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How Can the Labor Movement Move Beyond the Democratic Party?

What we need is a political movement that unabashedly challenges corporate control over our daily lives.

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GIANT-KILLERS

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.

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.

UNION LEADERS DIVIDED

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.

 
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