By Tram Quang Nguyen
For two years, Jessica Lopez, 17, went to campaign meetings after school and on weekends, attended city council hearings late into the night, and did her homework after that. As a youth leader in the Oakland organization Urban Peace Movement (UPM), 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.
At first, Jessica knew nothing about the Oakland Army Base, which had been closed since 1999 and locked in years of redevelopment planning since the city took it over in 2002. The 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.
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, 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. Revive Oakland!’s 30 coalition members included groups such as EBASE, UPM, 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.
Shirley Burnell, a leader with ACCE, has lived in West Oakland for more than 50 years. A grandmother, 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.
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 worked 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. 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. Over the years, Burnell noticed more and more problems in her neighborhood. One that bothered her the most was the proliferation of liquor stores.
“We don’t have grocery stores, we don’t have banks, 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.”
Burnell and her neighbors began trying to shut down the liquor stores 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. “Here people are eating this out of the corner store, a few blocks from the Kaiser Hospital, and they have no healthcare.”
When she was in the sixth grade, Jessica Lopez’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,” Jessica said. “I guess the way it’s affected me is 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. 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 permanent funding 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.
“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. So the key is how to shift what can be a low-road model into what could be really middle-class jobs,” said Kate O’Hara, EBASE campaign director.
As far as they have come, the coalition members will not rest until the first Oakland residents are hired 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 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. She also works as a policy analyst at the Alameda County Public Health Department.