By Evangeline Lacroix
When Steve Early worked on a story for In These Times on the Vermont Progressive Party in 2012, he was documenting a culture he knew well. As a labor organizer, lawyer and freelance journalist based in New England over the past 27 years he has traveled all over the US to promote the Progressive Party.
For the story, Early, 67, sat down with Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to discuss Sanders involvement in the movement he fostered into existence. Sanders pushed Early to think about progressive politics on a wider scale. Sanders urged him to produce a case study of progressivism in mainstream media. He argued to Early that an honest explanation of the progressive movement had to be published outside of the bubble of the alternative press.
Early then set out for Richmond, CA, a largely non-white working-class town centered on a Chevron Corporation oil refinery. He lived there for five years, completing the book “Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City”.
The book tells the story of the creation of the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) formed 14 years ago to coalesce many small left leaning political parties, organizations and nonprofits to create an alliance of over 115,000 people.
In a conversation with Larry Cohen, the former president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and a longtime friend, at the Busboys and Poets at 14th and V Street, Early talked to the audience about the book, but also more broadly about the state of the Progressive Party in America and what the future of it looks like.
“Every city is not Richmond, but they all have resemblances,” Cohen, 62, said when introducing Early.
Richmond has a long history of being an oil town. Standard Oil, who formally ceased operations in 1911, did not leave Richmond until the 1950s when Chevron took over its refinery. Since then, four fires since 1989, paired with the big money Chevron puts into local politics created a dynamic of disenfranchisement of the citizens of Richmond.
Richmond is a working-class city that grassroots organizers tackled with an intersectional mindset. Organizers grapple with how race, class and the environment intersect with the biggest business in the area: Chevron Corporation.
“[Members of the RPA] are people who believe in building collective political power,” Early said.
To RPA, Chevron put profit before the community building its own coalition with the local police and fire unions. For RPA this created an unbalanced power dynamic in the city. Chevron, the police union and fire union were able to tip in their favor because of their use of big money in politics.
Since their formation, RPA has tried to balance this inequality by helping to elect members of their party into local elections into 10 out of 16 available seats since formation.
“RPA focuses on campaigning for people who prioritized the community and not career politicians trying to work their way up California’s political ladder,” Early said.
While Chevron donated $3.1 million to people running for local office in the last election, Early said it is critical for progressives to fundraise as much as possible to gain traction in elections.
Part of their success was due to changes in local campaign finance laws and public matching funds for election funds. In 2015, if a candidate raises $25,000 in campaign contributions, the city gives the campaign $12,000.
While on-RPA candidates were spending 30 times the amount of money, the RPA has been successful because of the community building they are able to accomplish, according to Early.
“A shift to voices of the working class is essential,” Cohen said. “You have to bring working class people and other progressives together to build.”
Looking to the future of the Progressive Party Early said it was integral that young people are involved at every level of progressive organizations.
“In order for RPA to advance, older people had to take a step back for women of color and young people,” Early said.
Early said Organizations like RPA have to be intentional and intergenerational in order to pass on a successful legacy.
“We need a thriving infrastructure of mentoring and funding to help people with different levels of experience and get together with other like-minded groups,” Cohen said.
Cohen and Early both expressed noted differences in how younger progressives take to organizing than people in older generations.
“The [people of] 21st century are more conscious and less spontaneous with organization,” Early said. Young people are more likely to think critically about the work they are in concerns about being mindful of differences between disenfranchised communities.
“Richmond believed they could unite,” Cohen said. “Can we as working class people win if we believe we can win, we can fight like Richmond?”