? How dare you. The hubris to stand in front of the world and claim to speak for 99% of Americans. For God's sake step back and look at how idiotic and disturbed that notion is. 99% of us don't think unions are the answer, or a bloated government, or your buddies running the Democratic Party. IF you people speak for the 99% then why doesn't every union office in American have a line around the block? What, are we just too stupid in your enlightened world view to know what's best for ourselves? Is that your idea of dignity and respect? Claiming to speak for others when every indication is you can't and don't?

Or do you just make up garbage and write it on signs because it sounds cool? Yeah, that's what the other 50% of us thought.

lycophidion (not verified) | 07/22/12

So, now LN is advocating the failed "inside-outside strategy" beloved of the Democratic Socialists of America? Parker seems to think so: "Educational efforts, independent efforts like the Green Party, and struggles within the Democratic Party may all contribute to a national political movement down the road." What makes him think that a strategy that failed when organized labor was strong and actively pursued it will succeed now? Parker was correct in his first assertion: "the policy of hitching labor to the Democratic Party has given us virtually nothing to show for it." No, the only winning strategy is to build the movement in the streets, shop-floors and campuses, and to couple this with independent political initiatives, most especially wherever these are grounded in the movement. And always recall that LN can easily lose the forest for the trees: organized labor may now be puny, but labor is not.