labor In California, a “Labor Slate” Aims to Redefine the Relationship Between Unions and Politics
The political influence of organized labor usually involves jockeying with other interest groups that are trying to sway Democratic politicians. In recent decades, this dynamic has achieved mixed results, at best. In California, one group of union activists is now trying to take a more direct approach: forming a “Labor Slate” of candidates, in what they hope will become a model for future election cycles.
Centered in the Bay Area, the idea for the Labor Slate effort began germinating last summer. Gaelan Ash, an AFSCME staffer and one of the Labor Slate’s organizers, said that even in progressive Northern California, “It’s a pain in the ass going up against so-called progressive politicians” who do not end up prioritizing the needs of the working class. “There are so many amazing labor leaders who would make better politicians,” he said. “[We realized] we need to make this much more about building an organization that’s membership based and rooted in labor.”
The project came together in full force earlier this year, taking advantage of the fact that everyone had more free time after the pandemic struck. Now, Labor Slate is an established organization with a full platform and a slate of six candidates—three of whom are running for City Council in the East Bay city of Hayward, and three who are running for various board positions in other Bay Area cities. Organizers say that they made the strategic choice to only back candidates who are running in nonpartisan races this November, in order to avoid an immediate clash with the established political parties. If all goes well, they hope to scale up to partisan races like those for California State Assembly in four to six years.
Labor Slate is funded by member dues of $5 a month. The group is not formally allied with any unions, but draws on the interest of true believers in the labor movement. All of the candidates the group nominates must agree to its platform, which was developed by an internal working group. The platform emphasizes union jobs, affordable housing, Medicare for All, public education and transportation, as well as increasing taxes on the rich. Jon Ezell, the group’s recording secretary and an ILWU member who works at San Francisco’s recently unionized Anchor Brewing Company, said that the platform committee had the advantage of having input from union members working directly on many of the issues — when discussing healthcare, for example, union nurses were in the room. The group’s platform, Ezell said, is intentionally broad, so that candidates can “fill in the gaps” based on local conditions.
Anchor Brewing’s union drive drew public support from elected officials in San Francisco. That opened Ezell’s eyes to the potential for building union power through electoral politics. “You can help people unionize,” he said, “or you can change the environment they unionize in.”
One of the Labor Slate’s candidates is Eduardo Torres, who is running for a board seat in the Ambrose Recreation and Park District in Bay Point, where he’s lived for 41 years. Torres is a longtime activist and organizer with Tenants Together, which promotes affordable housing and tenants’ rights in California. (The other five candidates are also members of unions or labor groups in the area). “I am part of the working class. We have elected officials that don’t look back at the community that helped get them elected,” Torres said. “We’re sick of our elected officials not doing what they should be doing, which is helping low income and working people.”
Though Labor Slate is a new and relatively small group, it has the advantage of being rich with trained organizers. Dozens of union locals are already represented in its membership. If it can find success with its first crop of candidates in November, it can lay claim to being a legitimate new model for union members to engage with local politics. Its promise is not just in who it gets elected, but in the potential for building a labor-centric approach to elections that sits outside of the Democratic Party — which has, on a national scale at least, largely come to take union support for granted.
For Torres, who grew up in a union household, the advantage of the Labor Slate is not just the phone banking and door-knocking it brings to his campaign, but also a sense of mutual accountability between candidate and cause. “It helps me see the bigger picture,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to be done. And it will be done by the working class.”