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Populist Coalition Beats Back Chevron in California Refinery Town

The Richmond Progressive Alliance offers a model for big-picture progressive city politics.

More than 150 people protested at Chevron's annual shareholder meeting on May 30, 2012. The protest included workers at Chevron's Richmond refinery and local advocates from Richmond. (Photo: Caroline Bennett / Rainforest Action Network)

How did the working class “company town” of Richmond, California reclaim their community from the grip of Big Oil? Labor reporter Steve Early’s new book tells the story of the residents who, through years of community organizing and local politics, drastically improved Richmond, from raising the minimum wage to challenging evictions and foreclosures. Click here to order your copy of Refinery Town from Truthout.

Can progressive coalitions unite around common interests to successfully battle powerful foes? Yes is the answer, as this interview with Steve Early about his book Refinery Town reveals.

Mark Karlin: What are the demographics of Richmond, California, and its contrast to its neighbors, such as Berkeley?

Steve Early: Richmond is a blue-collar city of 110,000, just a few miles from Berkeley. It is 80 percent non-white. About 40 percent of its population is Latino, 30 percent African American, and 10 percent Asian. Nearly one-fifth of its families live at or near the poverty line. It has the lowest median income of 101 cities in the nine-county Bay Area and Latino family income is about $5,000 a year less than that citywide figure.

It’s definitely not a university town, like Berkeley. It’s been a city of industry for more than a century, growing up around a railhead and ferry to San Francisco, a Standard Oil refinery and a port area that included, during World War II, a Kaiser shipyard employing 100,000 workers.

What is the role of Chevron and the Chevron refinery in Richmond politics?

Until the early 21st century, Richmond City Hall and municipal politics were dominated by Chevron (nee Standard Oil). Big Oil is Richmond’s largest employer and a reliable patron of old-guard Democrats, Black or white, eager to do its bidding. Chevron’s political partners have included the Richmond Chamber of Commerce and local manufacturers’ association, various developers, the building trades, and often, equally conservative public safety unions.

Steve Early. (Photo: Robert Gumpert)Steve Early. (Photo: Robert Gumpert)In the last three election cycles alone, Chevron, its labor allies — and other big special interests — spent more than $7 million trying to elect business-friendly candidates and defeat activists who are trying to make their city safer, cleaner, greener and more equitable for all its residents. Chevron’s tendency to put production and profit ahead of workplace safety, community health and the future of the planet provides no shortage of issues to organize around between elections. Thanks to their year-round, non-electoral work, candidates fielded by the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) have won 10 out of the 16 municipal races they have entered since 2004.

What is the Richmond Progressive Alliance, and why should it be a role model for progressives?

The RPA is a 12-year-old membership organization and community-labor coalition, which is multiracial and working-class oriented. It helped elect the city’s current progressive “super-majority” of five out of seven members. The other two councilors have often been RPA allies on many issues, although current Mayor Tom Butt, a liberal Democrat and local environmentalist, did try to defeat rent control in Richmond (adopted by a 2-to-1 referendum margin last fall) and has disagreed with the RPA about development issues.

The RPA was formed by California Green Party members, dissident Democrats, political independents, socialists of varying stripes, trade unionists, environmental justice advocates, immigrant rights defenders, and other “single-issue” campaigners. They agreed to set aside differences on bigger picture issues and a sometimes overly competitive focus on their own narrower agendas in favor of creating a united front around achievable city-level goals. This ecumenical approach and a commitment to running viable, “corporate-free” candidates stands in sharp contrast to the self-defeating sectarian divisiveness and political marginalization of too much of the left.

What happened in 2014 and 2016 that was evidence progressive municipal party coalitions could be intersectional and succeed?

In Richmond’s last two municipal races, the RPA has fielded candidate slates that better reflected the diversity of the community. RPA councilors now include a Mexican American, an African American, a Korean American, a self-identified Black Latina lesbian and Gayle McLaughlin, an Irish American from Chicago who termed out as mayor in 2014 after eight years in that office.

The RPA steering committee is now majority female, people of color and much younger than in the past. Two of its new members were the top vote getters on November 8 in a Richmond Council field of nine. Melvin Willis, a 26-year-old organizer for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment who finished first was inspired to run by Bernie Sanders, and backed by Bernie’s post-campaign organization, Our Revolution.

Melvin grew up in Richmond. He has spent four years knocking on the doors of neighbors who have kids suffering from asthma because they live downwind from Chevron, who faced foreclosure by the big banks and loss of their home, or could not afford a sudden rent increase imposed by their out-of-town landlord. He’s now the youngest city councilor in Richmond history and someone committed to using elected office in a way that strengthens and builds grassroots organization.

When did the Chevron oil refinery fire occur, how many people did it impact and how did it affect progressive coalition building in Richmond?

As the US Chemical Safety Board has confirmed, Chevron suffered a catastrophic pipe failure and fire in August 2012 because of its own lax maintenance practices. When a leaking pipe burst, after being prodded, the resulting vapor cloud reached an ignition source almost immediately, creating a huge fireball. Nineteen first responders, including members of United Steel Workers Local 5, narrowly escaped death. Due to the towering column of toxic smoke and gas that was created, 15,000 downwind neighbors sought medical attention.

California’s Division of Occupational Health and Safety (Cal/OSHA) accused Chevron of 11 “willful” violations and assessed its largest fine ever — nearly $1 million. (Those citations and penalties are still being contested, four and a half years later.) Chevron pleaded “no contest” to six criminal charges filed by state and local prosecutors and agreed to pay $2 million in fines and restitution. Chevron was also placed on probation for three and a half years.

The city of Richmond sued Chevron based on its “neglect, lax oversight, and corporate indifference to necessary safety inspection and repairs.” Like the long-running environmental litigation involving Chevron and rain forest residents in Ecuador, this case has yet to be settled — and is far from going to trial. On the first anniversary of the Richmond fire, a “blue-green alliance” staged the largest protest in the city’s history, a march 2,500-strong led by our then-Green mayor, Gayle McLaughlin. USW members — and Chevron neighbors — are still waiting for Cal/OSHA to implement stronger refinery safety rules sometime this year, a fire-inspired effort nearly five years old.

Can you explain about the effort the Richmond City Council adopted to reduce home foreclosures by using eminent domain?

In 2012 Richmond had 900 foreclosures. By the end of 2013, 50 percent of Richmond homeowners were still saddled with underwater mortgages, and many owed an amount twice the current value of their property. Foreclosures were forcing poor and working-class families out of their homes, often leaving vacant dwellings behind, which led to neighborhood blight and further depression of local property values.

Truthout Progressive Pick

Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City

How did the working class “company town” of Richmond, California reclaim their community from the grip of Big Oil?

Click here now to get the book!

By a 4-to-3 vote, the city council majority voted to use the threat of eminent domain to force mortgage lenders to renegotiate the terms of their housing loans. (Actual use of Richmond’s eminent domain powers required a council “super majority” of five, which its left-liberal members did not have at the time.)

Big mortgage holders, like Wells Fargo, Bank of New York Mellon and Deutsche Bank, mobilized quickly to prevent this dangerous idea from spreading. Their PR and legal counter-attack campaign scared away much-needed allies on the city councils of neighboring communities. In late 2014 President Obama further undermined this anti-foreclosure strategy by signing a bipartisan bill forbidding any federal role in mortgage financing of homes taken by eminent domain.

Door-to-door canvassing among Richmond’s many financially distressed homeowners did lead to the recent successful defense of tenants in 10,000 rental units. Due to the pro rent-control vote on November 8, their rent payments were rolled back to the level of a year ago. Rent hikes will be regulated in the future, and landlords will not be able to evict tenants without just cause — a firewall, for now, against displacement of poor and working class people in Richmond threatened by broader Bay Area gentrification trends.

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