Challenging a Giant

How a town dominated by oil interests gave birth to one of the most successful left-wing political insurgencies in the country.

A Richmond Progressive Alliance demonstration in August 2014. Peg Hunter / Flickr

One of the few bright spots in this year’s election was the victory of the Richmond Progressive Alliance candidates and RPA-endorsed rent control initiative in Richmond, California, a predominantly black and Latino, gritty (though rapidly gentrifying) industrial city of 110,000 in the East Bay.

The alliance, a coalition of community groups, unions, liberal democrats, Greens, environmentalists, and leftists of various stripes, had participated in the governance of Richmond for the previous twelve years despite formidable opposition from the Chevron Corporation, the city’s largest private employer, and the political establishment beholden to it. That the RPA triumphed once again in 2016 was a tribute to its staying power and capacity to mobilize a broad constituency around a working-class agenda.

Company Town

Richmond is a company town. The company in question, Chevron, is not only the city’s largest but also its dirtiest employer. Chevron practically founded the town in 1905 when it opened what was, at the time, the world’s third-largest oil refinery. Other industrial development followed, peaking in World War II with a giant Kaiser shipyard, Ford plant, and dozens of other industrial companies employing tens of thousands of workers. (Richmond is home to the Rosie the Riveter national historic park commemorating the role of women industrial workers during World War II.)

Those workers included many black migrants from the American South squeezed into substandard and segregated housing. The city rapidly deindustrialized after the war, leaving large swathes of abandoned factories and toxic residue. Chevron stayed.

There are few corporate entities more reprehensible than large oil corporations. The prototype, Standard Oil, was created by John D. Rockefeller in 1870 and by the 1880s controlled close to 90 percent of US oil refining and distribution. Broken up by trustbusters in 1911, it spawned dozens of new companies. Three of them (including Standard Oil of California, later Chevron) were part of the “seven sisters” which dominated the world political economy throughout the twentieth century. They have an unmatched record of environmental degradation, political subversion and corruption, and contempt for workers’ rights and government regulation.

Half of the members of my old union, the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (now part of the Steelworkers), worked for these behemoths. The in-house history of the union was called Challenging the Giants because our union’s identity was forged in struggle with them. Their arrogant unilateralism was the secret behind OCAW’s surprising militancy and internal democracy. Big oil never accepted the post–World War II consensus that unions ought to be integrated as junior partners into a tripartite class-conflict management team.

Company unions persisted at Standard Oil properties into the 1990s, and all the big oil refineries were run as open shops, forcing the union to engage in continuous “close the ranks” internal organizing that, perversely, built rank-and-file power and kept union density above 90 percent at most refineries.

The industry extracted a huge toll on its workers. One refinery worker described his twelve-hour shift as “eleven-and-a-half hours of extreme boredom, thirty minutes of swimming in a pool of toxic shit, and thirty seconds of sheer terror.” Their daily exposure to “thirty minutes of toxic shit” condemns refinery workers to high rates of occupational cancers and other illnesses. The “thirty seconds of terror” has subjected them to over 500 fires and explosions in the nation’s 141 oil refineries since 1994.

The OCAW led the fight for the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970 and fought hard to develop worker-centered occupational health and safety integrated into the union’s ongoing battles with the industry. OCAW leader Tony Mazzocchi took it a step further by defining the union membership as the first line of defense against corporate polluters. As his biographer, Les Leopold, pointed out, Mazzocchi’s insight was simple but profound: “Pollution always starts in the workplace and then moves out into the community and the natural environment.”

The union’s 1973 strike against Shell Oil around the recognition of worker-controlled health and safety committees was a milestone in the modern environmental movement. Mazzocchi dealt head on with the “blackmail conundrum” that confronts workers in dirty and extractive industries by calling for these corporations to bear the costs of transition to a more sustainable economy.

“They have a Superfund for dirt,” he said, “there ought to be one for workers.”

After a 1989 explosion at the Phillips 66 Chemical Plant in Pasadena, Texas, killed twenty-three workers and contaminated a community, the OCAW led the effort to establish the Chemical Safety Board to investigate petrochemical incidents and make recommendations for safer practices. Many of the agency’s early employees got their accident investigation training as members of OCAW-established health and safety committees. Their investigation into a blast at Chevron’s Richmond refinery in 2012 has led to extensive improvements in California’s process safety regulations.

Dancing With the Devil

Nonetheless, like all trade unions in a capitalist economy, the OCAW and the petrochemical industry were locked in a dance with the devil. Our members’ livelihoods were bound up in their continuing employment in an industry that had no regard for its own workers’ health and well being, poisoned nearly every community it operated in, and used its wealth and power to corrupt political institutions from city halls to nation-states.

The best working-class wages and benefits in America are paid by an industry that routinely opposes social and legal protections that would empower working people. The same companies that workers depend on for a secure retirement and a future for their families are promoting a ruinous extractive business model that is the motive force behind the global environmental catastrophe.

It was easier for unions like OCAW to challenge giants like Chevron when times were good and labor was in demand. By the 1980s, as deindustrialization set in, it got a whole lot tougher. Many members began to see their refinery or chemical plant job as the only thing standing between them and abject poverty.

And the bosses knew exactly how to foment that fear. They took advantage of gaping holes in US labor laws to contract out many aspects of maintenance and production to temporary workers who did not have the knowledge or inclination to challenge the company’s safety practices. Outside the plant gates, workers began to see community residents concerned about exposure to pollution as potential adversaries rather than allies. This was easier to do because the relatively well-paid refinery workers tended to live far away from their toxic workplaces while the fence-line communities increasingly housed poor people of color.

In many ways, the situation of company towns like Richmond is analogous to that of OCAW members. The industry that dominates their economy is responsible for their community’s underdevelopment, threatens its health, and corrupts its politics. Yet its departure would be a death blow to many of these struggling towns.

Residents need only to look to Flint, Michigan, Youngstown, Ohio, Camden, New Jersey, and the hundreds of other company towns without a company to understand the stark future in store for them if they push their corporate master too hard. It seems the only thing worse than being exploited and abused by a major corporation is not being exploited and abused by one. This dynamic helps generate a uniquely dysfunctional politics that disempowers and demoralizes residents while the political class curries favor with the company and competes for spoils.

In Richmond, as in many industrial towns, the process of deindustrialization was accompanied by the rise of a black urban political regime. Much of the impetus for its rise came from the ethnic succession that underlies machine politics in many cities. But black politics often consolidated in conflict with uniquely entrenched white political machines and arose at a time when the Black Power Movement gave a patina of radicalism to these challenges.

Some of these local black political insurgencies were led by pure opportunists who understood that their role from the get-go was to serve capital. Many, however, were originally animated by an anti-corporate politics and were intent on addressing the underdevelopment and deindustrialization that were devastating their communities.

As with unions, it was a whole lot easier to mount such a challenge when times were good and factories were booming. By the 1980s, the options open to anti-corporate reformers elected to municipal government in company towns were extremely limited.

In addition, a politics of racial solidarity is unable to transcend, or even comprehend, the formidable forces arrayed against it. Ultimately most black urban political regimes became instruments of class domination.

As Adolph Reed has observed,

[W]hat is now recognized as black politics is fundamentally a professional-managerial class program that constitutes the left wing of neoliberalism. This politics invokes the cultural authority of earlier moments of black insurgency, shorn of their working-class programmatic character, and specters of a racial order it opposed, to impose a neoliberal ideal of social justice — parity in distribution of capitalism’s costs and benefits among recognized ascriptive categories — as the boundary of the politically thinkable.

Steve Early’s Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City tracks the working out of all of these dynamics on the rise and fall of Richmond. But unlike the typical saga of an old industrial city in an era of deindustrialization, this narrative is only a prelude to the extraordinary story of the rise of a political movement that has defied Chevron’s political hegemony and supplanted an entrenched black urban political regime.

Deep Organizing

Early describes how, over twelve years, this movement has been winning elections and implementing real and reproducible public policies that have helped to revitalize the city. In the process, he offers some clues towards what an independent and sustainable working-class politics could look like at a local level.

Early is well positioned to tell this story. A lifelong labor activist and reporter who relocated to Richmond just in time to witness Chevron’s spectacular 2012 refinery explosion that nearly killed a dozen workers and sent fifteen thousand residents to the emergency room, he has a natural feel for the flow of grassroots political movements and the forces shaping working-class life.

Chevron was long accustomed to running the city through a combination of bullying threats; community “philanthropy”; and co-option of the political class, some segments of law enforcement, and building trades unions that had identified their members’ interests with a corporate-dominated community development model. The rise of the Richmond Progressive Alliance was a shock to them.

Here was a group whose leaders were not interested in getting paid. They were part of an organization that had real structures of accountability and believed in forging what RPA city councilor and mayor Gayle McLaughlin called “authentic relationships” with their constituency.

This involved more than just facing the voters every two years. The RPA and its allies held regular “People’s Conventions,” called mass public meetings in response to urgent issues and concerns, rebuilt relationships of trust with municipal employees and their unions, and sought to interact with community residents in an open and transparent manner. They also utilized the power of appointment to ensure that appointees to the vast array of city commissions, boards, and committees represented the interests and concerns of the community.

Unlike insurgent movements which, from time to time, have come to power in dying industrial cities that have very few internal resources or prospects for development, the RPA arose in a region that was undergoing rapid economic expansion. This loosened Chevron’s stranglehold on the city and gave the insurgents a bit of bargaining power and flexibility often absent from contemporary urban reform efforts.

But first, they had to take on Chevron’s big money. In the 2014 mayoral contest, for example, when Chevron decided to deal the RPA a death blow by going all in on supporting a prominent African-American political figure for mayor, they outspent the RPA by twenty to one, with $3.1 million in direct money and substantial indirect contributions. Nonetheless, RPA-supported mayoral candidate Tom Butt beat Chevron-friendly Nat Bates by over 16 percentage points.

There was no magic to the RPA’s victory over the moneybags — just good, old-fashioned one-on-one constituency-building politics. RPA was able to unite and mobilize hundreds of campaign volunteers who could talk to their neighbors and give voice to their concerns. Thus, as Early relates, “the grassroots mobilization capacity of the local left has been able to neutralize the usual advantages enjoyed by corporate adversaries with overall campaign budgets fifteen or thirty times larger.”

These grassroots activists “have a greater personal connection to the voters.” That connection wasn’t developed through media buys, push polling, and all of the other tools of big-money professional electioneering. Rather, it demands “time, organization, and systematic outreach around issues that affect people’s daily lives” as well as “a great deal of emotional energy.”

Most importantly, they didn’t demobilize after each election cycle. The RPA stayed active pushing for clean and safe neighborhoods, accountable policing, affordable housing, and sustainable economic development. Even when they were defeated, as they were in their plan to use the power of eminent domain to block home foreclosures or their proposed soda tax that was defeated by Big Soda, they continued to maintain wide public support and respect for their principles and commitment.

This is because their deep-organizing approach gave people context to understand how their various initiatives were connected to building a livable city free from corporate control. And when the defeat was the result of the larger institutional or legal forces arrayed against them, that only served to confirm the RPA’s foundational axiom that they were locked in battle with powerful enemies, and that victory required unity, tenacity, and the ability to take a punch in order to give one.

One of progressive Richmond’s more fortuitous decisions was to hire Chris Magnus as chief of police. Coming from 94 percent white Fargo, North Dakota and openly gay, he did not seem to be the best choice to shake up an entrenched urban police department in a city with a horrendous civilian homicide rate. But he established and enforced a new standard of community policing as the RPD worked with churches, youth groups, neighborhood councils, and activist organizations to deter street violence and crime while reducing killings by police. He may be the only police chief in America who participated in a Black Lives Matter protest. On his watch, civilian oversight of the police was strengthened.

Tensions and Limitations

Magnus left the RPD in 2015 to take a chief’s job in Tucson; the jury is still out on whether his changes are sustainable. He certainly set the basis for a more humane and community-focused policing. However, as Early points out, “community policing can make the community safer but not economically more secure for a population still predominantly poor and working class.” The ultimate foundations of the street-to-prison pipeline are embedded in the political economy and will not be fundamentally undermined by a change in policing methods.

Early takes pains to stress the limitations and dissonances within the RPA. Like most grassroots organizations, there is a disconnect between the small core of volunteers (or “cadre”) who do most of the work, especially in non-electoral years, and a larger membership base which does not participate much in the alliance’s internal life but can be counted on to turn out in elections and large mobilizations. Through various formal and informal mechanisms, the cadre exert considerable influence over direction and governance of the RPA. This leads to tensions between the need to emphasize either “cadre development” or “mass recruitment.”

In Richmond, the “cadre” tended to be older and whiter than the “base.” Many of them were retired or semi-retired people who had the time and inclination to spend on deep organizing. They often were aligned with the Green Party or other independent political formations, including socialists. The “base” tended to be people of color who were overwhelmingly registered Democrats. Early quotes RPA leader Mike Parker asserting that, to maintain unity and avoid divisive squabbles, the RPA often “fudges over questions about the nature of the system, focusing on local issues instead.”

This goes to the core of the inherent problems of municipally based political insurgencies. There is a long and laudable legacy of “sewer socialism” in the United States where anticapitalist political movements have governed at the city level, sometime for extended periods of time. They often succeed in eliminating corruption, running clean governments, and raising the quality, accessibility, and range of municipal services in ways that produce real benefits for working-class and poor residents.

However, their range is too narrow to effect broader changes in the political economy. And, like Chevron in Richmond, their opponents draw their power and resources from far beyond the city limits. While sometimes temporarily defeated or constrained, the organized power of capital remains a constant threat, and it will take every opportunity to undermine and eliminate any serious political opponents.

From Company Town to New Economy Stepchild

Early concludes his book with a description of the new challenges facing Richmond that threaten the lasting power of its anti-corporate city government. Because of the rapid expansion of the tech economy throughout the San Francisco Bay area, the city is being subject to increasing pressures associated with gentrification and real-estate development. The new giants of the “clean economy” are proving to be just as pernicious despoilers as old-school corporations like Chevron.

In Richmond, the new threat surrounds the University of California’s plans to create a “Global Campus” which would function as an “international hub where some of the world’s leading universities and high-tech companies would work side by side.” This has provoked deep concerns about the labor practices of such an institution as well as its impact on real-estate values and rents. In part because the work of the RPA gave voice and substance to these concerns, these plans are now “suspended” as the university and its corporate allies consider their next steps.

These developments were the backdrop to the RPA-supported rent control initiative with just-cause eviction protections that passed in November 2016. While a good first step, this battle is just in its first stages, and there are few successful models of cities developing real alternatives to gentrification. One hopes Early will continue to report on Richmond’s attempts to build a city that serves their interests rather than those of the corporations and capitalists who seek to plunder it.

Still, the RPA has achieved more and lasted longer than any recent urban reform movement. After twelve years of being the primary governing force, the overall quality of life and sense of community have vastly improved in Richmond. Refinery Town tells its story and is indispensable reading for activists thinking about the real problems of governance once an insurgency gains a toehold of power. “If urban political insurgencies are going to succeed in more places,” Early writes, “they will need models for civic engagement like Richmond provides.”