Public Comment

Unemployed Laborers Misdirect Frustration and Anger at Richmond Mayor

By Jeff Ritterman, Vice Mayor of Richmond
Thursday April 08, 2010 - 06:28:00 PM

At the April 6 Richmond City Council meeting a stream of unemployed laborers and labor leaders vented their anger and frustration on Mayor Gayle McLaughlin. They blamed the mayor for their unemployed status. They were aided and abetted by some in the audience and some on the dais who were clearly motivated by their own political agendas and not the plight of the workers. 

The reason given for turning their anger on the mayor was their claim that the mayor had voted against their interests in the past. It didn’t seem to matter much to the unemployed that often they had the facts wrong. This, we know due to some diligent detective work by Councilmember Butt who looked up the minutes and agendas from past meetings showing that some of the specific claims against the mayor were erroneous. 

When this was pointed out, the laborers and labor leaders made dubious and hard to substantiate claims that there is a “perception” out there of the mayor being against job creation. I have worked with the mayor to try and secure funding for CyberTran International ,  

a company working on an innovative electric ultra-light rail personalized transit system. If we are fortunate enough to obtain funding, CyberTran could make Richmond a manufacturing center for the light rail system of the future. The hard work we are putting into this effort, unknown to the public, flies in the face of claims of the mayor being against job creation. 

Some of the unemployed workers had been laid off when the Chevron Expansion was put on hold. This, of course, had nothing at all to do with the mayor. Work at Chevron was halted by an order of the court in response to a lawsuit brought by a number of environmental groups against both Chevron and the city. A number of parties including Attorney General Jerry Brown, members of the city council, and lawyers for the building trades have tried in vain to resolve that situation and it remains in the courts as of this writing. The situation has become even more complicated as Chevron, like all refiners, finds themselves in a world of excess refining capacity. Not necessarily a time the oil giant wants to invest in refinery upgrades and expansion. The company is currently restructuring its downstream (i.e. refining) operations and has not made any public statement about their current plans for the Richmond Refinery except to let us know that they do not plan to close it any time soon. 

The anger and frustration of the unemployed workers is of course understandable. But, blaming the mayor is the wrong response. There is simply no vote the mayor or anyone else on the city council has ever taken which caused the workers plight. The real causes are harder to face and the solutions much more complex than the labor leaders want to face.  

What are the causes of the unemployed worker’s plight? Take a look at practically anything you have purchased recently. My coat with the London Fog label was made in Vietnam. Do you own a pair of shoes, a piece of clothing or an appliance made in this country? Many of the jobs of the unemployed are now in China, Vietnam and elsewhere overseas. Corporations have adopted a way of doing business where maximizing short term profit drives everything, even if the longterm consequences are devastating to our economy and our environment. 

When I grew up, we were the envy of the world with a strong manufacturing base and a large and growing middle class. Generally, only one parent (usually the father) worked and made enough money to support his family. Most families saw their standard of living increase yearly. One salary would be enough to take the family on a two week summer vacation and to pay for the kids to get a college education. 

What changed and why? Sometime in the 1970’s and accelerating during Reagan’s presidency, those at the top decided they were due a greater percentage of the national income and wealth. Through a series of tax measures, deregulation and the pursuit of profit at all costs, we have lost our middle class society. The very wealthiest among us have run away from the pack (see graph). CEO’s who once made 50 times the amount of rank and file workers, now make more than 500 or 1000 times as much. While the salaries of most have stayed stagnant over the last three decades despite great advances in productivity, the top 0.1% have seen their incomes move into the stratosphere. 

Not only have we seen this enormous shift in income distribution, we have also seen a complete rewriting of the tax laws to favor the rich. If you don’t believe me check out the recently published report by Wealth for the Common Good entitled “Shifting Responsibility How 50 Years of Tax Cuts Benefited the Wealthiest Americans" by Chuck Collins, Alison Goldberg, and Sam Pizzigati. 


Here are some of the key findings: 

• Between 1960 to 2004, the top 0.1 percent of U.S. taxpayers — the wealthiest one in one thousand — have seen the share of their income paid in total federal taxes drop from 60 to 33.6 percent. 

• America’s highest income-earners — the top 400 — have seen the share of their income they pay in federal income tax alone plummet from 51.2 percent in 1955 to 16.6 percent in 2007, the most recent year with top 400 statistics available. 

• If the top 400 of 2007 paid as much of their incomes in personal income tax as the top 400 of 1955, the federal treasury would have collected $47.7 billion more in revenue from just these 400 taxpayers. 

• In 2007, if the top 0.1 percent of taxpayers — Americans with incomes that averaged $7,126,395 — had paid total federal taxes at the same rate as the top 0.1 percent paid these taxes in 1960, the federal treasury would have collected an additional $281.2 billion in revenue. 

This redistribution of wealth and power is at the heart of our current economic meltdown and the root cause of Richmond’s unemployment. The redistribution has been accompanied by an ethic favoring greed and personal accumulation with a devaluing of community and the public sector.  

Look at all of the things that we need to rebuild in this country---our schools, our bridges, our levees, our roads. Our homes and businesses need to be solarized and weatherized. There is plenty of work to be done, but no money for it. As wealth and power has shifted to the wealthiest, and their taxes (including corporate taxes) have dropped to half of what they were, money is going into luxury items for the wealthy like yachts (there’s a waiting list), but none is left to rebuild the things which are of most importance to most of us.  

Attacking the mayor may help blow off some steam as individuals try and cope with an economy in shambles, but it does nothing to solve the situation and only makes things worse by confusing people. It’s really analogous to our international situation. As a nation we were hurt, angered and frustrated by 911. Rather than make an accurate assessment of the problem and come up with a real solution, our leaders cynically manipulated us with a series of lies and distortions. What did we do? We attacked Iraq, a country which had nothing to do with 911. Now we still find ourselves in that quagmire. The carnage continues. Both sides suffer unnecessary and tragic loss of life and limb. Our national treasury gets depleted and we have nothing to show for the sacrifices of our young men and women. 

The same is true of our economic meltdown. Attacking the mayor won’t fix anything. The mayor is not the problem. At the same time, the real suffering of the unemployed is being manipulated by those who find it in their own political interests to attack the mayor to advance their own agendas. 

Let’s step back from the abyss. Let’s stop the scapegoating and work together to face the harsh realties in which we find ourselves.