As labor’s political betrayals have multiplied, at the hands of Democrats and Republicans alike, it has become an AFL-CIO mantra that union members should run for office themselves, to insure that workers have a reliable voice on local school boards, city councils, or state legislatures.
Official rhetoric on this subject is cheap and easy; running successful candidates is not. Even labor activists, with considerable organizational skill and experience, have found it difficult to wage winning campaigns for public office.
One disadvantage, resume-wise, is that the demands of local union leadership or activism often leave little time left for personal involvement in community affairs or service on local boards and commissions. When a labor candidate runs for office, they may be well known among fellow members or in broader union circles but much less familiar to the electorate at large. Opposing candidates tend to be well-connected lawyers, business people, and other “civic leaders” long identified, for better of worse, with local public policy making.
Too many local union and central labor council officials, who are key endorsement decision-makers, don’t seem to have gotten the memo from the national AFL-CIO about backing real labor candidates.
When a union member runs for office as an insurgent Bernie Sanders-inspired Democrat or as a third party candidate, he or she runs into another obstacle within the labor movement itself. Too many local union and central labor council officials, who are key endorsement decision-makers, don’t seem to have gotten the memo from the national AFL-CIO about backing real labor candidates, as opposed to non-members masquerading as “friends of labor.” Too often the latter get union money and support anyway—either because they’re incumbents or the more “pragmatic” Democratic primary choice. (See Clinton, Hillary, circa 2016)
Beckles vs. Wicks
In June, a rank-and-file Teamster from Richmond, California. astounded many observers by placing second in Assembly District 15, which covers all or part of several well-known East Bay cities, including Richmond, Berkeley, and Oakland. Two-term Richmond city councilor and longtime Contra Costa County worker Jovanka Beckles now faces a November run-off against Buffy Wicks, a fellow Democrat and former Obama Administration official recently arrived in the district.
The main force originally propelling Beckles’ candidacy was the Richmond Progressive Alliance, a political formation rooted in labor and the community, but mainly focused on city problems in the past. RPA volunteers have been joined by Oakland and Berkeley members of one of the fastest growing Democratic Socialist of America (DSA) chapters in the country, which includes many labor activists. Beckles has also gotten key help from Our Revolution, and longer established local political groups. OR national leader Nina Turner barnstormed for Beckles last spring and will return to the Bay Area for campaign events with Danny Glover in late September.
Thanks to her past role as a Clinton Super-PAC director and her continuing ties to national Democratic Party donor networks, Buffy Wicks was the beneficiary of $1.2 million in AD 15 primary spending. Wicks’ funders include wealthy donors tied to Lyft, Uber, and Bay Area tech firms, charter school interests, major landlords, and a health care industry PAC. Wicks’ biggest booster was the “independent expenditure” committee known as Govern for California, which gets “major funding” from David Crane, a wealthy Bay Area investor, charter school advocate, and opponent of tax reform, who served as an advisor to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Co-founded by Walmart board member Gregory Penner, Govern for California spent nearly $500,000 on Wick’s primary race. In contrast, Beckles raised and spent only about $160,00, mostly derived from small donations because she ran as a “corporate money free/people powered” candidate.
Can Labor Deliver?
The November 6 showdown between Beckles, a strong Sanders supporter, and Wicks, who managed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 California primary campaign, has given some unions a chance to do penance for their short sighted embrace of Clinton. It’s also an important test of whether East Bay labor’s post-primary backing for one of its own will translate into the kind of union voter turn-out necessary to overcome the impact of Buffy Wicks’ big bucks. “We don’t have a million dollars to send out a bunch of mailers,” Beckles said, in a recent appeal for more volunteers. “We’re not trying to elect another status-quo Democrat.”
During the AD 15 primary, some California unions associated with Labor for Bernie (and long supportive of Labor Notes)—like NUHW, ATU, and UPTE-CWA—backed Beckles because of her support for workers’ and tenants’ rights, single payer healthcare, and getting big money out of politics. They were joined by Bay Area affiliates of national unions missing from the Sanders camp two years ago, including Beckles’ own Teamsters union and SEIU Local 1021, a big northern California public employee organization which represents Richmond city workers.
Since June, Beckles backers like Local 1021 political organizer Gabriel Haaland have succeeded in broadening the labor base for her campaign. It now includes the Alameda and Contra Costa County Labor Councils, the California Labor Federation, both statewide teachers’ unions, AFSCME, the California Nurses Association, and other new recruits to the cause. “How often do we get a chance to elect one of our own?” asks Haaland, who has spent the last year helping Beckles defy Democratic Party insider predictions that her bid for higher office was hopeless.
Kathryn Lybarger, leader of AFSCME Local 3299 at the University of California and state AFL-CIO president, expresses similar enthusiasm for “a candidate so strongly aligned with our values and so representative of our members…We are utterly confident that she will continue to fight for us when she gets to Sacramento.”
The Contra Costa County Building Trades Council, a reliable ally of Chevron, Richmond’s largest employer, is opposed to Beckles--despite her past advocacy of project labor agreements, the usual litmus test for political endorsing by the trades. Other Wicks backers include local or regional affiliates of the Laborers, Plumbers, Carpenters and Sheet Metal Workers. Ignoring the fact that two major SEIU locals and the union’s state council favor Beckles, SEIU President Emeritus Andy Stern also supports Wicks. (Since retiring from SEIU ten years ago, Stern has become a corporate board member and consultant to gig economy firms.)
This Labor Day weekend, Beckles is scheduled to appear at a teachers’ picnic and a SEIU contract campaign rally at Kaiser Permanente. If her consistent solidarity with local labor causes is reciprocated by campaign work by enough fellow members of these and other unions, Beckles will indeed be on her way to Sacramento in January. And there she can be a rare “corporate free” voice in a legislative body too often swayed by big business lobbyists and the powerful interests they represent.