A specter is stalking America’s urban working class. It is the specter of gentrification. Urban workers, mainly people of color, are victimized in good times and bad. When times are bad, many are out of work, and the high unemployment is used to attack the wages of those who still have jobs, making it hard to pay the rent. Then, when times are good, the real estate interests use the opportunity to jack up the rents.
And with the transformation from an industrial to a high tech economy, the inner cities are increasingly attractive to the yuppies and techies, meaning the real estate sharks are moving in.
Oakland A’s Stadium & the Fisher Family
Nowhere is this more acute than here in Oakland, where the proposal of the Oakland A’s baseball team to build a new stadium near downtown and directly across the street from Laney Community College is roiling the political waters. The A’s majority owner is John Fisher of the Fisher Family, founders of The Gap clothing store chain. He and his family are also owners of Mendocino Redwood Company, the lumber company in Northern California that has had frequent battles with environmentalists.
In San Francisco, John Fisher and his company, Sansome Partners, have played a different sort of environmental role – helping create an environment for wealthy yuppies. As the Anderson Valley Advertiser reports, San Francisco is “the third most unaffordable housing market on the planet… (and) the Fishers are one of the countless players in this and other housing markets whereby speculators and landlords intensify the price pressure as they buy properties, evict tenants, and displace people in anticipation of even higher rents.”
New Model of Sports Team Ownership
What does this have to do with building a ball park?
Matier and Ross, columnists for the San Francisco Chronicle explain: they quote P.J. Johnston of the Warriors basketball team. Even when they were a losing team, the Warriors always played to a packed house in Oakland. Nevertheless, they are moving their team to the waterfront in San Francisco where they will get ahold of some prime real estate. “A lot of what drives these deals is what you can build next door,” Johnston says. Matier and Ross continue: “While there may be acres of cheap land nearby [the present A’s location], it’s the location [of the proposed new stadium] that counts.” In the case of the A’s proposed stadium, that location is right in between the Oakland estuary and beautiful Lake Merritt, where the city just spent millions remodeling the park right at that end. With Oakland rapidly gentrifying, and property values shooting skyward, this land is prime property, especially if a new sports stadium is built – prime property for hotels, expensive condos, boutique stores and restaurants.
In other words, the new model of sports franchise ownership is not so much about the sports franchise itself as the real estate development that owning that franchise opens the way to.
Privatization, gentrification and economic development
In the case of the A’s, Fisher’s politics also come into play, given the location of Laney College: John Fisher has been a major player in the charter school/education privatization movement, as he sits on the boards of the KIPP Foundation and the Charter School Growth Fund. Along with the Walton Family and Betsy DeVos (Trump’s education secretary), Fisher has been a major donor to school privatization/charter school campaigns.
Supporters of building a new A’s stadium at this location point to the poverty rate of 24% in the surrounding community as well as the lack of funds for the Peralta Community College District, of which Laney is a part. For one thing, they claim that the jobs generated by the new stadium would go a long ways towards lowering the poverty rate. This is a replay of the claim that new ball parks are a financial boon to the surrounding community. Study after study refutes this claim. ‘“If you ever had a consensus in economics, this would be it,” says Michael Leeds, a sports economist at Temple University. “There is no impact,’” he is quoted as saying in one study. He continues: ‘“If every sports team in Chicago were to suddenly disappear, the impact on the Chicago economy would be a fraction of 1 percent.’” Victor Matheson, a sports economist at the College of the Holy Cross, is quoted as saying that “economic activity in Inglewood (CA) actually increased (!) when the Lakers left town”.
It is true that the poverty rate in the surrounding area is likely to decrease if the A’s stadium is built there, but for a reason different from the one claimed: It would accelerate gentrification. Take the example of the Washington Nationals baseball stadium built in a similar neighborhood in Washington, DC. Dominique Wilkins did a masters research paper at Clark University where he studied the effects of building that stadium. He concluded that in general, “over time, the neighborhood changes to house mostly upper-class, single, young white professionals.” Wilkins found that before the stadium was completed, 42% of the population had family incomes below $50,000 and 31% had incomes over $100,000. After its completion, those figures were 15.5% below $50,000 and 70.1% above. (Those with incomes above $200,000 went from 7.1% to 34.9%.)
Naturally, this was mirrored by the shift in racial composition: The black population went from 54.7% to 34% while the white population went from 40.5% to 59.6%
San Jose’s Avaya Stadium
Dave Kaval, president of the A’s, claims that nothing of the sort will happen in this case. In an interview with the Laney Tower newspaper, he cited the construction of Avaya (soccer) stadium in downtown San Jose as an example of what they intend to do, and he pointed out that it was essentially the same management team responsible for the construction of that stadium that will be responsible for the proposed
A’s stadium. In fact, that stadium is a perfect example: Katherine Naso., an organizer with the International Migrants Alliance in San Jose explained (in a personal interview) that the construction of that stadium was central to the development of that entire area of the city. The result has been that rents for a studio apartment in the area range from $2500 to $3000. She said that, contrary to Kaval’s promises regarding the A’s stadium, no housing has been built for students or faculty of nearby San Jose State University and that some students are homeless as a result. There is even the case of San Jose State adjunct professor Ellen Tara James-Penney, who is living in her car because of the low pay and the high housing costs!
In other words, all the claims that the construction of this stadium at this location will bring jobs and boost the economy are refuted by the facts. It may be that if the deal goes through real estate developer Fisher could be pressured into building a few units of “affordable” housing, but this would be more than offset by the inevitable huge increase in housing costs overall in the area. That, after all, is the entire intent of developers like Fisher!
There is also the effect on Laney College. Founded in 1953 as a trade school, the current campus opened in 1970 and has served ever since then as a central gathering place for Oakland’s working class youth/youth of color. It is really an icon for Oakland’s black, Latino and Asian communities and its location makes it the only community college that is really fully accessible to those youth. California just passed a measure that would make the first year of community college free for those youth in need, which potentially would make Laney even more important.
The construction of this stadium at this location threatens all of that. How can students get to class and Laney employees – teachers, clerical and maintenance workers, etc. – get to work with tens of thousands of baseball fans streaming into a stadium? How can students pay attention with the noise that the baseball crowd would generate? Also, the stadium would also be used for other events, meaning even more crowds and noise.
In fact, the continued existence of Laney could be threatened. As enrollment would likely drop, the call would be sent up to close the campus entirely. What a boon to the real estate sharks! How convenient, as that land is potentially extremely valuable for the construction of expensive condos, boutique stores and restaurants, hotels, etc. As for John Fisher himself, this would kill two birds with one stone, since he is opposed to public education in general.
While defenders of the stadium proposal deny the threat to Laney, they point to the vague promises of Dave Kaval, A’s president, that the A’s would financially help the Peralta district and its students. This is just as serious of a threat, given who John Fisher is. It is naive to think that Fisher, a proponent of privatizing public education, would not use his involvement in Laney to try to control the college. In other words, to start to privatize it, in effect.
Other defenders of the stadium proposal point out that it would be cheaper to build the stadium at the proposed location, given the costs involved in tearing down the present Coliseum. What does that mean? Who is to bear those costs, because after the A’s, the Warriors and the Raiders leave, the stadium and the Coliseum there will be left standing as empty hulks. So who, then, would be likely to bear the demolition costs? Wouldn’t it most likely be the Oakland taxpayers?
Unions’ role and “slavery to the financiers”
As is to be expected, the building trades union leaders are totally backing this stadium proposal because it means “jobs”, as an interview that the Laney College newspaper, the Laney Tower, did with Rafael Gonzalez, President of Laborers Local 304 shows. “We’re going to support wherever they (the A’s) want to build,” he said. He claimed that part of the support was based on the supposed benefits what would go to the community, but the statistics cited above prove the falsehood of this claim. Anyway, in reality that has nothing to do with it, as Gonzalez showed when asked whether they would support the proposal if it was going to be built non-union. “Of course not,” he replied.
Andreas Cluver, Secretary-Treasurer of the Alameda County Building Trades Council, also took a similar position in a similar interview. In a very revealing comment on the basis of their position, Cluver commented: “Yes, we are slaves in the capitalist economy to the financiers. They create the jobs. Private capital creates the bulk of the jobs. And so, can we change it? Do I think a different system would be better? Yeah. But that’s not where we are and so, as a building trades, we’re dependent on private financing for our livelihood. That’s a reality. Should we change it? Yeah. But at this point our membership needs to work. And so, the answer is ‘yes we are. That’s the nature of the capitalist system.’”
How far this acceptance of “slavery to the financiers” goes was revealed in a response of Abraham Parra, labor relations representative for Laborers Local 304. He, too, supported the stadium proposal on the basis of “jobs”. Then he was asked if his union would support Trump’s building of “The Wall” or of prisons for undocumented workers. “On behalf of LIUNA, I can’t answer that,” he replied. In other words, he doesn’t know what would be the building trades position! It is entirely reasonable not to know, given that the building trades supported both Keystone XL and the Standing Rock pipelines and they urged the governor to “enforce the letter of the law” in cracking down on the Native American protesters at Standing Rock. Then, they turned around and had a photo-op meeting with Trump to support his build-anything-anywhere regardless of the environmental consequences policy. (“It’s called bipartisanship,” Parra “explained”.)
The building trades are not unique in this position of aligning with “their” employers on the grounds of “jobs”. Dennis Williams, President of the United Auto Workers Union, had a similar photo-op with Trump when the president was announcing the suspension of regulations on emission standards for new cars produced in the US.
Failure of the unions’ strategy
It is almost as if these leaders had a death wish. Their policy is not working as far as stemming the tide of non-union construction. From 2009 to 2015, 500,000 new construction jobs were added to the US economy, but the percentage of union construction workers on the job declined from 16.7% to 14.8%. (See this article.) In regards to this particular project, it will vastly accelerate gentrification of Oakland (just as Avaya Stadium did in San Jose), which means a sharply reduced political clout for labor in this city as its working class is driven out. Cluver denies this, but that denial is simply a total refusal to confront reality. From Washington DC to San Jose, the facts prove it.
In any case, it is a disgrace that these union leaders would be willing to sacrifice the interests of the wider working class for the trust fund money and dues money that would result from this construction. (As for the argument that the issue is jobs: If that were the real issue, then why wouldn’t they support the proposal if it were to be built non-union?)
This attitude that is encouraged by the union leadership also has another consequence: The very selfishness, the encouragement to think purely in one’s own individual terms, is the basis for the support for Trump within the working class, including within the unions, where it is estimated that some 30% of members voted for this reactionary bigot. Why not? Trump promised jobs, and if that’s all that matters – jobs for oneself personally and the fate of others be damned – then why not vote for him? The attitude was perfectly expressed by one union electrician at the October Peralta Board of Trustees meeting. When confronted with the fact of the construction unions’ decline, this electrician replied, “Well, I have a job.” In other words, since I’m working I don’t care about anything else, including the weakening of my own union itself.
Liberal politicians: Marriage of union leaders and finance capital
The key elected officials are also in the developers’ pockets. First there is Oakland’s mayor, Libby “Yuppie” Schaaf. Among major donors to her political campaigns are Mclarand Vasquez Emsiek & Partners, architects for many major gentrification projects throughout the West Coast, Franklin Arthur, owner of The Arthur Company, a real estate development company, and Jonathan Weldon, a real estate broker. City Council member Abel Guillen, whose district includes Laney College, is the same, with major donations from realtor Ted Dang, Hahn Development, real estate developer Wayne Jordan, and a Metropolitan Bank attorney. Recognizing the tremendous unpopularity of the proposal in his district, Guillen is trying to find a way to sugar-coat the plan by supposedly “protecting” the residents. He has no way to protect Laney, though.
Then there is Julina Bonilla, president of the Peralta Board of Trustees and representative of the district that covers Laney College. Bonilla works for the West Oakland Jobs Resource Center. This center is sponsored by the (real estate developer dominated) city of Oakland plus the California Capital and Investment Group. This company advertises itself as “an established market leader in commercial real estate sales… with a specialized focus in the East Bay/Oakland…. Oakland’s revitalization holds special importance to California Group.” They also boast that “we use our company’s relationships and expertise for the benefit of our clients.” In the world of capitalist politics, “relationships” means connections with local politicians… like Julina Bonilla!
What these “relationships” mean is shown by the fact that Guillen, through his staff, flat-out refused to do an interview on this issue with a reporter from the Laney Tower while Schaaf and Bonilla simply failed to respond to a request for such an interview. The only Board of Trustees member who did do an interview with the Laney Tower was Nesi More, student representative on the Board. She commented: “Just the concept of a private enterprise coming to usurp the public trust is ridiculous…. We see examples across the country of communities being destroyed, for what? I mean, for the private sports entertainment…. The only A’s I want to see anywhere near Peralta are the ones that accumulate and add up to a 4.0 GPA.”)
It is also significant that both Guillen and Bonilla (especially the latter) are supported by the union leadership. This epitomizes the marriage of the union leadership and finance capital through the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. As opposed to the conservative wings of the capitalist politicians, the strategy of this wing is to suck in any popular movement with fair promises. In the environmental movement, for example, they propose to regulate that environmentally disastrous practice of fracking, which can never be made safe. In this particular case, they have a similar strategy, calling for strong local-hire policies, for mitigation of the rising rents that are bound to follow, etc. These are simply “perfuming a turd”. There is no getting around the fact that this site for this stadium would would pose a threat to the continued existence of Laney College itself and would definitely immensely accelerate the gentrification of Oakland, especially in that neighborhood, meaning the further fragmentation of the black, Latino and Asian working class.
Oakland’s Planning Department will also play a big role in this and other projects. It is headed by Richard Gilchrist, fresh from New Orleans, where he ran a similar department. As is so common among such government bureaucrats, Gilchrist comes from the industry itself, starting his career with the investment giant AECOM. In his role as head of planning for New Orleans, he assisted in the building of commercial giants like Walgreens. Gilchrist is a proponent of “place based planning”. This school of thought is all about helping investors like Walgreens (or the A’s) figure out the easiest way to get their proposed commercial real estate accepted by making it architecturally acceptable. The idea is that real estate investment will lead to less poverty, etc. In other words, this is Ronald Reagan’s infamous trickle down school of economics as applied to real estate investment. It didn’t work for the poor and the working class under Reagan and it isn’t working today. It will work, however, for the likes of government bureaucrats like Gilchrist, whose predecessor, Rachel Flynn, left the Oakland Planning Department to join real estate developer Five Point Holdings LLC. This is the typical revolving door between government bureaucracy and jobs in the industry the bureaucracy is supposed to regulate. The regulated are controlling the regulators!
Opposition to stadium deal: Program and strategy needed
There is a campaign just getting under way to oppose this stadium site. But what has to be clarified is a program and strategy to defeat this threat.
We have seen many protests in Oakland and other cities throughout the country around similar issues. Like the union strikes of previous decades, almost none of these protest movements succeeded. We need to move beyond just protesting against what both the conservative (Republican) and the liberal (Democratic) representatives of finance capital are doing. They have proven, time and again, that they appeals to reason and human decency are like water off a duck’s back to them. Even street protests, when limited to that, don’t move them.
- First of all, this means we need to move beyond mere protests and towards outright disruption. That’s what was effective in the strike movement of the 1930s (the three great strikes of 1934 as well as the sit down strikes of 1937). That’s what was effective in the Civil Rights/human rights movement of the 1960s (the sit-ins, etc.) That’s what propelled the Occupy movement to the foreground.
This does not mean property destruction by a few individuals. Instead, it means a systematic outreach to Laney students, the surrounding community and to the patrons and sellers of the Laney flea market. It means a systematic campaign to involve them en masse in building a campaign capable of shutting the system down by our determination and by our force of numbers.
- It also means a campaign that takes in all the related issues. Neither Laney students nor the broader community lives and dies by the issue of the future of Laney College alone, nor the future of the surrounding community. The issues of jobs, of housing access in general, even the issue of the environment are all related and on the minds of people.
- It means helping rank and file union members organize a movement within their own unions to make those unions really fight for them… in connection with all workers. The
way the union leadership has been the willing “slaves of finance capital” in the political arena, in this same way they have served the employers on the job. It’s just the same as their acceptance of cut-rate contracts and refusal to fight the bosses for workers’ rights on a daily basis. Workers in the communities have every interest in helping workers inside the unions fight for a real, fighting trade union movement, one that links up all of our interests together.
- It means linking up all this, including an open recognition of who politicians like Julina Bonilla and Abel Guillen are, with the necessity of building a mass, working class political party. We can start down that road by running independent, working class candidates for local offices like Oakland city council and the Peralta Board of Trustees. These would be candidates who do not claim to represent “all the people” but openly say that they are working class representatives; candidates who do not pretend that they can resolve workers problems “for” them but that they will serve as an organizing center to help workers and working class youth organize and fight on their own behalf. They would explain that their candidacy is a step towards building an organized alternative to the Democratic Party. In other words, a mass, working class political party.
- It also means that we cannot escape the issue of our “slavery to finance capital.” As long as workers and their organizations accept this slavery, we will be forced to accept that private investment for profit, the “free” market system, will determine whether or not we have a job, a place to live, and whether the air we breathe and the food we eat is poisoning us. In fact, isn’t this acceptance the essence of what Donald Trump represents – the idea that the capitalists should be free to invest anywhere anytime as long as it creates jobs? We can start down this road by pointing to the immense wealth that is gathering in Oakland – Uber, Clorox, the Port of Oakland, etc. The city should start by taxing this wealth and using it to develop the city based on the needs of working class people, not the profits of finance capital. As far as the A’s: If working class people in Oakland feel it’s important enough, then the city can declare eminent domain, backed by a mass movement, and take them over and build a stadium in a location that suits the workers of Oakland, not the real estate sharks. Today, with more young people favoring socialism than capitalism, we must not shrink from openly explaining that this proposal and the drive for gentrification are part and parcel of the capitalist system itself and that socialism is the only answer.
Oakland can lead the way… Again!
Peralta Community College Chancellor Leguerre and the board of trustees claim that no decision on the proposal has been made. Yet, at the board meeting of Oct. 10, Sharon Cornu, official “consultant” for the chancellor gave a presentation on the proposal. Again and again, she called the proposal an “opportunity.” Again and again she pointed to the alleged benefits of the proposal, without ever raising the reality of what happened in San Jose or Washington DC, or the reality of the overall economic effects of sports teams in a city. When that puff piece that Cornu presented is coupled with the political/economic forces as outlined above, that can only mean one thing: They have decided to go ahead with the deal and the only thing that isn’t decided is how to sell this to the community, how to run it through with a minimum of protest and disturbance.
Towards that end, they are all talking about “sitting down at the table” to discuss what we – the community and Laney College – can get out of it. And we have to be very honest with ourselves: If we do not take an aggressive strategy such as what is outlined above, then there is a very real danger that elements of the opposition can be maneuvered into doing just that. In other words, negotiating the terms of our own surrender.
But every danger also represents an opportunity.
In 2011, Occupy Oakland in many ways set the model for the Occupy movement nationally. It was one of the most radical and independent for many weeks. This included the “general strike” that largely shut down downtown Oakland as well as the Port of Oakland. Today, socialists and workers and working class youth in general have the opportunity to once again put Oakland in the forefront, to serve as a model for building a working class movement with some real staying power. We can build a powerful, working class movement that not only stops the gentrifiers and privatizers dead in their tracks as far as this land grab; it also start the ball rolling as far as reversing the gentrifying that has already taken place here. In doing so, we would be setting an example for the rest of the country. Oaklandsocialist hopes that those interested in this approach will contact us so that, together, we can start down this road.
They say that every danger also represents an opportunity. Let us turn this danger to workers and to people of color in Oakland into an opportunity to build a movement that can stop the gentrification of Oakland in its tracks and start to build a real, radical, working class movement that can star to transform the political situation in America in general.