- Interview by
- Meagan Day
Liliana Rivera Baiman is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a working mother, an immigrant, and a community and union organizer who’s running for city council in Columbus, Ohio.
Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to Baiman about the power of a city council to fight for workers and unions, Baiman’s experience growing up in a co-op village in Mexico, how the labor movement activated her politically, and what working-class people deserve.
A central tenet of your campaign is the One Good Job demand. You say, “One Good Job means strong unions, higher wages, better benefits, paid parental leave, universal childcare, and more.” Let’s talk about this in greater detail. If unemployment is supposedly dropping, then what’s the problem you want to address? What pressures are people under, even when they’re employed?
We in Columbus have a low unemployment rate, but we are dealing with underemployment. We’re dealing with people that are working part-time positions, without access to benefits. Or we’re dealing with people who are working full-time positions in distribution centers, in the gig market, or even in some health-care institutions like hospitals that are paying wages of $11 or $12 an hour with limited benefits.
So even though people have jobs, they’re not making enough to afford rent, to afford the bills, to afford getting around town. That’s what we really want to talk about: creating one good job for everyone that pays well, has good benefits, and offers people the opportunity to be full time if that’s what they choose.
What does it look like for a city councillor to actually fight for unions, higher wages, and better benefits?
There is a lot of influence from city council. In regard to higher wages, for example, we have one hospital that decided to pay $15 an hour to their employees after a lot of pressure came from student groups and from DSA. But none of the city council members would take the lead or the charge on $15 an hour.
When we’re negotiating with some of these large institutions that want to receive tax abatements — even though I don’t believe they should be receiving texts abatements, because they’re already profitable — a lot of council members do not negotiate living wages or benefits for the workers employed in those institutions, including subcontractors. That’s something we could negotiate directly from city council. We could say, “You want an abatement, you want something from our residents? Then you need to provide good wages, not just to your direct employees but also to those that are cleaning and maintaining your building.”
We’ve had plenty of expansion in our city that’s been made possible with public money. So we have Nationwide Arena, for example, a big concert venue. And we had workers there trying to form a union with IATSE (the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees). The board of the company that employed them hired an anti-union firm, and they busted the union campaign. All we heard from city council was one council member writing a letter asking for the union-busting to stop. But at no point did any of the other council members step up and say, this is publicly funded, the taxpayers are paying into this, and the union-busting is unacceptable and we’re going to hold you accountable.
We had the same thing happen with a recent Hilton expansion. The Hilton was going to receive a loan from the city in order to expand, and there was a talk about a neutrality agreement. City council could’ve said, “We’re not going to lend you the money to do this expansion if you’re not going to pay $15 an hour and provide neutrality for unions to organize the hotel workers and convention workers.” Ultimately the board overseeing it voted no on a neutrality agreement, and there was no pushback from council.
Columbus is the largest city in the world with no rail service. You’re running on the promise to fight for one. What would a public rail service mean for the working class of Columbus?
I look around Columbus and I see a lot of people that work shift work. They work at the hospitals, the distribution centers, the call centers. I used to organize custodians that worked until 11 or 12 o’clock at night, and the buses stopped running at a certain time. People didn’t have transportation back home that was reliable and safe. They would walk from work or try to catch rides. I received calls personally from union members who were like, “I’m stranded out here. I know you’re coming out for a site visit. Would you mind giving me a ride back?”
A city as big as Columbus should have the twenty-four-hour bus service available and expanded. But we also need rail, because we need some infrastructure that’s going to be secure and reliable. People in Columbus say we’re too spread out for rail. There’s not enough density, we’re far too big. I tell people I come from Houston. Houston is spread out, it has no zoning, and it’s in a state that tends to be extremely conservative. Yet Houston managed to get rail going, and they were able to create jobs from it, and now people are able to get from one end of town to the other.
Like pretty much every city its size, Columbus is gentrifying, but working-class people are being left behind. Your campaign talks about the need for “strong tenants’ rights, protecting elderly residents, access to affordable housing, a holistic approach to homelessness, and prioritizing working families over developers.” Can you tell me more about what’s happening in Columbus?
I live on the south side of Columbus. When my husband and I moved here in 2011, our neighborhood was not a “desirable” neighborhood. I actually thought the neighborhood was great. It was mixed income. We had access to downtown. It was close to the hospital. Over the years, developers have been taking advantage of what they call opportunity zones, and my part of town has become one of those areas. They bring in developers, they bring in massive companies that can set shop here, and they’ll get large tax abatements.
Near me, there is a development of single-family homes and apartments and condos. Those are abated for fifteen years. The developer didn’t have to pay taxes on it. The houses are listing for over half a million dollars, and I am paying more in my mortgage than the people that are moving in there, even though my house is worth less. So we’re starting to see that all over our city. You have apartments going for $2,600 a month, similar to what you would see in Los Angeles or in New York, but it’s in the Midwest.
The city’s strategy has been identifying the most impoverished areas and providing abatements for whomever wants to build housing or set up their headquarters. We have a company called CoverMyMeds. They’re a subsidiary of McKesson. McKesson is one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the country. CoverMyMeds received tax abatements and money that came from our schools in order to set up a new headquarters in Franklinton. And Franklinton is one of the areas of the city most affected by the opioid crisis. So it’s just ironic that we’re giving so much money to these pharmaceutical companies to set up headquarters, and we’re not dealing with the opioid crisis and people who are literally living in tents all around this new development. So that’s a little picture of what’s happening in Columbus.
You took a moment recently to comment on the Jeffrey Epstein scandal. Some might think that strange for a city council candidate in Columbus, but it actually made a lot of sense, because one key player in that scandal was Les Wexner. Who is Les Wexner and what does his story tell us about how Columbus politics works?
Les Wexner is what I call the unelected mayor or president of Columbus. He runs the city. He’s created this fraternity of about seventy mostly male CEOs called the Columbus Partnership. In other cities, that would be the “business bureau” or the “businesses association.” But here in Columbus, Wexner is the founder, and he controls this partnership, which selects who gets on council in Columbus. A lot of people don’t realize that only seven out of the last thirty-seven Columbus city council members have been elected. The rest have been appointed through council, and Les Wexner’s partnership signs off on these people. So no one’s going to get into council that Wexner doesn’t want, unless it’s through an election.
Wexner owns the L Brands, which is the parent company of Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works. They have enormous distribution centers that employ huge numbers of people out in the eastern area of town. He’s got an incredible amount of influence here. So, for instance, we had a scenario where our soccer team, the Columbus Crew, was being sold off. There was a grassroots campaign to save the soccer team, but it took Les Wexner, the mayor, the president of city council, the two senators, and a couple of other elected people and CEOs meeting in DC behind closed doors to get it done. They came back and said it was saved. That’s how much influence he has in our politics, and that’s how much influence Wexner has in the policy that we create and how things are run in Columbus.
A lot of folks are like, well, you know, that’s not necessarily bad, he’s just a wealthy person trying to help the city.
But the problem that the Epstein scandal highlights is that if there’s a connection between what Epstein was doing [with] Wexner, there is no way for us to hold him accountable. There’s no public record requests that we could do. We can’t look into his finances or his emails. He is pretty much untouchable and unaccountable and is running our city. So that to me is extremely dangerous. It’s a symptom of what the partnership has coined “the Columbus way,” which is private-public partnerships that are mostly run by CEOs, and at the top is Les Wexner.
You’re a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, and you haven’t been shy about associating yourself with socialism, even though the word can be a hard pill for some people to swallow. Do you call yourself a democratic socialist? What does it mean to you?
It means power and equality. It means not only that the public has a voice in the community, but also that workers get to make decisions about what’s happening at their work site.
I originally come from a very small village high up in the mountains in Mexico where people didn’t exchange money for goods. People in these towns, far out of the reach of the federal government and unimportant to state governments for elections purposes, had to figure things out on their own. One of my great-great-grandparents was a child nurse when he was twelve years old, because they didn’t have enough nurses during the revolution. Twelve-year-olds were tending to the wounded Zapatista soldiers.
So my town was a co-op. Everyone in my town had a responsibility for what they provided the entire town. Some people provided the meat, some people provided the fruits, some people provided the vegetables, some people provided the clothing. Everyone just knew that was their role, and the idea was that we come up together as a team. It was very strange for me when I came to the United States to exchange money for goods. It took me a long time to adjust to the way it was done in the United States. My ideal would be to eliminate capitalism, but at the very least I think we need to heavily, heavily, heavily regulate it.
What’s your experience in the labor movement, and how does it inform your politics today?
One of my grandparents was actually a member of FLOC (the Farm Labor Organizing Committee) back when they were organizing cotton workers in Abilene, Texas. And another worked in Salinas, California, picking strawberries. So I knew a little bit about labor from my family members who were part of labor unions. But it wasn’t until I was in college that my mom, who was a custodian, was approached by SEIU, who were running their Justice for Janitors campaign.
I encouraged her to join and then started getting involved myself, attending meetings. I was already doing work with undocumented students on campus, and I was able to help SEIU convince custodians who were undocumented, mostly women, to not be afraid and to join the union.
I saw how the union was very successful. Workers got better wages, health insurance. They opened up their own health clinic that the members could use. It was incredible for my family, because we got health insurance. I had health insurance through the union for the first time ever. They hired me to come work as an intern while I was still in school to organize the food-service workers on campus where I was. And then when I graduated, they hired me as an organizer. I never looked back. I found something I was passionate about. I like organizing low-wage workers because they were the kind of workers that I saw growing up. The people that lived in my house did that kind of work.
It was through the union that I was able to become a citizen, that I was able to vote for the first time, that I was able to meet actual elected officials and to not be afraid of them. Labor put me in a place where I understood politics a lot more than most people in my family did, and I would often try to sway the conversations on who to vote for based on what I was seeing in the labor movement. I’ve been involved with the labor movement for almost fourteen years. Now I’m with a worker center part time, while I’m running this campaign.
There’s no question that working-class people are being economically squeezed from all sides. But when you hear Bernie Sanders loudly talking about the working class on a national stage, something that nobody would dare do before him, do you think things are looking up politically for working-class people in this country?
I do, and I’m glad that he’s running because he’s pushed these conversations that a lot of people didn’t want to have, or are trained not to have. A lot of people are trained not to have conversations about how much they make compared to their colleagues. That’s one of the obstacles that we face when we organize. Candidates are now running to the left and talking about wages and immigration.
Everyone used to talk about the labor movement, but it was mostly teachers, flight attendants, or pilots. Now people are also talking about food-service workers, janitors, gig economy workers. Now is a good time for working people to get involved in politics at the local level.
What do you think that working-class people deserve that they aren’t getting under our current political and economic arrangement?
The thing that hits closest to home for me is health insurance, Medicare for All. I lost a baby in 2017. I now have a son, and it was a very difficult pregnancy. Seeing mothers in the hospital with me who didn’t have access to good health insurance, some of whom were losing children or having complications because they couldn’t stay in a hospital bed for more than two days because that’s what their insurance dictated, was absolutely outrageous. The only reason I had a different outcome with my son was because my husband had a good union health-care plan that allowed me to stay on bed rest for twelve weeks and for our son to be in the NICU for ninety days. Public health insurance for everyone is something that working families truly deserve. Honestly, a $6,000 deductible, that’s not health insurance.
Another thing working-class people deserve is a safe and affordable place to live. Many people can’t find affordable housing, and the ones who do, it’s often not safe. It’s falling apart. It has mold. They’re dealing with awful landlords. I think we can raise the standard. If people can’t have a decent place to live in, how are they able to take care of some of the other things that they need? They have to have a safe place in a safe neighborhood to begin with.