Let's Get it Right with the Oakland Army Base Project

May 9, 2013 -- Leslie Moody

Another round of national jobs numbers came out last Friday from the Labor Department, received with a mixture of relief— “Whew, at least there’s some growth”—and concern that it’s just not enough. 

But in some communities, such as Oakland, people aren’t waiting for outsiders to fix the jobs crisis. Revive Oakland, a coalition of thirty community, faith, and labor organizations, convened by the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), an affiliate of the Partnership for Working Families, took things into their own hands to bring good jobs to Oakland.

Their method was to make sure the community’s needs were met when developers courted local officials for financial help on new construction projects. It’s a form of community empowerment that’s emerged in the last fifteen years, sometimes called “accountable development.” This means economic development projects accountable to the broader community, not just a developer’s owners and investors.

The tactic is summed up in a simple slogan: “It’s our money and we want a seat at the table.”

Developers often need public financial support—for roadwork or sewers, job training, environmental cleanup, low-interest loans, tax breaks. To get public support, they trumpet the number of people they’ll employ.

A stellar example is the redevelopment of the abandoned Oakland Army Base, a half-square-mile of underutilized public land adjoining the busy Port of Oakland. CCIG, a local company and Prologis, a global corporation, envisioned converting it into a technologically advanced mega-warehouse complex to complement Port business.

Instead of bringing typical warehouse jobs to Oakland—meaning low pay, dangerous work, relying on temporary and part-time employees without benefits—the coalition set out to ensure the developer’s vision included good jobs.

The Oakland Army Base development was perfect for accountable development. It was a large project on very visible land, requiring a few thousand people to build and then staff the enormous warehouse complex. There were many strong unions, social justice groups and community organizations with deep local roots. 

Ultimately thirty organizations came together as the Revive Oakland coalition, convened by EBASE. After five years of negotiations, the developer, city and community all signed off late last year on contracts with enforceable community benefits.

The package includes a “living wage” for all jobs, plus commitments that at least half those hired would be from Oakland and a quarter qualify as disadvantaged. A new job center is included to bring Oakland residents into the jobs pipeline. A monitoring board, with community representation, will enforce the agreements.

New ground was broken by a ban on employers pre-screening job applicants for criminal records, a huge breakthrough in a community where too many have gone through the court system. A share of construction jobs will go to new union apprentices from Oakland.

The eventual warehouse tenants will be limited in their use of temporary workers and must hire locally. It’s the first time in the US the warehouse industry will have to meet such job quality standards.

Oakland’s success reinforces basic principles of accountable development: ambitious goals; a community role in monitoring and enforcement; treating developers as potential partners.

As ground breaks on the project this year, Revive Oakland and EBASE are pushing to turn these words on paper into real jobs on the ground.  The City of Oakland just committed a half a million dollars to the jobs center and the monitoring board. In the coming months, an effective nonprofit operator will be selected to run the jobs center and the city will seat the monitoring board.  And, hopefully, the Port of Oakland will expand the jobs pipeline by applying similar expectations to its half of the Army Base project.

With a strong community coalition, government assistance for a project comes at a price: enforceable contracts for good jobs and community benefits. This is a way to build community power and help ensure that new jobs actually meet community needs.


This opinion piece was written by Leslie Moody, Executive Director of the Partnership for Working Families, and was printed on May 9 in the "My Word" section of the Oakland Tribune, The Contra Costa Times, and MercuryNews.com.