Seth Anderson-Oberman Wants to Bring Working-Class Politics to Philadelphia’s City Council

Philadelphia voters head to the polls today. All eyes are on progressive mayoral challenger Helen Gym. But longtime union organizer Seth Anderson-Oberman is also part of a suite of left-wing challengers on the city council.

Seth Anderson-Oberman, second from left, canvassing with SEIU supporters, April 27, 2023. (Seth Anderson Oberman for City Council District 8 / Twitter)

In the wake of the George Floyd uprisings across the country, Seth Anderson-Oberman saw the need to bring workers, particularly black workers, into the fight against racism. By founding and organizing with the Philadelphia Labor for Black Lives Coalition, which takes a worker-centered approach to eradicating racism, Anderson-Oberman distinguishes himself from a more liberal approach that embraces individual access to power and symbolic gestures of representation.

The coalition now includes sixteen unions, Anderson-Oberman told me, and “is fighting for the needs of black workers, not only by calling for an end to police violence, but also by supporting black families facing evictions, for example.”

Anderson-Oberman is campaigning on that ethos to represent his hometown in Northwest Philadelphia on City Council. Born and raised in Germantown, one of several neighborhoods in Philly’s Eighth Council District, he has spent the past two decades in the labor movement as a staff organizer with several different unions, including the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Philadelphia Labor Council, AFL-CIO.

Like most cities across the country, Philadelphia has suffered from a lack of decent and affordable housing, struggled with gun violence and crime, and endured attacks on its public education system in recent decades. But the grip of austerity might be loosening as the city’s labor-left movement pushes back — an effort that Anderson-Oberman’s campaign is a part of.

Since the turn of the century, when community activists including current mayoral candidate Helen Gym were fighting the attempted privatization of public schools, Philadelphia has seen significant working-class organizing. Twelve years later, members of the union UNITE HERE went on hunger strike to protest school closures and jobs cuts; in 2016, newly organized nurses with the union PASNAP nearly shut down the Democratic National Convention before forcing their boss to the table to recognize their union and negotiate a contract; and after a failed campaign six years earlier, last month, graduate student workers at the University of Pennsylvania announced that they are unionizing.

A new cadre of progressive politicians and militant union leaders sympathetic to and born of these struggles have swept into office, including Kendra Brooks on City Council and Richard Hooker, head of Teamsters Local 623. Anderson-Oberman hopes to join them.

He grew up on the poorer end of a working-class, majority-black neighborhood, where his parents played in a Motown-inspired band and worked odd jobs to pay the bills. Eventually his stepfather, Hank Sanel, got a union job as a janitor represented by the SEIU Local 1199; he took advantage of its scholarship program and began taking night classes at Temple University. In 1984, the family moved to Schenectady, New York, where Sanel pursued a medical degree.

Just a decade prior to the family’s relocation, Schenectady was a thriving company town run by General Electric (GE), with tens of thousands of residents employed by the company. By the time Oberman-Anderson returned to Philadelphia in 1989 to work as a house painter and take classes at Temple, GE only employed some five thousand workers. He credits witnessing the devastation deindustrialization wrought on Schenectady — and specifically the realization that race alone does not determine poverty — as an early influence on his politics.

“I grew up in a poor, black neighborhood. That was what I knew, until I moved to Upstate New York, and saw GE job cuts give way to financial ruin that upended all workers’ lives, no matter their race,” he told me.

As a young adult at Temple, which Oberman-Anderson says he attended for the better part of that decade, he studied without any particular focus, taking classes in film, anthropology, African-American studies, women’s studies, and sociology. “I just wanted to learn about the world,” he recalls. Taking stock of the political climate, from the onset of the Gulf War to the 1992 Rodney King beating, he grew distraught.

Around the same time, community organizers fighting for a police civilian review board knocked on Anderson-Oberman’s door to discuss bringing the Philadelphia Police Department under more democratic supervision. The next week, he was out canvassing with them.

“I was outraged by what I saw,” says Anderson-Oberman, who also recalls growing up under Philadelphia’s notoriously corrupt 39th Police District.

After college, Anderson-Oberman turned his attention toward the labor movement, where he has spent the entirety of this century. Most recently, he organized public and private sector health care workers with SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania.

District Eight incumbent Cindy Bass has held the seat for more than a decade without facing any substantial electoral challenge. Bass champions herself as a beacon of experience and accomplishment, while casting her opponent as an inexperienced radical. In their recent debate Bass questioned Anderson-Oberman’s activist credentials and presence in the community. He responded, “I was born on a picket line.”

In the same debate, Anderson-Oberman also spoke about his past ties to the Communist Party and Young Communist League. Rather than shrink away from the red-baiting, he responded to a question about those ties by saying he is unashamed of his history.

“I joined the Young Communist League at [the] early age [of] twenty-one. . . . I haven’t been to a party meeting in fifteen years, but I’m very proud of that history. . . . The communists in this country led the fight against lynching, for unemployment insurance, social security. There’s a proud history of that in this country.”

Bass has found an ally in right-wing billionaire Jeffrey Yass, much like other candidates in the city facing progressive challengers. Yass has bankrolled various conservative causes, from opposing abortion rights to supporting charters. Yass’s super PAC Philly for Growth spent $90,260 on television and digital advertising to support the councilwoman in the two weeks leading up to the election.

Yass has worsened Philadelphia’s crisis in public education. Chronic underinvestment coupled with the proliferation of charter schools — one of Yass’s primary interests — has led to overcrowded classrooms, a lack of counselors and nurses, and a dearth of extracurricular activities. But it also wears on the fabric of a community, according to public school teacher and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers member Dan Reyes:

When you walk past a shuttered public school — absent of chattering kids and young athletes, with graffiti and broken windows in their place — it’s like a missing tooth. Every time I drive by that high school it feels bad. It reminds you that something was taken from the neighborhood, something that should be there. It evokes strong feelings of neglect and disrespect. As a parent, that’s the last thing you want to see in the neighborhood that your kid is growing up in.

Most notably, Germantown High School was closed ten years ago — one of twenty-three public schools in Philadelphia shut down that year by the city’s School Reform Commission (SRC), which Anderson-Oberman says “was established by the state to take over Philadelphia schools and privatize them.” (Interestingly, the SRC was briefly overseen by Paul Vallas, who was recently defeated in Chicago’s mayoral race by Chicago Teachers Union organizer Brandon Johnson.) Ten years since the school property was sold to a developer group, it remains unused.

Anderson-Oberman is also running on instituting rent control in the city and increased funding for public housing, which Councilwoman Bass says would hurt landlords and development.

The Philadelphia City Council’s approach to zoning is centered around “councilmanic prerogative,” which affords councilmembers unilateral power to change the codes within their district. In recent years, this has often been used to pave the way for lucrative development deals, according to Anderson-Oberman’s finance director Nathan Holt.

Reyes, who has organized neighborhood canvases with his wife out of their home, believes that “the power around land use needs to serve the people, not the rich.” He says that Anderson-Oberman understands that “it’s going to require immense organizing of the constituents. Just him being in office won’t win change, and he gets that.”

Seth is the product of the community he grew up in as well as the movement he matured in. “I couldn’t be doing this today with the success that we’re having without the infrastructure that’s been built by left-labor groups throughout the city,” says Anderson-Oberman. He is endorsed by several unions and community groups, which he credits as “a powerful and growing movement that is challenging the stranglehold that the Democratic Party machine has had on our political system.”

Anderson-Oberman is endorsed by the Philadelphia chapter of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

Philly DSA electoral cochair Rachie Weisberg said that after the chapter’s independent expenditure campaign for Bernie Sanders in 2020, it shifted its focus toward local elections — most notably with public school teacher (and Jacobin contributing editor) Paul Prescod’s campaign for Pennsylvania State Senate. This cycle, Philly DSA has expanded its operation, endorsing three other city council candidates, Amanda McIllmurray and Andrés Celin, and David McMahon, who is running in Norristown just north of Philadelphia. Weisberg reminded me that while part of the point of electoral politics is to win — indeed, you can’t build a movement that only ever loses — a win is not defined solely by the ballot box.

“No one thinks electoral politics alone will save us,” Weisberg tells me. “But it offers a great way to meet people where they are at and bring them into all of the work our chapter does.” Anderson-Oberman is sober about this as well, saying:

We’ve done a better job than many campaigns in terms of having organized conversations in the community and engaging people at a grassroots level. I think our campaign has helped toward shifting the priorities in our city and our district towards the needs of working-class communities, especially black and brown working-class communities, who have experienced the brunt of divestment, displacement, and environmental racism for hundreds of years.

Today’s election will be a good test to gauge the strength of where Philadelphia’s progressive movement is at. The political composition of Philadelphia would look dramatically different if the four DSA-endorsed City Council candidates, as well as progressive mayoral challenger Gym, win. They would also join a growing leftist presence in Pennsylvania, with the likes of Nikil Saval, Rick Krajewski, and Elizabeth Fiedler, among others.

“I’ve been doing electoral organizing for five years in Philly and seen demonstrable growth,” says Weisberg. “The city is failing people, and they want change.”