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Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA)

“Refinery Town” points the way forward to protect communities and defend rights

By Garrett Brown - The Pump Handle, January 16, 2017

Let’s just say there was a working class community – of various skin colors – which was dominated for a century by a giant corporation who ran the town with bought-and-paid-for politicians, and whose operations regularly poisoned the community, threatened the health and safety of its workforce, and periodically blew up, sending thousands to the hospital. How could they even begin to protect the health of their families and community, and exercise their democratic right to a local government that put the needs of the vast majority ahead of corporate profits?

The answer to that question can be found in a book that went on sale today: Refinery Town; Big Oil, Big Money, and the remaking of an American City by labor journalist Steve Early. The portrait of Richmond, California, a city of 110,000 people in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the decade-long political organizing and campaigns by the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), contains many lessons that will be very useful to keep in mind as a new political regime takes power this week as well.

Richmond was a classic “company town” after Standard Oil of California (now Chevron) set up its oil refinery – then the third largest in the country – across the Bay from San Francisco in 1905. For several decades the oil company had a desk in City Hall to make it easy for the politicians its funding and support helped elect to be aware of Chevron’s opinion on city issues. Chevron’s oil tanker-sized political influence trailed in its wake conservative Black community leaders (Richmond was a majority African-American city and now is roughly one-third Black, one-third white and one-third Asian), as well as the unions representing firefighters and police, and the local building trades unions whose motto frequently has been “jobs at all costs.”

Starting at the dawn of the 21st century this began to change with the rise of RPA, initiated by political and labor movement veterans from back East who went on to make deep connections in Black, white and Asian neighborhoods in the city. Year-around activities, a lot of shoe leather, and patient, face-to-face campaigning resulted in electing and re-electing a Green Party mayor (Gayle McLaughlin), electing numerous City Councilors, defeating well-funded efforts to build a casino on coastal land, and hard-ball negotiations with Chevron for community benefits to accompany a major renovation of the 100-year-old refinery. In the November 2016 elections, the RPA succeeded in electing a majority in the seven-member City Council and passing the first rent-control law in California for more than two decades.

All of this was achieved over the opposition of Chevron – which outspent the RPA by as much as 20-to-1 in several election cycles in direct and indirect support of its favored candidates – and despite all the ups and downs of community organizing and the internal political/personality disputes that occur everywhere.

The Chevron Way: Big Oil’s Vacation From East Bay Politics Won’t Last Long

By Steve Early - CounterPunch, November 22, 2016

In the two election cycles prior to 2016, the global energy giant Chevron spent more than $4 million on city council or mayoral races in Richmond, CA. Big Oil’s independent expenditures were so large two years ago that they drew widespread condemnation as a particularly egregious example of the unrestricted corporate spending unleashed by the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision.

In our Chevron refinery town of 110,000, rent control was on the ballot this year. That’s not an issue that Chevron cares anything about. So, as company spokesman Leah Casey explained to the Richmond Confidential last month, her employer “decided not to participate in the 2016 local Richmond election,” preferring to remain “focused on keeping the refinery running safely and partnering with the city and the community on our modernization project.” (As a nearby neighbor, I found Chevron’s new “focus” particularly reassuring.)

This fall, the California Apartment Association replaced the oil company as our biggest local spender. According to Kathleen Pender in the SF Chronicle, the CAA and its allies raised $2.5 million to defeat rent control in multiple Bay Area communities on Nov. 8. In Richmond, the CAA pumped nearly $200,000 into its losing effort here (three times more than rent control advocates raised). By a 65 to 35 percent margin, Richmond voters approved a new system of rent regulation, a rent rollback to July, 2015 levels, and the legal requirement that landlords have “just cause” for evicting tenants.

Once again, Richmond progressives were celebrating a singular local triumph over “big money in politics” on election night. The strongest pro-rent control candidates in the 2016 council race, both RPA members, finished first and second in a field of nine. In similar fashion two years ago, three members of the Richmond Progressive Alliance running for re-election to the city council won an upset victory–despite Chevron’s record-breaking spending against them.

Among that year’s winners was a persistent nemesis of Big Oil, former mayor Gayle McLaughlin, the California Green who sought to increase Chevron’s local taxes and county property tax bill to raise more revenue for cash-starved city services.

The Chevron Way: Polluting California and Degrading California

By various - International Transport Federation, et. al., November 2016

In the recent election, Chevron-backed campaigns lost bigtime, despite the $61 million the company has spent to influence California elections since 2009. That’s far more than any other oil company spend in state elections. The report, by the International Transport Workers Federation, was released Nov. 17 at the Chevron gates by a coalition including the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), and more.

Members of the coalition said the report, The Chevron Way: Polluting California and Degrading Democracy, will educate the public about the corrupting influence of corporate money and alert politicians that they will be judged on whether they act in the public interest or in Chevron’s interest.

In this election, in State Assembly and State Senate races, candidates heavily backed by Chevron lost. In Monterey County, Chevron spent $1.5 to oppose a ballot measure to ban fracking and expanded oil drilling. Despite being outspent 33 to 1, the measure passed.

In Richmond, Chevron sat out this election, having spent $3 million in the last election, when its candidates lost anyway. This year, two additional progressive candidates won seats on the city council and a longstanding Chevron candidate was voted out.

Chevron makes billions in profits from its huge retail and refining business in California, but has aggressively cut tax payments to federal, state and local governments. In 2015, the company paid no net income tax in the US, but instead banked nearly $1.7 billion in tax credits.

In 2015, Chevron had over $45 billion stashed in offshore accounts, including the company’s 211 active Bermuda subsidiaries, and the company’s global effective tax rate fell to below 3%.

Read the report (PDF).

Press Conference: The True Cost of Chevron Is Too High

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