How progressives beat big oil and captured a company town

Cover of "Refinery Town" — published by Beacon Press, 2017.

Cover of "Refinery Town" — published by Beacon Press, 2017.

At a time when labor and the left are on the defensive, Steve Early’s “Refinery Town” is an inspiring tale of successful community organizing in Richmond, Calif.

By Bill Snyder

Big Oil. Big Soda. Big Development. Richmond, Calif., has had more than its share of corporate “Bigs” dictating its politics. It’s also suffered from decades of environmental disasters and rampant crime, turning the city into a symbol of failed local government and urban decay.

But after a new breed of results-oriented activists waged a decade-long campaign to gain power in the city, Richmond has become a symbol of another sort: How a local community can fight back against entrenched corporate power and win.

In 2006 Richmond became the largest city in the U.S. to elect a mayor from the Green Party. While Richmond still has plenty of problems, the rise of a progressive city government has shifted the balance of power and spurred marked improvements to the lives of its 108,000 residents.

“Progressives have made the city greener, healthier, and more equitable,” says Guild Freelancer Steve Early, author of “Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and the Remaking of an American City.”

Early spent 27 years as an organizer for the Communications Workers of America, before his family moved to Richmond from New England in 2012. Their new home featured a panoramic view of San Pablo Bay and the Long Wharf, the pier at which Chevron Oil loads and unloads tankers from all over the world. 

The 2,900-acre refinery on the west edge of the city employs about 1,200 workers and supplies gasoline and other petroleum products to much of California. Its pipelines run directly to San Francisco and Oakland airports, and the refinery processes 250,000 barrels, the equivalent of 10.5 million gallons, of crude oil every day.

By its nature, refining is a dangerous business. Even when the refinery’s equipment is running well, the complex processes that turn crude oil into a wide variety of products emits potentially dangerous and even carcinogenic air pollution. When something goes wrong, the results can be catastrophic.

A fire and explosion at the refinery in 2012 sickened thousands, and as Early recounts, the accident spurred community anger and engagement. “It was a pivotal event. The fire validated the critique that environmental justice activists had made of the company. It places corporate profit ahead of the health of the community,” he says.

Ultimately, Chevron was forced to pay a $1.3 million fine and make significant changes to safety and maintenance procedures at the refinery.

The long-running fight over the accident strengthened the hand of progressives in the city, but it wasn’t until 2016 that the Richmond Progressive Alliance, which already held the mayor’s office, managed to gain control of the city council.  

Steve Early. Photo by Robert Gumpert.

Steve Early. Photo by Robert Gumpert.

The path to power wasn’t a straight line or a string of unbroken successes. In 2012, the RPA and a local physician named Jeff Ritterman launched Measure N, a ballot initiative that would have levied a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks. Money from the tax would have funded a youth-sports program and health education.

The damage to teeth and overall health wrought by soda and other sugary drinks is much less dramatic than a fire and explosion, but it’s no less real. It’s no coincidence that robust sales of soda in African American and low-income communities are strongly correlated with diabetes, obesity and other serious conditions. Minority groups constitute roughly two-thirds of Richmond’s population, and approximately half of those children were growing up overweight or obese, Early says.

To no one’s surprise, the campaign against the soda tax by the American Beverage Association was much better funded than the Yes On N campaign.  The ABA spent some $2.5 million to defeat it during the 2012 election and other corporate forces kicked in an additional $1.2 million. while the RPA and its allies spent just $70,000 or about 19 percent of that huge pile of cash, according to Early.

 Well aware of the local electorate’s racial breakdown, Big Soda turned liberal talking points on their heads, charging that Measure N was racist and unfairly targeted low-income residents. “No more taxes on working people,” blared ads attacking Measure N.

 “The ABA’s local consultants recruited and deployed teams of paid canvassers to distribute ‘Vote N on N’ lawn signs in black and Latino neighborhoods. They enlisted Latino grocery store owners and hired former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown to deliver an anti-soda tax speech to NAACP members and Richmond ministers,” writes Early. 

Organized labor did not speak with one voice during that election. The Contra Costa Labor Council urged its affiliates to oppose Measure N, claiming that it could cost the jobs of Teamster drivers and workers at bottling plants. Other labor groups, including locals of the Service Employees International Union, and the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents BART workers, supported it. 

Not only did Measure N lose by a 2-1 margin, but the defeat took down RPA candidates who might otherwise have picked up more seats on the city council. Still, it was a valuable lesson for the progressives. “We did a bad job,” one activist told Early. “We didn’t realize what was coming and we didn’t build strong enough coalitions with the black community.”

For Early, Richmond has been a source of material as a writer and a venue for activism. Now 68, Early has been politically engaged since his days as an anti-war activist at Vermont’s Middlebury College. He attended law school and passed the bar, but has never practiced. Law, he says, was a skill he acquired to further his work as a labor organizer.

Early worked for the United Mine Workers for a time, helping to produce the union’s newspaper, but most of his career in labor was as a staff organizer and representative with the CWA, which is also the parent union of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, Local 39521. Guild Freelancers is a unit of the PMWG. Early campaigned for Senator Bernie Sanders, is active in the Media Workers and local politics in Richmond, and writes frequently for a variety of publications.

Published earlier this year, Refinery Town has been well-received and boasts a forward by SenatorSanders, who wrote: “This timely book offers ideas and inspiration for making change where it counts the most – among friends, neighbors and fellow community members.”