Oakland workers fight to live in their city

December 22, 2017

Frank Jones reports on a strike by city employees who are struggling with rents in their gentrifying city--and a Democratic administration that seemingly could care less.

SOME 2,000 Oakland city workers represented by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021 went on strike for a week in early December to defend decent working-class living standards in a region that's becoming a playground for the well to do.

"The city workers are getting treated unfairly," says Local 1021 member Duvon, who has been on the job for 15 years. "The city collects business and rent taxes. Oakland is one of the most expensive cities in the country, but they don't want to give back to people who get out there and make it happen--you know the workers."

The 1021 membership is quite varied in working conditions, hours per week and pay. Workers run the gamut from seasonal parks activity staff to road maintenance crews, parking enforcement, building inspectors, emergency dispatchers and librarians.

The International Federation of Professional and Technical Employees (IFPTE) Local 21, which represents 1,000 city managers, lawyers, architects, engineers and professionals, struck concurrently, while International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 1245 refused to cross the picket line of both striking unions. The strike was suspended after seven days for mediation.

City workers walk the picket line in Oakland, California
City workers walk the picket line in Oakland, California (SEIU Local 1021 | Facebook)

The main issues in the contract fight are wages and the city's practice of replacing full-time permanent jobs with part-time temporary ones. The union called an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) strike on December 5 after seven months of insulting proposals from the city.

"We didn't want this strike," says Dave Velez, a building inspector and 1021 shop steward. "We have members living paycheck to paycheck. But we felt this was the only way to get them to take this process seriously. The mood among the workers is disappointed, frustrated in the process but determined."

After the strike, the city offered a 4 percent raise for one year followed by a 1 percent raise in year two--this in a city where rents rose by over 5% last year. The union rejected this offer and demanded 4 percent for both years as well as stronger language on part-time work. The strike is suspended during formal mediation over those differences.

WAGES IN rapidly gentrifying Oakland are a big issue. "There are lots of people who are making $18 or $20 an hour," says 1021 member Victor Harris, "which you can't live on in this city."

Library worker Lina Hernandez added:

The state of Oakland is untenable if money goes to developers and not housing, homelessness and the dumping crisis. At the end of the day, we care a lot about the residents. Most of us live here but so many of us have been kicked out, pushed to Brentwood or Oakley and have to commute back while the city keeps painting this picture of this perfect rosy wonderful investment opportunity in Oakland.

Workers are particularly incensed since Local 1021 took furlough days under city pressure after the financial crisis of 2008. But now that there is a recovery, workers are still being told "there is no money." It is particularly galling to hear in the Bay Area, a region that is both awash in billions in tech capital and controlled exclusively by the most liberal edge of the supposedly pro-worker Democratic Party.

The idea that "there is no money" to pay the people whose work makes a city run enough to live and raise a family only makes sense when you realize that "there is no money" isn't a statement of fact, but a political program known as austerity--one that's being pushed by Democrats and Republicans alike.

Anyone in Oakland can see where the money is--and where it isn't. You can't look at the sky without seeing a new condo development or tech office blocking your view. Look down from the towers under the freeways, and you will see the homeless encampments.

But low hourly rates for workers are only part of the problem. Much like in the nonunion fast-food industry, many 1021 city workers struggle with few hours and at-will employment. The city has over the years increased the number of part-timers to over 50 percent of the workforce.

According to Dave Vellez:

They make people part time because they don't want to pay benefits," says Vellez. "The City Charter even specifies what positions can be part time but they are violating their own charter. We went through it on this issue two years ago. They promoted some part-timers to full time, but then for new hires hired part-timers, so we're back to worse than where we were... It definitely affects a worker's willingness to stand up if something is not right. Part-time workers are less involved in the workplace because they can be fired at will.

Lina Hernandez, a temporary part-time worker with Oakland Public Libraries, spoke about her experience:

We only get 18 hours a week, 18 very disparate hours where we can't fulfill the services the city services the residents need and deserve. Temps get all the same rights, but not the protections of longevity of employment. We fear speaking out because we could lose employment.

HERNANDEZ'S POINT about services is key. The working conditions of city employees are the living conditions of Oakland residents. Velez explains how short-staffing hurts city services:

911 dispatchers are so short-staffed that some are mandated 80 hours. That can mean 16-hour shifts with an eight-hour break in between. You might call 911, and they could be on the 15th hour of their shift.

To give you an example from my department, when I started 10 years ago, we had 60 inspectors to do 200 inspections. Now we have 40 inspectors to do 260...We're only human and can only do so much. It's sad that we had to have the Ghost Ship fire for them to decide to hire new fire and building inspectors.

Velez added that 1021 made proposals for hiring workers to deal with street maintenance and cleaning up endemic illegal dumping of trash and construction debris in Oakland's working-class flatlands, and the city responded that this was a matter of "policy" decided by the City Council, and not something that the union could bargain over.

In Oakland, those policy decisions are all debated within the Democratic Party, since Republicans are almost non-existent in the liberal Bay Area. Which makes it all the more striking that the city has taken such hard line against its workers.

On November 2, 500 city workers walked off the job midday in a rehearsal for the current strike. They picketed Mayor Libby Shaaf's "state of the city" address.

"We are worried about a new political trend brought in by the new [real estate] developers," says Velez. "More developer money means them getting control of the political system here. We're seeing a change of political climate from my perspective to a much more confrontational stance."

At the beginning of the strike, many workers hoped that Oakland's liberal City Council would mollify what they saw as Shaaf's intransigence, but the Council couldn't agree on offers acceptable to the union, which led to mediation.

The problem is that while some Council members might disagree with Shaaf on a few points here and there, they fundamentally agree on managing cities for capitalist development plans.

This isn't just a Bay Area phenomenon. On the state level, Democrats do the same thing: they force furloughs and wage cuts or freezes when the economy is in crisis, and then when times are better, they stick to the "austerity" and "fiscal responsibility" script, keeping corporate taxes low and budgets lean.

This is why the union's real power isn't its influence in the City Council, but in using its power to strike, and to publicly connect the issues of gentrification with wages, working conditions and services.

ALL WORKING people in Oakland should support city workers and not fall for divide-and-rule tactics pitting us against each other. Local 1021 city workers are fighting and sacrificing not just for themselves, but for the rest of Oakland workers.

If they can win better pay and working conditions, it means that they are more likely to stay in Oakland and have a decent life, that other employers will feel the pressure to match those increases, and that other workers will feel that much more confidence for fight for themselves. No strike is guaranteed to win wage gains, but every strike puts a little more fear into the bosses.

However, the union movement can also organize more actively to make this argument. There are lessons to learn from other Oakland 1021 campaigns about how to build a stronger strike. For instance, port workers in 2012 shut down the port and disrupted the airport with the help of community pickets. The bargaining unit at the port is small, but was able to build a campaign that brought in broader forces and picketers beyond the port workers themselves.

Then there is the 2014 Lift Up Oakland campaign to raise the minimum wage from $8.25 to $12.25, spearheaded by Local 1021 along with other major unions. While the campaign didn't involve strikes, it demonstrated the support that can be won from Oakland workers if unions wage a public fight.

There are no pat answers or easy one-to-one comparisons, but the new aggressiveness by the city puts a premium on thinking seriously about these questions. Short ULP strikes have sometimes worked in the past, but they may not be enough moving forward.

The clash between SEIU 1021 and the Oakland city government comes in the context of a Trump presidency and a national legal assault on public-sector unions. The Democratic Party has always been, at best, a fair-weather friend of labor, and the seas are about to get a lot choppier.

It's urgent that working people in Oakland support Local 1021 and help build off the momentum of the one-week strike, both to start building momentum against the national anti-union onslaught and to win concrete gains that can keep the city's working class living in the town that it built and maintains every day.

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