Jessica Lopez is an impressively focused 17-year-old. For two years, she went to campaign meetings after school and on weekends, attended city council hearings late into the night, and did her homework after that, sometimes until two in the morning.
As a youth leader in the Oakland organization Urban Peace Movement, Jessica was among the community members who helped push for a landmark good jobs agreement in Oakland’s Army Base redevelopment plan—the largest development project Oakland has seen in decades.
Jessica, who was born in Mexico and brought to East Oakland as a child with her parents, got involved in local activism through a program at her high school that connected her to Urban Peace Movement. She was troubled to see classmates drift in and out of juvenile hall for theft. “It made me think why, what made them do the things that they did, and it all came down to poverty,” she said. “They would steal a lot of our after school snacks, they would steal computers from our school.”
Jessica knew nothing about the Oakland Army Base, which had been closed since 1999 and in years of redevelopment planning since the city took it over in 2002. The 366-acre former military base, which once served as a major deployment station for U.S. soldiers shipped to Vietnam, is now being turned into a shipping, packaging and distribution center for the adjacent Port of Oakland. With this makeover come potentially thousands of new jobs that have been the target of a bold and nationally precedent-setting campaign.
The landmark jobs agreement, won by a broad coalition called Revive Oakland!, is the first in the nation to set labor and community standards around the rapidly growing and notoriously low-road warehouse and distribution industry. Oakland, organizers say, is being watched in other parts of the country as a model for setting standards that could begin to shift this sector, which supplies big retailers across the country and employs an estimated 200,000 workers in California, into one capable of providing middle-class jobs.
Good Jobs for Good Health
In a city wracked with deep inequities, the expected 5,000 jobs from both the City and Port’s portions of the project are enormously important. In some neighborhoods of East Oakland and West Oakland, which is adjacent to the base, the unemployment rates have climbed up to between 31-45 percent in 2010, according to a report by the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE).
One common thread among many of the organizations that have worked on the campaign is a belief that economic opportunity should be accessible to everyone and that development should lead to better health, a central goal of the East Oakland Building Healthy Communities initiative. Revive Oakland!’s 30 coalition members included groups such as EBASE, Urban Peace Movement, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), Oakland Community Organizations, Youth Uprising, and others that view this opportunity for good jobs as part of a long-term solution to improving their communities' health.
Both individual poverty and neighborhood poverty are linked to poorer health outcomes, according to a significant body of research studies. Oakland shows one of the starkest gradients in health based on neighborhood poverty levels, according to the Alameda County Public Health Department. This means that for each step up in neighborhood poverty, life expectancy goes down. People living in the highest poverty neighborhoods such as West Oakland (where 30 percent or more residents live in poverty) are expected to die almost 15 years before people living in wealthier neighborhoods like the Oakland Hills (where fewer than 10 percent of residents live in poverty).
‘We’re Supposed to Take Care of Each Other’
Shirley Burnell, a leader with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, has lived in West Oakland for more than 50 years. A grandmother who retired from her telecommunications job in 1993, Burnell closely follows the goings-on in her neighborhood and hometown, especially concerned about the crisis facing African American youth. She notices young people on street corners, not going to school, and hears about families where these youths’ drug dealing provides their families’ only income. Often, Burnell has wished she could take a pen and notebook and walk the streets of her neighborhood, asking these young people questions and hearing their stories.
“A lot of them are entrepreneurs, we just don’t recognize them as such. If we could get them to turn that energy, if they had somewhere good to put that energy, I think that would be awesome,” she said. “I would like to be able to get them all out of that and into a real life, where they don’t have to be on the streets. Right now they don’t have any options. I know we’re putting a lot on this army base…But hopefully it will bring a lot to the community too.”
Burnell remembers when the army base was open, and what the jobs and the small businesses around the base meant to the local communities. In 1973, Burnell went to work as a “keypuncher” at the base, doing data entry by punching holes into the cards that the military computers would read.
“At that time, everybody who wanted a job could get one. A lot of civilians worked there, the base employed thousands of people, and there were a lot of small businesses around the base,” Burnell remembered. “It was a thriving area.”
In 1999, the army base shut down. Burnell had moved on to doing keypunching for the Department of Energy in downtown Oakland, later becoming a telecommunications specialist. She stayed in her longtime home in West Oakland, but noticed more and more problems in the neighborhood. One that bothered her the most was the proliferation of liquor stores.
“We don’t have grocery stores, we don’t have banks, none of that, but they were bringing in liquor stores—on every other corner,” she said. “People are already in bad enough shape, and we’re going to give them such a ready access to that addiction.”
One day, an organizer from the community organization ACORN knocked on her door. When he asked her what she wanted changed in her neighborhood, Burnell knew the answer right away. Burnell and her neighbors began holding rallies in front of the stores, campaigning to shut them down or get them to clean up the premises and offer fresher food. In one store, Burnell showed the owner a can of food that had been expired for two years; he ran her out of the store. “I said, I live in this community and this is outrageous,” she recalled. “Here people are eating this out of the corner store, a few blocks from the Kaiser Hospital, and they have no healthcare. We’re supposed to take care of each other, and we’re not.”
A Transformative Campaign
Jessica Lopez began her involvement with the Revive Oakland! campaign in its early days, when she was among just a handful of youth being trained to become advocates through Urban Peace Movement’s Good Jobs Academy. At times, when the long meetings and sometimes mind-numbingly complicated negotiations got too overwhelming, she would pull out “this paper they gave us of the things we were calling for.”
“I would read it and think, okay this is going to help my kids’ future, or my future, ‘cause I’m 17 right now, and by the time I finish my studies, I’m sure there will be plenty of jobs that could benefit me as well,” she said. “I could still have a job, and it could be here in Oakland. My community could be a community where people want to live.”
When she was in the sixth grade, Jessica’s family briefly left Oakland and moved to the nearby city of Alameda. Her father got a job that paid well, $20 an hour, at a factory making office cubicle dividers. But in 2008, he was laid off and the home they had bought was foreclosed upon. The family moved back to East Oakland, where they lived in an apartment upstairs from a pimp. One night, they heard a fight break out and gunshots went off.
“My little brother, he’s 12, he couldn’t stop shaking, he was really scared. Me, I’m old enough, and I can kind of take it, but him, it really sucks that he had to experience that,” Jessica said. “Since I take the bus, I have to walk to my house, and every time I walk on the street, when I see somebody I immediately think that they might do something to me. I guess that’s the way it’s affected me, I don’t really feel safe.”
For EBASE, which convened the Revive Oakland! coalition, the creation of quality jobs and targeted workforce development has been a major strategy to reduce crime and violence in Oakland. On a winter night late in 2012, community members and faith leaders gathered at the West Oakland library – the site of the future jobs center for the army base – to hold a candlelight vigil marking both the toll of violence in their communities and their determination to move the army base jobs agreement from paper to reality.
“Last week, I buried an 18-year-old kid,” said Rev. Ken Chambers of the Oakland Community Organizations. “Every week, I hear the same questions in my church—where are the jobs?”
Added Rev. Justice Samuels, “Homelessness is here, shootings are here, violence is here. But guess what, we are here. We as a people can come together and make a change. Oakland is a city of change.”
One of the crucial demands of the coalition was for the city to establish a jobs resource center that can train and connect local workers with the army base jobs. The city council approved a permanent funding stream for the center at their last meeting of 2012. This and other key victories—including a 50 percent local hiring requirement, living wages for every worker on site, and the first restriction on temp agencies in the warehouse industry—are key to ensuring not only that Oakland residents have access to jobs, but that working conditions are improved in the sector.
Warehouse work, at the heart of the “logistics” industry of retailing giants like Walmart, consists of heavy and dangerous labor. Because of the widespread dominance of a domestic outsourcing model in the industry, workers face grueling conditions while making low wages with no benefits or job protections. Health, safety, and labor violations are rampant, including warehouse temperatures of 100-degree heat in the summer and a piece-rate pay scheme that pushes workers to unload and load containers faster and faster. More than half of warehouse workers in Southern California have been found to suffer on-the-job injuries, according to the National Employment Law Project.
By limiting the use of temporary staffing agencies, Oakland will be the first city to disrupt this outsourcing structure—giving workers a better shot at being able to work directly with the warehouse operators as employers to provide health care, safe equipment and a safe environment.
“These are jobs that can't be shipped overseas. As long as we as consumers buy things that have to get shipped, there are going to be warehouse jobs. There's a lot of growth in that sector. So the key is how to shift what can be a low-road model to turn it into what could be really middle-class jobs,” said Kate O’Hara, EBASE campaign director.
As far as they have come, and as huge as their achievement, the coalition members will not rest until the first Oakland residents are hired on the redevelopment project and take home their first paychecks.
When she’s asked how hopeful she is that the army base will deliver on its promise for Oakland, Shirley
Burnell sucks in her breath and nods wordlessly at first. Then she says, “When they start working, when they start coming out of there and getting a job, then I can be like, ‘Okay we did that, we did that!’”
Tram Quang Nguyen is a freelance writer based in Oakland.
Photo credit: Manjula Martin & EBASE
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