Michael Theriault headshot

Readers of Organized Labor who peruse the minutes of Delegates meetings of the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council will note this month and next a sequence of contradictory actions.

April 7 the Delegates, meeting as the POWER PAC, the Political Organization for Workers’ Employment Rights Political Action Committee, voted to give a dual – that is, equal – endorsement to Kimberly Alvarenga with Asha Safai, whom they had endorsed at a previous meeting, for Board of Supervisors in District 11, which includes the Oceanview-Merced-Ingleside, the Outer Mission, and my own Excelsior.

April 21 the Delegates voted to reconsider Ms. Alvarenga’s endorsement, an action permissible under our bylaws.

At their latest meeting, May 5, the Delegates voted to undo Ms. Alvarenga’s endorsement, thereby leaving Mr. Safai with the Council’s sole endorsement.

What can explain these rapid changes in position? Not Ms. Alvarenga herself nor her actions. She was the same person May 5 as April 7. And as I told her when I encountered her in the neighborhood afterward, she had done nothing to piss us off.

Many Delegates felt a real affinity with her. She had grown up among us, in Holly Courts, a public housing project on the south side of Bernal Heights, in similar circumstances to many of ours. She had come up a long way in this world, one in which we had seen many of her peers and ours either struggle lifelong or collapse into addiction, crime, death.

She had been an aide to former California Assembly Member and San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano, a champion for workers who carried the legislation creating the City’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement.

The Delegates she addressed sensed a genuineness from her, as did I.

What undid her endorsement were instead longstanding internal countercurrents both within the San Francisco Building Trades and within the City’s “Progressive” movement.

San Francisco’s modern Progressive movement began in opposition to actions the Building Trades supported.

In decades past, when our ranks held far fewer minority members, the Trades allied with businesses and business-friendly politicians in “redeveloping” the Fillmore and South of Market’s Skid Row. Our allies demolished the International Hotel and with it Manilatown. Our members prospered, but African American families were pushed from the Fillmore, low-income retirees forced from the flophouses South of Market, elderly Filipinos scattered to sad ends. Business also sought to expand the Financial District north into Chinatown and to spread Downtown west into the Tenderloin.

We allied with the same interests in building freeways through the City. These forced out families and divided neighborhoods. Hayes Valley was cleft, Dogpatch severed from Potrero Hill.

When the freeways threatened to pierce on their way to the Golden Gate through neighborhoods of single-family homes with white ethnic owners, these homeowners, too, joined in opposing us.

Refugees from oppressive Central American dictators allied with American business came to the Mission in the second half of the last century. They carried a justifiable mistrust of business and of Capitalism more broadly. They fell in readily with Progressives.

The City’s modern Progressive movement, then, started with minority communities fighting direct displacement, neighborhood associations fighting to preserve homes against freeways intended to ease the driving of suburbanites, and refugees from the worst depredations of American business.

We in the Building Trades were, frankly, on the wrong side of those fights.

Since then, the face of the Building Trades has literally changed, become more various and overall browner.

We in the Trades suffer our own internal contradictions. We understand the plight of working-class and minority communities, on the one hand, because that is who we are; on the other, we need the work business gives us through new construction. Depending on who is in the room, a Council vote can swing one way one night, the other another.

But Progressivism suffers even deeper internal contradictions. Direct displacement of the working class and minorities no longer results from demolition of homes, but from upper-income residents and arrivals seeking to occupy existing homes. Homeowners no longer fear encroachment of freeways; their homes are jackpot buckets in a market where new housing has far trailed demand. “Indirect displacement” of working class and minority communities, so far as it is real, seems likelier to result from failure to provide new homes in an improving job market than from market cues new development gives in a neighborhood.

And as to simply railing against developers – Fine, Capitalism stinks, and developers, as Capitalists, are stinky; but this level of discourse tells us nothing about how exactly in a Capitalist system we feed and house working-class families.

So far as it concedes such discourse, then, and as it remains allied with homeowners to oppose development, the Progressive movement does not just deny the Building Trades work, it fails the rest of its alliance, the working-class and minority communities that now comprise so much of the Building Trades.

In endorsing and then un-endorsing Ms. Alvarenga, whom Progressives claim, we were all of us, Building Trades and Progressives, tangled in these contradictions.

If the working class is to have a future in San Francisco, we must all of us, Building Trades and Progressives, find a way past them.

Organized Labor


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