Northern California in 2005

Against the Current, No. 114, January/February 2005

Todd Chretien

CALIFORNIA’S BLUE STATE status notwithstanding, times are tough and getting tougher and there is no shortage of issues that could flare up into substantial social movements. This article will review some of these problems as well as outline the debates on the left (and Greens in particular) in the Bay Area.

Gay Marriage: San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom’s decision to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples last spring, in the wake of the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling and the courageous efforts of New Paltz, NY Mayor Jason West, gave birth to a new civil rights movement.

Unfortunately, California’s Democratic Attorney General intervened to order a halt to the marriages. The California Supreme Court will next take up the issue of whether or not the ban on gay marriage violates the California constitutions equal protection clause.

Meanwhile, the Marriage Equality of California organization has been keeping up the heat and has refused to buy into the increasingly popular idea that gay marriage should be shoved back in the closet as it gives the Republicans a campaign issue.

Affirmative Action: The elimination of race-based affirmative action in admissions has had a dramatic impact on diversity at the Berkeley flagship campus of the University of California system. Fewer than 200 African-American students were admitted to last year’s incoming class.

There are at least three times as many Black men on death row in San Quentin prison than in the freshman dorms at Berkeley, less than 20 miles down the road. Black students at Berkeley staged a spirited protest this fall to demand an increase in underrepresented minorities, but the movement remains very small and limited to a few campuses.

School Cuts: Teachers all over northern California are dealing with a speedup, cuts in health care coverage and pay freezes or even cuts.

Oakland is the epicenter of the attack on public education. There, mismanagement by district officials plunged the district into a budget crisis and a takeover by the state. Randal Ward, the unelected ax-man, has laid off teachers, imposed a 4% pay cut, closed a half dozen schools, and is now demanding huge increases in what teachers pay for health care.

Students and parents have also been up in arms over the closing of neighborhood schools. Thus far, Ward has mostly had his way, although his high-handed actions and his enormous salary and expense account may set the stage for a hot fight around the contract this spring.

Labor Under Attack: HERE Local 2 hotel workers struck four hotels in September. Management retaliated by locking out workers at another 10 hotels and refusing to let any of them come back to work for six weeks, even after the union ended its strike. Mayor Newsom negotiated a 60-day cooling off period through the holidays, but no other progress seems pending on workers’ demands for pay hikes, protection of health care and a two-year contract timed to expire with other cities.

Workers at Northern California grocery stores have been working without a new contract for several months and negotiations seem to making little progress. After the disastrous defeat suffered in Southern California, there was some early hope that the union would prepare for a real fight in the North. Regrettably, there appears little sign of significant militant followup.

SEIU Local 250 health care workers staged a one-day strike against CPMC hospital chain and were promptly locked out for an additional five days. In a positive sign, a very large percentage of CNA registered nurses honored the picket lines — a very important development, because CNA and SEIU have been at odds in the past.

No doubt, nurses’ anger was increased when Gov. Schwarzenegger used his executive authority to overturn the implementation of a state law that requires a 5 to 1 patient to nurse ratio, in favor of leaving the current 6 to 1 in place for at least three years. Thousands of nurses marched on the capital to protest.

Thus, the bosses’ offensive continues unabated in the liberal Bay Area. A disturbing pattern of lockouts, followed by concessionary contracts, seems increasingly common. If the employers haven’t gotten everything they’ve wanted, workers have not yet found the power to stop the retreat.

Immigrant Rights: One of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s first acts was to get the Democrat-controlled legislature to overturn their decision to grant drivers’ licenses to undocumented workers. This betrayal has made the fight for the right to drive one of the key issues in California’s immigrant community.

Several marches organized by Centro Azteca have held Democratic lawmakers’ feet to the fire and forced Scharzenegger to at least pay lip service to some sort of compromise measure. In San Francisco, a ballot measure to grant the vote for school board elections to undocumented workers whose children attend city schools failed in November, but brought the issue of voting rights for immigrants into the spotlight.

Criminal Justice: Last February’s successful fight to stop the execution of Kevin Cooper was followed by the state legislature’s decision to create a commission to study bias in the California death penalty. This commission’s work will likely take at least two years; activists fully expect that its report will condemn capital punishment in California for the same biases as were uncovered in Illinois.

This November’s election also saw a ballot measure, sponsored by Families to Amend California Three Strikes to free tens of thousands of nonviolent prisoners serving 25-to-life terms, narrowly fail. No doubt this grassroots campaign, led by inmates’ family members, would have won but for the bipartisan, vocal and well-funded opposition of Schwarzenegger and Democratic ex-governors Jerry Brown and Gray Davis.

Greens Divided

Last fall, the Green Party’s Matt Gonzalez won 47% of the vote for San Francisco mayor and Peter Camejo’s run for governor attracted 400,000 votes and got him on the televised debates. This year, the Green Party divided seriously over the presidential election.

Many Greens put their organizing energy into local races, such as Ross Mirkarimi’s successful campaign to replace the outgoing Gonzalez on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors. In Richmond, Green Gayle McLaughlin won a seat on the city council in a first in that industrial, multicultural city.

Local Greens like Renee Saucedo and Pat Grey also ran very strong campaigns, winning 24% and 9% respectively against well-entrenched Democrats. Interestingly, Saucedo, McLaughlin and Grey all appeared at large Nader rallies during the campaign and refused to support the idea of voting for the lesser evil. Given that many leading local Greens were swept up in the national Anybody But Bush wave this year, the party’s results remain promising.

The coming 18 months will see a likely race by Matt Gonzalez for a high-profile office, a potential bid by Camejo, and an effort in Oakland for Greens to run a full slate of candidates for all elective offices.

It is still too early to tell what will be the impact of this year’s debate within the Green Party over whether or not to support Democrats. If the recent elections for California’s delegates to the national Green Party Steering Committee are any indication, then Greens who support total independence from the Democrats have a solid majority.

Antiwar Organizing

Bringing the antiwar movement back to life and back into the streets is perhaps the single most pressing task for the Bay Area left. This movement suffered the most from the swing behind John Kerry by most of the movements leaders. After mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people against the invasion of Iraq, there hasn’t been a protest of more than 3,000 people in the Bay Area since April.

An encouraging protest of several thousand took place on November 3, and Bay Area campuses were represented among the 30 schools who sent delegates to the Campus Antiwar Network conference in November. Plans are underway for marches against Bush’s inauguration on January 20, initiated by ANSWER, and for the second anniversary of the invasion on March 20, as well as a spring campus tour of Iraq veterans and their family members sponsored by CAN.

The November election highlighted the fact that most activists are very much trapped by lesser-evilism, and that there is a very high price to pay for that strategy in terms of demobilization. Afterward, as the preceding survey suggests there are plenty of flashpoints. The challenge to the Bay Area left lies in working on as many fronts as possible, while simultaneously building mutual solidarity between these disparate areas of work.

In the coming year, gay marriage advocates will be pressured to tone it down and be patient or settle for civil unions as good enough. Labor rank and filers will be told that concessionary contracts are all that is possible. Some in the antiwar movement will retreat from the demand to Bring the Troops Home Now and to de-link the occupation of Iraq from that of Palestine.

Death penalty foes will be told not to waste political capital on unsympathetic victims of lethal injection. And there will be a fight in the Green Party about whether or not to uncompromisingly fight the two corporate parties, or to do so only when it is tactically appropriate, i.e. when it doesn’t endanger the Democrats chance of winning.

These debates will not be settled once and for all in the coming months. But both sides on all these questions have a responsibility to articulate, in a collaborative but forceful way, why they believe their principles will lead to the outcome to which we all aspire.

ATC 114, January-February 2005