Wednesday, September 21, 2022


By David Bacon
The Nation - 9/21/22

Chinese American community leader Ying Lee Kelley, former Berkeley City Council member, School Board member and longtime assistant to Congressman Ron Dellums.

I took a walk when the pandemic started with Ying Lee, who died this week.  I took these two photographs of her, and she talked about her memories of her childhood in China.  Then we laughed at how we defied the Berkeley School Board.

Ying's father came from China to the U.S. as a secretary in one of the tongs in the late 30s, leaving Ying, her mom and siblings behind. A harrowing flight from the invading Japanese army took them from Shanghai to Chungking, and finally landed them in San Francisco after the war.

When I was at Berkeley High School in the early 60s Ying was a teacher. Berkeley High already had Young Democrats and Young Republicans Clubs, so we organized a Young Socialist club with her son Paul and another friend, David Laub. Ying was our sponsor.


Ying Lee at a demonstration with grassroots people and political activists from the Occupy Oakland movement, marching through the city in November 2011.

As if that wasn't enough to get her in trouble, we invited a Communist to speak at the school, a move quickly prohibited by the principal. Although the school board overruled him, he got his revenge.

Ying was married to John Kelley, a renowned math professor at UC Berkeley, fired in the McCarthyite hysteria for refusing to sign a loyalty oath (a move later ruled unconstitutional).  When Kelley had a year's sabbatical in India, and Ying asked for a leave to go with him, the school administration forced her to quit instead.

Ying never lacked for courage. She ran for city council in 1973, and became Berkeley's first (and only) Asian American council member.  She fought to build left politics that now seem normal for Berkeley. Few remember that through the 50s and the early 60s the city had a very rightwing government.  The East Bay routinely elected extreme conservatives.

Ying helped to break that stranglehold, and then went to work for Congressman Ron Dellums, who called for Henry Kissinger to be tried for war crimes during the Vietnam War (or the American War, as the Vietnamese call it).  Ying fought our fights, and was arrested in many of them, from saving the downtown Berkeley post office to protecting BLM demonstrators in the streets.  She sat in the Occupy tents at Oakland City Hall.


Ying Lee

She co-founded Asian Americans for Jesse Jackson, and was a McGovern delegate in 1972, at the height of the war.  "I wore Viet Cong pajamas and a hat, and we tried to stop the bombing of the dikes," she once told a conference of activists.

Ying fought against anti-China hysteria, and spoke of her own experience, "The China that I left in 1944 was probably 99.5 percent poor and desperate. The China that exists today has no hunger, and people are housed and people are clothed. That to me is a miracle of the century."

Ying was one of the people who made us who we are, who fought racism and for the dignity of working people. You can see in her face that she never stopped.

Friday, September 16, 2022


By David Bacon
Capital & Main, September 16, 2022

Alfonso Guevara, an H-2A worker, uses a short-handled hoe, the "cortito," that has been banned in California because repeated use causes damage to the spine.  California's agricultural wage order says:  "Weeding or thinning with short-handled hoes is prohibited when the hoe is used in a stooping, kneeling or squatting position."  This photograph was taken in Oregon.  In California AB 857 would require his crew boss to give him a list of his rights, including the prohibition of this kind of work that can cause damage to the spine.

Two bills awaiting Gov. Gavin Newsom's signature - or veto - would broaden protections for an estimated 300,000 foreign contract workers laboring in California on work visas. While the documented abusive conditions in "guest worker" visa programs have led to calls for their termination, these bills would offer some improvements to the workers involved.

AB 364, authored by Assemblymember Freddie Rodriguez (D-Pomona), seeks to regulate the recruitment of many workers brought to the U.S. under contract labor visas. AB 857, coauthored by State Assemblymember Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) and State Senator MarĂ­a Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles), would give guest workers on H-2A visas (contract workers in agriculture) notification of their rights under state law, making it easier for them to go to the Labor Commissioner if those rights are violated.
"Congress has failed to act to protect workers who are recruited abroad through temporary work visa programs," explains Daniel Costa, director of Immigration Law and Policy Research at the Economic Policy Institute. "The abuses of labor recruiters have included requiring the payment of illegal fees to obtain jobs, which can result in debt bondage, as well as cases of wage theft, discrimination, human trafficking and other abuses. But since these U.S. work arrangements are being set up abroad, it is difficult to regulate the behavior of recruiters."

Protections that AB 364 would provide include a prohibition of recruitment fees by labor recruiters operating outside the U.S., and a requirement that they give workers a written contract specifying their wages and working conditions when they're recruited. Because it's difficult for workers to get paid for violations by a recruiter operating abroad, the recruiters would have to have a California address and post a bond.

Rodriguez's legislation was written to expand state protection to work visa holders omitted in a previous bill, SB 477, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014. That law only applies to workers in one of the smallest visa categories, the H-2B visa program. They make up less than 1% of temporary work visa holders in California. H-2B workers are employed in jobs often called "low-skilled," but not agriculture - primarily hotel and hospitality, meatpacking, domestic and home care, and landscaping jobs. ?Assemblymember Rodriguez's AB 364 would cover all work visa holders - those on A-3, B-1, H-1B, H-1C, H-2A, H-2B, L-1, O-1, 1, P-3 and TN visas - except for students on J-1 visas who also work.

Nationally, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security estimates the number of temporary work visa holders is 1.6 million, while Costa believes it's closer to 2 million. The DHS says about 300,000 work in California, a number they admit is not a direct count but an estimate. Costa estimates that AB 364 would cover at least 310,500 workers.

Farmworkers brought to the U.S. in the H-2A visa program harvest melons in July 2021 in a field near Firebaugh, California. At 9 in the morning, it was more than 95 degrees, and would soon surpass 110. It was the second day of work in the U.S. for the indigenous Cora workers from Nayarit, Mexico; they were not yet accustomed to the high temperatures. One worker fainted and got a nosebleed from the heat. They worked for the labor contractor Rancho Nuevo Harvesting in a field that belongs to the Fisher family, a large California grower.

Workers come to California to work in several basic industries or job categories. The H-2A visa program covers farmworkers. They can only stay for less than a year, and if they are fired by the contractor or grower who brought them, they must leave the country. Growers were certified to bring more than 317,000 H-2A workers to the U.S. in 2021, three times the number eight years earlier. Of these, 32,333 were brought to California. Three large California-based companies, Fresh Harvest, Foothill Packing and Rancho Nuevo Harvesting, accounted for 12,974 workers. One company alone, CSI Visa Processing (formerly Manpower of the Americas), says it recruits more than 25,000 workers from 12 offices in Mexico every year.

Some of the most egregious examples of recruitment abuse involve farmworkers on H-2A visas. One Texas grower, Larsen Farms, charged 100 Mexican workers as much as $1,500 each for a visa, and workers couldn't leave the job until they'd paid their debt. In November 2021, the U.S. Attorney in Georgia filed a case against 24 growers and labor contractors for abusing H-2A workers. The complaint included two deaths, rape, kidnapping, threatening workers with guns, and growers selling workers to one another as though they were property.

While the federal government sets regulations and is responsible for enforcement, effective oversight hardly exists. According to the Cato Institute, the Department of Labor fined, on average, 2% of all employers from 2008 to 2018. Most fines averaged $237 for minor infractions, and the maximum fine was only $115,624. On average, fewer than 20 employers a year were suspended or banned from the program, an annual rate of 0.27%.

The annual cap for the recruitment of H-1B workers is set at 85,000 per year, and because these visa holders can stay in the country for multiple years, the total number of H-1B workers in the U.S. was 583,420 in 2019. Those workers are considered "high skilled," some holding advanced degrees, and work in the technology industry, health care, and even as teachers in the school system. There is no annual cap on the L-1 visa, supposedly intended for transfers of people within a corporation into the U.S. from outside the country, and there are no education or skill requirements.
The record of abuse of people with these work visas is as extensive. According to a 2021 report from the Economic Policy Institute, "Thousands of skilled migrants with H-1B visas working as subcontractors at well-known corporations like Disney, FedEx, Google and others appear to have been underpaid by at least $95 million. Victims include not only the H-1B workers but also the U.S. workers who are either displaced or whose wages and working conditions degrade when employers are allowed to underpay skilled migrant workers with impunity." The recruiters are large corporations. One, HCL Technologies, made $11 billion in revenue in 2020.

A federal bill, the H-1B and L-1 Visa Reform Act of 2022, would go after recruitment abuse in this category, especially the use of H-1B workers to replace workers in the U.S. It was introduced in March but has not passed either house. Terry FitzPatrick?, co-chair? of the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, urged California legislators, "Despite ATEST advocacy at the federal level for more than 10 years on these issues, a lack of comprehensive and consistent federal oversight and regulation means temporary workers continue to be exploited and trafficked."

AB 857 is directed specifically at farmworkers coming to the U.S. under the H-2A visa program, responding to a long history of false and misleading claims by recruiters denying farmworkers' rights under state law. California's workplace standards and minimum wages and benefits are governed by a series of wage orders, part of the state labor code. In recent years, farmworkers have won coverage in those orders for overtime pay and sick leave, as well as break times and other protections. State law does not exclude workers from the protection of those regulations, regardless of whether they have legal immigration status, or if they are laboring under work visas like H-2A.

Nevertheless, according to a California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation fact sheet, in a review of 280 job offers used to recruit more than 22,000 H-2A workers, 172 falsely claimed employers didn't have to pay travel time, 144 denied workers tenants' rights and 131 claimed that H-2A workers couldn't receive outside visitors in company housing. Although workers are covered by sick-leave benefits, many came into legal-aid offices complaining that their employers wouldn't pay them, even when they got the COVID-19 virus during the pandemic.
Federal H-2A program regulations require recruiters to give workers a copy of their job offer, or contract. But they're not required to notify workers of their protections under California state law, which are much broader. AB 857 would require recruiters and employers to notify workers, in Spanish and in writing, about those protections. It also specifically requires that workers be notified about emergency disasters - critical information for farm laborers who toil in the smoke and heat during the heat dome and fire seasons, and in emergencies stemming from the pandemic. The bill, according to CRLAF, would cover 110 employers and recruiters, and more than 25,000 workers.

One right enumerated by the bill states, "An employer shall not retaliate against an employee for complaining about working conditions or for organizing collectively." When an H-2A worker is fired for protesting, not meeting production quotas, or for no reason at all, he or she loses their visa status and must leave the country. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, recruiters then can, and do, blacklist them. The bill would prohibit this, although it is not clear how this right might be enforced.

Ultimately, however, given the abuses that can and do happen to people on work visas, both bills simply try to impose a degree of regulation and protect at least some rights. Neither bill addresses the impact of the work visa programs on the surrounding workforce. "The power that visa programs give employers, and the individuals and companies that they contract with to recruit workers, is then used to undercut wages and labor standards," warns Costa.

Contract work visas have been controversial since the bracero program, which brought millions of Mexican workers into U.S. fields from 1942 to 1964. Farm labor advocates, including Cesar Chavez and Bert Corona, accused growers of using braceros to replace farmworkers already living in the U.S., and keeping the braceros isolated in camps where they were vulnerable to exploitation. Congress finally ended that program during the civil rights era.

One worker advocate, who for legal reasons didn't want to be identified, concludes, "When you look at where our agricultural system is headed today, what's growing is the worst possible alternative. We're creating a permanent underclass of workers with fewer rights, isolated from the communities around them. While we're trying to limit some of the worst abuses, these programs should really be abolished."


Farmworkers brought to the U.S. in the H-2A visa program harvest melons early in the morning in a field near Firebaugh, in the San Joaquin Valley.  The temperature at the time, about 9 in the morning, was over 95 degrees, and would reach over 110 in the afternoon.  These workers are Cora indigenous people, recruited from the Mexican state of Nayarit.  It was their second day of work in the U.S. and they were not yet accustomed to the heat.  One worker fainted and got a nosebleed from the heat  They worked for the Rancho Nuevo Havesting Co. labor contractor, in a field that belongs to the Fisher family, a large California grower.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022


By David Bacon
The Nation, 9/14/22

On the last day of the 23-day march from Delano, 5000 farmworkers and supporters headed for the state capitol building in Sacramento.

BERKELEY, CA - 9/10/22 - In California's heated debate over farmworker voting rights, Democratic Party leaders are increasingly closing ranks against the state's governor, who refuses to sign a bill to make it easier for workers to win union recognition.  After a march by workers and supporters from Delano to Sacramento, President Biden himself weighed in.  

"I strongly support California's Agricultural Labor Relations Voting Choice Act (AB 2183)," Biden announced on September 6.  Noting that farmworkers had worked through the pandemic, he declared,  "The least we owe them is an easier path to make a free and fair choice to organize a union. Government should work to remove - not erect - barriers to workers organizing."

The barriers to organizing in the fields have historically been fearsome for many California farmworkers.  Some of the marchers, who braved temperatures of over 110 degrees as they walked through the San Joaquin Valley, had bitter memories of field elections that went disastrously wrong.  One particular catastrophe took place in the late 1990s in Watsonville, when growers organized an atmosphere of terror to keep strawberry pickers from joining the United Farm Workers.  

In mandatory meetings anti-union consultants warned there would be violence if the union was organized and that growers would fire people and go out of business.  These were not idle threats.  In 1995 VCNM, a large Watsonville strawberry company, plowed under a quarter of its fields after workers organized. The company later disappeared completely.  Then strawberry growers set up a company union to fight the UFW.  Dozens of pro-UFW workers were denied jobs or fired in the following seasons.

One worker, Efren Vargas, recalled, "My foreman told me how to make trouble for the UFW organizers when they came to the field to talk to us."  In 1998 he and other pro-UFW workers at Coastal Berry were beaten in the fields.  Vargas was hit in the head, knocked to the ground and kicked repeatedly.  Supervisor Joel Lobato told him, "You deserved to get fucked up."

After the beatings, the company union filed for an election with the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, to keep the UFW out.  The UFW protested that a fair election couldn't be held in that atmosphere, but the ALRB went ahead anyway.  Workers went to vote in the fields where the beatings had taken place.  Predictably, the company union won.

This summer, when 26 UFW members and supporters began marching from Delano on August 3, they were hoping to end growers' ability to use fraudulent elections like the one at Coastal Berry.  When they arrived in Sacramento 23 days later, having traversed 330 miles, some remembered what happened in the fields of another notoriously anti-union grower, Gerawan Farming.

In 2013, in its effort to get rid of its obligation to negotiate a union contract, Gerawan foremen went into its peach orchards and vineyards, demanding that pickers sign a petition against the union. Supervisors shut down work entirely, and blocked entry to the fields and packing sheds, to pressure employees. One UFW supporter, Severino Salas, recounted threats that if the company had to sign a contract with the union, it would tear out the grapevines and trees.

The ALRB then conducted an election in the same fields where the threats had been commonplace. When the votes were finally counted, workers had lost their right to negotiate a union contract.  Gerawan had achieved its goal.  When workers have to vote in the fields, the voting booth isn't a pure isolated place where the world doesn't intrude.  It's part of the world where the threats are made.  Consequently, growers have tried to prevent any changes in the field voting procedure.

This year's march from Delano to Sacramento was not the first to try to remedy this situation.  Last year the union organized a similar peregrination.  Both were directed at California Governor Gavin Newsom, asking him to sign AB 2183, to give farmworkers an alternative to high-pressure field elections.  Last year Newsom vetoed the bill on the march's first day.  This year he waited until marchers had completed their 23-day trek before announcing that he would not sign this time either.

Farmworkers react with anger and dismay after United Farm Workers President Teresa Romero tells them that the Governor has announced he will not sign the bill.

AB 2183 proposes two alternative systems for voting.  In one, growers would pledge in advance to remain neutral if workers try to organize, and agree not to require workers to attend anti-union meetings.  The grower would allow workers access to union organizers at work. When the union asks for an official election, the board would inform the company and mail ballots to all the workers, who would fill them out at home and send them back.  Workers could ask for ballots directly from the ALRB.  

In the other alternative, where growers don't agree to neutrality, workers could sign union authorization cards at home, and the union would then submit them to the ALRB.  The labor board would then compare the cards to a list of eligible employees.  If a majority have signed, the company would be obligated to negotiate a contract.  This system already exists for California's public employees.

Unions far beyond the UFW have fought for labor law reform for years to provide alternatives like these.  During the Obama administration the AFL-CIO sought passage, unsuccessfully, of the Employee Free Choice Act.  That would have allowed the same "card check" process, avoiding an election on the employer's property.  Unions made another push, after President Biden took office, for the PRO Act, which would also make it harder for employers to use intimidation tactics.

Last year Governor Newsom argued that he had concerns over the "security" of the ballots.  This year Newsom's communications director Erin Mellon told the Fresno Bee that although he supports changes in state law to make it easier for workers to organize, "we cannot support an untested mail-in election process that lacks critical provisions to protect the integrity of the election and is predicated on an assumption that the government cannot effectively enforce laws."

This was a strange argument, since absentee voting is used extensively in California in general elections (including his own recall election), so there's plenty of experience with it.  Peter Schey, director of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law in Los Angeles, responded, "Passage of this bill would provide California's farmworkers with a variety of means for casting their votes, including voting by mail and dropping off ballots at designated locations. These and related provisions in the bill will simply provide farmworkers with more meaningful opportunities to exercise their longstanding right to vote in union elections."

Newsom seems blind to the existence of grower intimidation, which the absentee process is designed to make more difficult.  Growers and their allies argue that intimidation is not a problem.  Republican Latino political consultant Mike Madrid, for instance, claimed,  "These are not issues of huge concern.  They are of symbolic concern."  The argument filed by the California Farm Bureau Federation against the bill states, "This bill would strip agricultural employees of their rights to express their sentiments about unionization in secret-ballot elections conducted by the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, free from fear, intimidation, coercion, or trickery exerted by anyone interested in the outcome."

According to Schey, however, "There is no question but that these [in the field] voting conditions create opportunities for voter intimidation and prevent many farmworkers from participating in an election out of fear of employer reprisals. While the Agricultural Labor Relations Act prohibits the use of intimidation by employers, it is our experience that the reality on the ground is that agricultural employers regularly use fear-instilling tactics to prevent unionization."

UFW President Teresa Romero and union co-founder Dolores Huerta march with union veterans to the state capitol to call on the Governor to sign AB 2183

Governor Newsom's rationales for opposing AB 2183 may have less to do with the security of the ballots, however, and more with his own relationship with growers.  According to Sacramento journalist Dan Bacher, Newsom has received over $977,000 in campaign donations from the agricultural industry.  "That figure doesn't include funds raised to fight his recall," Bacher says, "which included $250,000 from Stewart and Lynda Resnick, billionaire agribusiness owners of the Wonderful Company."  In the 2018 election cycle the Resnicks, the world's largest almond growers, contributed $116,800, while E.J. Gallo, another storied and wealthy grower, gave the governor $58,400.

Newsom agreed to put his own interest in the PlumpJack Group, which he founded with billionaire Gideon Getty in the 1980s, into a blind trust when he became governor.  But during the years of his ownership the company expanded from being an operator of restaurants and boutique hotels to an important agribusiness enterprise.  It is now a major vineyard owner, with four estate vineyards, producing between 50,000 and 75,000 cases of wine each year.  A decade ago PlumpJack paid $400,000 per acre for one 45-acre vineyard, and this year bought another in Napa Valley for $14.5 million, from another wealthy grower, Robert Mondavi.  

In the state legislature, each year AB 2183 has passed both houses by substantial majorities.  Taking the side of the union, and urging the governor to sign the voting rights bill, legislators have been joined by Vice-President Kamala Harris, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro.  Helping to organize this Democratic Party pressure is Cesar Chavez' granddaughter, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, now White House director of Intergovernmental Affairs.

Politicking and inner-party infighting, however, should not obscure the fundamental issue of workers' rights.  Growers, like employers generally, want to control the voting process as much as they can, not from some altruistic interest in the sanctity of the vote, but because they want to keep the union from being organized.

In the end, however, it's really no business of the growers where farmworkers vote.  If the right to decide on whether to organize a union or not belongs to workers, and only to them, they should be able to exercise that right at home or away from the field, or wherever they want. 


Indigenous Mexican farmworkers join members of the American Indian Movement in calling on the Governor to respect the labor rights of farmworkers.


Faces of the marchers and their supporters


Chicano organizations and lowrider car clubs brought their flags and exquisitely restored vehicles to support farmworker rights.

Monday, September 5, 2022


Environmental and labor organizers reflect on hard-won lessons
By David Bacon
Sierra Magazine, Aug 31 2022

Farmworker marchers in the heat of California's San Joaquin Valley.

In 2020, Washington State passed the Climate Commitment Act, and when it went into effect on January 1, 2022, Rosalinda Guillen was appointed to its Environmental Justice Council. The appointment recognized her role as one of Washington's leading advocates for farmworkers and rural communities.

Guillen directs Community2Community Development, a women-led group encouraging farmworker cooperatives and defending labor rights. She has a long history as a farm labor organizer and in 2013 helped form a new independent union for farmworkers, Familias Unidas por la Justicia. Guillen agreed to serve on the council but with reservations. She feared that the law's implementation would be dominated by some of the state's most powerful industries: fossil fuels and agriculture.

"Its market-based approach focuses too much on offsets," she says. "Allowing polluting corporations to pay to continue to pollute is a backward step in achieving equity for rural people living in poverty for generations." Just as important to her, however, is that while the law provides funding for projects in pollution-impacted communities, it doesn't look at the needs of workers displaced by the changes that will occur as the production and use of fossil fuels is reduced.

The impact of that reduction won't affect just workers in oil refineries but farmworkers as well. "The ag industry is part of the problem, not just the fossil fuel industry," Guillen says. "They're tied together. Ag's monocrop system impacts the ecological balance through the use of pesticides, the pollution of rivers and clearing forests. As farmworkers, this law has everything to do with our miserable wages, our insecure jobs, and even how long we'll live. The average farmworker only lives to 49 years old, and displacement will make peoples' lives even shorter."

The key to building working-class support for reducing carbon emissions, she believes, is a commitment from political leaders and the environmental and labor movements that working-class communities will not be made to pay for the transition to a carbon-free economy with job losses and increased poverty. But the difficulties in building that alliance and gaining such a commitment were evident in the defeat of an earlier Washington State initiative, and the fact that the Climate Commitment Act lacked the protections that initiative sought to put in place.

In Washington State fields, at California oil refineries, and amid local campaigns around the country, this is the big strategic question in coalition building between the labor and environmental movements: Who will pay the cost of transitioning to a green economy?

Some workers and unions see the danger of climate change as a remote problem, compared with the immediate loss of jobs and wages. Others believe that climate change is an urgent crisis and that government policy should protect jobs and wages as a transition to a fossil-fuel-free economy takes place. Many environmental justice groups also believe that working-class communities, especially communities of color, should not have to shoulder the cost of a crisis they did not create. And in the background, always, are efforts by industry to minimize the danger of climate change and avoid paying the cost of stopping it. 


Bay Area labor activists demonstrate in solidarity with Standing Rock.

In Washington State, a missed opportunity  

Washington has been a battleground over these ideas, a bellwether in the national debate over how to make a truly just transition. Guillen is part of a statewide coalition among workers, unions, communities of color, and environmental justice organizations that was formed to campaign for an initiative that sought to establish the ground rules for such a just transition. Similar coalitions are growing in other states as well.

According to Jeff Johnson, former president of the Washington State Labor Council and Guillen's longtime political ally, "We have an existential crisis that is social, political, and racial, in addition to climate. And we know that the impact of climate change will hit those communities who had the least to do with causing it."

That understanding led Johnson, Guillen, and their allies to put the Carbon Emissions Fee Initiative on the Washington ballot in 2018. It would have charged polluters $15 per metric ton on the carbon content of fossil fuels sold or used, including in the production of electricity generated or imported in the state. While carbon tax bills have been introduced in other states, the initiative was unique because it would also have set up a fund guaranteeing workers income and benefits if they lost jobs in the transition.

The group that drafted and then campaigned for the measure included environmental justice organizations that did health mapping to show its benefits. Other environmental advocates documented its impact on clean air, water, and forests. Initiative backers brought in Native American nations, guaranteeing that they would have free, prior, and informed consent over the use of their land in any carbon reduction project.

As labor council president, Johnson sought to build support from unions by emphasizing the needs of workers. "A just transition is not just a retrofit," he says. "We have to build in labor standards for public expenditures, with apprenticeship and local hiring agreements to give access to people who've been locked out. It has to include project labor agreements, buying from vendors with clean standards in terms of both carbon content and labor."

The initiative was vastly outspent by industry, however. Fossil fuel corporations bankrolled an opposition budget of $31.5 million, while supporters raised $8 million. Johnson's council gave $150,000. His request for official endorsement of the initiative got support from 62 percent of the delegates to the state labor convention, but it needed two-thirds, and so the state labor council didn't endorse the measure. The failure reflected the fact that the state's building trades unions were firmly opposed, alleging that the initiative would cost jobs. In the general election, the alliance between industry with its huge expenditures and the building trades was enough to defeat the initiative, 56 to 44 percent.

The loss dramatizes a basic strategic problem confronting the developing labor-environmental alliance. Sections of the building trades have close relationships with industry, as do some environmental organizations. Those relationships make unity difficult around big steps to address climate change, and industry can deploy huge financial resources to defeat those steps, as it did with the initiative. Johnson cautions that within labor's ranks, the just transition approach was supported by almost two-thirds of Washington unions. "The initiative got 1.3 million votes, and at least 250,000 came directly from union members, and over 500,000 if we count their families."

Johnson's own political perspective challenged the ideas of union members from the beginning. He brought speakers to labor gatherings to talk about racism and immigration, in addition to climate change. "We have to reach our members and not fear talking with them honestly," he urges. "We have to break the historic weapon that's been used to divide us."  

Building unity

Derrick Figures, the Sierra Club's labor and economic justice director, has a similar perspective. "We work with activists, especially in largely brown and Black communities, who aren't included unless we struggle for it," he says. His office assists and coordinates the activity of over 100 organizers that the Sierra Club has assigned to climate justice work. "They are often people who come from affected communities," he notes, "and they spend a lot of time building relationships on the ground. We need to build an army of organizers, working on both labor and climate change."

Coalitions between labor and environmental groups, Figures believes, are forged through fighting for local projects, as well as broader initiatives. He points to several agreements in which those organizers have provided research, resources, and organizational support for concrete gains. "We have a community benefit agreement, for instance, in Alabama and California for the manufacture of electric school buses," he notes. "Our Clean Transportation for All team, alongside Jobs to Move America, helped provide training to activists and joined unions in pushing for this."

These are not small goals. According to one report, replacing every gasoline or diesel school bus with a vehicle-to-grid electric one "would create a total of 61.5 GWh of extra stored energy capacity-enough to power more than 200,000 average American homes for a week ... power output equivalent to over 1.2 million typical residential solar roof installations or 16 average coal power generators."

The Sierra Club, along with Earthjustice, the Center for Biological Diversity, and CleanAirNow KC also sued Postmaster General Louis DeJoy over contracts to purchase gasoline-powered instead of electric trucks for the US Postal Service's 190,000-vehicle fleet. That lawsuit partnered with others that included the United Auto Workers. It put the environmental movement in alliance with unions in the plants that build the vehicles as well as unions representing the postal workers who drive them, who've fought DeJoy since Donald Trump appointed him.

Figures himself was formerly on the staff of the American Federation of Teachers. "Our clean transition teams work alongside labor on modernizing school buildings, for instance," he says, "and then partner with the AFT on developing curricula for children that's not so focused on the need for fossil fuel. Our theory of change is that any transition has to start with workers and communities." Labor-environmental coalitions, he believes, "have to develop permanent relationships between unions and environmental and just transition groups and move beyond a transactional way of working." 


Oakland janitors stand with Standing Rock

Organizing in the refineries

In Los Angeles, David Campbell, secretary treasurer of United Steelworkers Local 675, believes that building relationships and coalitions among union members and environmental activists depends on winning support among rank and file workers. And he's doing this work in one of the most challenging arenas, among his union members in the huge Southern California oil refineries, one of the largest concentrations of oil processing in the country. The Chevron complex in El Segundo, among several in Los Angeles where Campbell's union represents the workers, is the largest on the West Coast. It processes over 276,000 barrels of oil per day.

According to Campbell, "Refinery workers are open to new ideas, but they're also terrified that they'll lose a job that can pay $150,000 to $200,000 a year for a high school graduate. That's why we start by simply asking them what they think will happen because of climate change. Our members could see change coming when the pandemic started and people stopped buying gas. They saw the ads for electric vehicles during the Super Bowl. So we ask them what they think California will be like when the state converts to zero-emission vehicles. We ask them what they need. The answer has to come from them. And the same with the question about who are our allies."

Workers are suspicious of false promises. Campbell remembers bitterly the jobs lost when the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect at the beginning of the 1990s. "We were promised that the Trade Readjustment Assistance program would provide training, but there was no job at the end," he says. "So now we want something way beyond hollow promises."

To give workers more information, the union needed a study about the impact of transition away from fossil fuels. Local 675 was among the labor groups, including the California Federation of Teachers, that asked Robert Pollin to write A Program for Economic Recovery and Clean Energy Transition in California. "Using it, we concentrated on building a coalition of unions in manufacturing and the public sector, with environmental organizations," Campbell says. "We pushed in the legislature and governor's office for a just transition that would meet California's climate goals and create a million new jobs."  

California is one of the most ambitious states on climate action but also one in which the oil industry holds enormous power. For refinery workers, that corporate power is felt very directly, on the job. Local 675 therefore applied for and received a foundation grant to train in-plant organizers to counter company efforts to stir up fears of job loss. "I can't go into the refinery and have conversations about climate change and transition," Campbell explains. "I'm escorted by a management person everywhere I go, and that chills any discussion. We need our rank and file members to be the organizers in the field-inside organizers, who can talk to workers on the job."

United Steelworkers leaders don't have illusions about the power of industry or its opposition to changes that threaten profits. To Campbell, "this is an industry that has overthrown national governments [as BP helped to do in Iran in 1953], so we need real power if we're going to fight with it. They won't take our proposals lying down. We have to mobilize our rank and file and look for allies. That's how we'll build political power."


At the Richmond refinery gate.

Mobilizing communities outside the gates

Alliances outside the refinery gates start with a clear understanding about who the workers are inside them. The stereotype of an oil worker is a white man, but the demographics of the oil workforce have changed. According to Campbell, white men are still the largest racial group, but not the majority, among workers in LA-area oil refineries. The union has significant numbers of women, and Latino, African American, and Asian/Pacific Island workers. "In addition, most of our members live in the community they work in, which means they're exposed to all the emissions that come from the plant," he says.

The relationship between refinery workers and members of the community around them is the basis for a coalition being built in Richmond, California, where a Chevron refinery explosion 10 years ago led to 15,000 city residents seeking medical treatment. "The 2012 fire had a big role in creating a generation of young people who are looking at the status quo and saying, 'Enough is enough,'" says Alfredo Angulo, member of the Richmond Listening Project.

The fire led many community activists to reach out to workers in the refinery itself. Marie Choi, communications director for the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, helped organize a march to the refinery gate on the anniversary of the disaster. "Ten years ago, when the refinery exploded, it was the workers who had to go through the flames," she emphasizes.

Earlier this year those same workers, members of United Steelworkers Local 5, went on strike. "We were on their picket line every week," Choi recalled at an August 6 rally at the plant gate. "They were on strike over safety, to prevent future incidents like the one we're remembering today. That's common ground we share. The reality is that the transition is underway already. Unless we work together, we won't get the things we need-cleanup for the toxic site, safety nets for the workers, or gap funding for public services."

Connie Cho, a staff attorney at Communities for a Better Environment, says, "We need a plan for a full, coordinated phase-out of oil refineries by 2045, so that we can put in place a strong safety net for fossil fuel workers, invest in developing healthy local economies with good family-supporting jobs, and clean up toxic sites. If we wait until the industry is on its deathbed, we'll be too late."

Unity at the grassroots

That sense of urgency has infected other unions in the Bay Area as well. Starting in 2016, activists in the Alameda Labor Council (the county that includes the cities of Berkeley and Oakland) began participating in the upsurge of protests over climate change. In 2017, the People's Climate March led to organizing a labor/environmental climate convergence at the hall of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 595, in its zero-pollution building. More than 200 people came.

Michael Eisenscher, a founder of US Labor Against the War and a former delegate to the council, was one of its organizers. "We put the issue of just transition on our council's agenda," he recalls, "and talked about what it would require." Eisenscher and his coworkers organized a caucus that had official status in their labor council, and others were set up in nearby Contra Costa and San Francisco Counties as well.

Many participants sought a comprehensive analysis of the sources of climate change. "We wanted to make the connection between US foreign policy, militarism, and environmental issues," he says. "The military produces a large share of carbon emissions, and it defends the oil industry internationally in a struggle over the global control of resources."

Activists then organized an independent committee, Labor Rise for Climate, Jobs, Justice, and Peace. Others participated in forming the Labor Network for Sustainability, a national advocate for a labor policy based on the ideal of a just transition. As in Washington State, however, some building trades unions took a different approach. According to Eisenscher, industry proposals for carbon capture and storage were presented as an alternative to mandated limits on emissions.

Building labor support for a just transition obviously isn't a smooth road. Eisenscher, Johnson, and Campbell all agree that winning rank-and-file support is the key to coalition building based on rank-and-file mobilization. But, they wonder, is progress fast enough?

"We have less and less time," Johnson warns. "I'm not a doomsayer-that if X doesn't happen, we'll all die. In reality, as the crisis gets worse, the poorest people in the world will pay the price, migrating and looking for a safe place and something to eat. Climate change will become a leading cause of death. So our tactics have to change dramatically. We have to get into the streets and be willing to go to jail. We have to get truly progressive candidates elected. We must be committed that no one will be left behind."

In Los Angeles, veteran labor/climate organizer Veronica Wilson agrees. "But while it's inspiring to see young people 11 or 12 in the streets, it's terrifying at the same time. They're using tactics the labor movement has prided itself on-disrupting meetings and going into the streets. And where are we?" she asks. "We still have a huge base of thousands of members, but incrementalism doesn't do it."

Wilson also warns that in coalitions with environmental justice organizations, especially those with younger activists, "We have to be willing to stand behind, not try to dominate. We have to listen to Native voices in particular, accepting that they and others outside our ranks have the knowledge and understanding we need."  

And in dealing with their own members, unions need patient education to help them understand the systemic sources of climate change, job loss, and the basic problems workers face. "Given our dire situation, it's hard to do. Convincing people that our economic system contributes to all this can be too much to take on all at once. But we can't continue on the same path if we want to change the structures that are killing people on this planet."


Marching together to the refinery

Tuesday, August 16, 2022


Photoessay by David Bacon
The Nation, 8/17/22

"Housing is a Human Right!"

OAKLAND, CA  7/26/22 -- Seven years ago people began setting up what became Oakland's largest and oldest encampment under a freeway maze by a train yard, as the city's housing crisis grew increasingly serious.  Some folks drove RVs and trailers into the huge space next to an old railroad trestle, used decades ago to move boxcars between the port and army base and the main rail yard.  Other home seekers set up tents or even more informal housing.  One enterprising individual even built a room up under the trestle ties twenty feet off the ground.  In an environment a camp resident compared to the wild west, it  provided safety and some peace during the night.
The camp lines Oakland's old Wood Street, which was cleared to build the freeway maze leading to the Bay Bridge.  In one small section residents and supporters erected several small homes and a common area for meetings, entertainment and other collective activities.  The structures are made of cob - a mixture of straw, clay and sand - so they called it Cob on Wood.
Fires in the camp began to increase a year ago - over 90 in the last year.  The worst broke out two weeks ago, on July 11.  Propane cylinders used for cooking and heating exploded in a blaze so hot that vehicles parked under or near the trestle were incinerated.  Residents fled.  This time no one died, but last April one man lost his life in a smaller conflagration, when his converted bus filled with smoke and he couldn't get out.  
Firefighters responded to these fires, but there is no hydrant near Cob on Wood.  To reach the informal homes they have to stretch hoses over hundreds of feet.  A city audit in April, 2021 documented 988 fires in 140 encampments over the previous two years.  Fires in camps of unhoused people made up 12.5 percent of all Oakland blazes requiring fire department response, and cost the lives of two people during that time.
A week after Cob on Wood's last big fire CalTrans announced it would close the area and evict the residents.  The day after the announcement, however, unhoused people signed individual legal complaints, and their lawyers convinced Superior Court Judge William Orrick to issue a temporary restraining order barring CalTrans' planned action. While the injunction was still temporary, residents feared the eviction would happen anyway, and appealed to supporters to come bear witness.  The day following the judge's order a Highway Patrol SUV showed up, escorting a group of workers and heavy equipment.  After standing around for an hour they left, perhaps in compliance with the TRO or maybe to evade interfering photographers and witnesses.  
Two days later Orrick extended his order, saying that replacement housing had to be found for residents before they could be displaced.  "I understand everybody wants to wash their hands of this particular problem, and that's not going to happen," he told authorities during a zoom hearing.  When he asked them to detail their plans for providing replacement housing, none could provide any.  Residents say, however, that CalTrans and the railroad have been slowly clearing areas under the freeway and near the train tracks for weeks.  Last week Oakland city police tased and then arrested one camp resident when he resisted efforts to remove people from the section of the area that is city land.  In this property checkerboard some pieces belong to Oakland, some to CalTrans and some to the BNSF Railroad.  Residents have no way to know which piece of land belongs to whom.
Last May the state gave Oakland a $4.7 million grant to house 50 of the 200+ people who live at Cob on Wood, but the city hasn't used it to create any housing.  Nevertheless, Governor Gavin Newsom criticized the judge's decision, unhappy with any delay in moving the residents out.  "This encampment is risking public health and safety," he said in a press statement.
More than 5000 unhoused people live in Oakland, but the city only has 598 year-around shelter beds, 313 housing structures and 147 RV parking spaces.  All are filled.  United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing Leilani Farha visited Oakland in 2018, and told reporter Darwin Bondgraham, "I find there to be a real cruelty in how people are being dealt with here," comparing Oakland's treatment to what she observed in Manila, Jakarta and Mexico City.  In those cities, she observed, homelessness is basically tolerated, while in the U.S., a far wealthier country, being unhoused is criminalized.
"These are communities," Cob on Wood resident John Janosko told Oaklandside reporter Natalie Orenstein following the July 22 hearing.  "People stay at these places because they feel safe there."  Nevertheless, the judge made it plain that the respite was temporary, and that eventually the encampment dwellers would have to go.  Where is still the big question, however.



Small homes created by residents and supporters.


The Highway Patrol bring in workers to clear part of the encampment.


Workers brought to clear the encampment.


Authorities bring in a big scoop on caterpillar treads.


Trailers, toys and tires.


A resident loads belongings into a pickup truck.


Zelda Fitzgerald, a supporter, walks into the camp.


A home built above the ground, under the tracks.


Jason is a resident.


"Keep the fuck out!'


Jason looks at the impact of the last fire.


Someone is fixing up this motorcycle.


Jake gets angry about people who steal belongings.


"Under video surveillance"


A wall of picture frames and plywood.


A living room or artist studio.


A car burned in the last fire.


When these cars were burning they had to close the freeway above.


Devastation under the freeway.


How hot the fire must have been!


All that's left is this tire rim.


Each space under the pilings is a room.


Who or what is the trash?


Benjamin Choyce died from smoke inhalation in his converted bus.