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labor In California, a “Labor Slate” Aims to Redefine the Relationship Between Unions and Politics

The plat­form empha­sizes union jobs, afford­able hous­ing, Medicare for All, pub­lic edu­ca­tion and trans­porta­tion, as well as increas­ing tax­es on the rich.

PHOTO BY MICHAEL MACOR/SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE VIA GETTY IMAGES,

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.”

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