In San Francisco, a battle starts every morning on a street corner in the Bayview, where a crowd of people gathers around a white pickup. On a Thursday in June, there are about 15 people there, mostly black men, with a handful of women and Latinos. They're waiting for James Richards to give them the morning pep talk. He calls it "the breakfast of champions."
Richards is a big man in his 60s, eyes inscrutable, though seldom seen behind his sunglasses. There's a marijuana bud on his gold front tooth. In conversation, Richards' voice can be soft, his responses vague. But when it's time to make a speech, he can preach social justice with the fire of a Civil Rights–era crusader, railing against chickenshit unions and lying politicians."What I hear," Richards begins, slowly, "is you all were acting like real warriors."
Richards is the leader of the Aboriginal Blackmen United, a group that's part direct-action organization, part job placement agency, and all business when its members think employers are abusing their right to work. Its only headquarters is this street corner in front of the Double Rock Baptist Church. Nearly everyone here, including Richards himself, is jobless — not surprising in a neighborhood where the unemployment rate during the Great Recession is thought to be 50 percent higher than that of the rest of the city, and an estimated one in every 3.5 African-Americans is out of work.
The ABU members want construction jobs, and their philosophy is simple: Development projects in San Francisco should hire local workers, not immigrants or out-of-towners. If developers don't hire locally, they should be shut down.
ABU's leaders keep a close watch on the construction projects in the Bayview and across the city, and they monitor who's being hired and who's being laid off. When a job site isn't meeting their standards, the group will show up with signs and a bullhorn and will start chanting: "If we don't work, nobody works!" Then they get out the grill and cook some burgers.
On June 15, the ABU had picketed the Sunset Reservoir solar farm and shut down the project for two days. At one point, a worker inside the fence shouted out to a KTVU reporter covering the protest, "Don't film them, they don't have the skills to do that work!" The standoff had started when an ABU member who had been dispatched to the solar farm project was told on her first day of work that she would not be needed. After a series of crisis meetings with harried city bureaucrats, the ABU walked away with its member's job restored — plus a promise of four more jobs for city residents from disadvantaged neighborhoods. It's not the first major project the ABU has shut down: It also stopped work on the Third Street light rail project in 2003.
Construction projects in San Francisco are supposed to aim for at least 50 percent local hires, with a focus on the economically disadvantaged, sometimes on workers from the same neighborhood as the project. But while new legislation is in the works, current city law only requires that contractors make a "good faith effort" to meet that 50 percent goal. Contractors themselves admit that sometimes that means not much effort at all.
That's where the ABU comes in. With its 1960s-era Black Power tactics and no-holds-barred approach, it has become the de facto enforcer of the city's local hiring goals. It is criticized for securing jobs through intimidation and for its narrow focus on its own members, but nobody denies that the ABU gets results.
The Sunset Reservoir project had fallen below its promised number of local hires. Now, after the ABU's protests, those numbers are back on track. But Richards doesn't dwell too long on the group's victory. This morning, there's a more pressing problem. The portable grill they have been borrowing is broken.
"We ain't got no pit," says Ashley Rhodes, Richards' second-in-command.
"We can't barbecue today?" Richards asks.
"No," Diana Monroe calls out, "but we can protest."
But her leaders aren't ready to move on. They seem incredulous.
"We pitless?" Rhodes asks.
"Yeah," Richards says, "we pitless."
Burgers, hot dogs, the occasional steak, all cooked over a live flame in front of a construction site: These comprise the special sauce for the ABU's intimidation tactics. They march, they chant, they grill.
In one sense, their barbecuing seems like a concession to middle age. In the '60s, the men now running the ABU were wearing dashikis and starting street riots. Now they've gone backyard dad, flipping burgers in their button-downs, holstering ketchup and mustard in place of weapons. It gives their militancy a genial edge.
And the barbecuing sends its own message: The ABU is camped out at your gates until it gets its way.
The ABU is one of several community groups that work with CityBuild, a program run out of the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, to get their members dispatched to construction jobs. In that sense, the ABU is an official job placement agency recognized by city government and hooked into the system. But unlike union hiring halls or placement agencies, which assign their members to jobs based on who's been on the waiting list the longest, the ABU awards jobs according to loyalty. If unemployed workers want a job through the ABU, they need to show up at 9 a.m. in front of the church and wait for their marching orders. They will go where Richards says they should go, and protest what Richards says they should protest. This can mean long hours of waiting outside a construction site or an office while Richards conducts negotiations. But these people have nowhere else to be — they're unemployed. The barbecue? That's their free lunch.
This structure is what makes the ABU so effective, even though it lacks most things that community organizations need: a payroll, dues, computers, an office. Ask Richards for statistics about how many workers the ABU has placed, and he says he has no idea. Even in an age of "measurable outcomes," he doesn't really keep records. But the ABU's way of operating has its own advantages. If other community groups wanted to hold a protest, they would have to organize well in advance, make calls, juggle schedules, and hope their supporters show up. For Richards, none of this is necessary. He has a standing army.
The ABU isn't the only San Francisco organization that focuses on local hiring issues. In the past year and a half, a group of nonprofits in Bayview–Hunters Point and Visitacion Valley have joined together to form the Southeast Jobs Coalition. Like the ABU, these groups monitor construction sites and try to place more local workers on the jobs — they just do it more politely. (There's also the Bay Area Black Builders, which threatened violent protests early this year over the construction of a Bayview library.)
At least rhetorically, San Francisco officials tend to support neighborhood hiring. There's a slew of statutes at both the city and state levels that emphasize the importance of local hiring, particularly on publicly funded projects. But contractors and union officials raise concerns about the level of local hiring that is actually feasible — especially in a recession, when construction projects are already moving forward on razor-thin profit margins.
Michael Theriault, secretary-treasurer of the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council, pointed out in a March 2009 article in a union journal that in Los Angeles, a city five times as populous as San Francisco, the local hiring goal is 30 percent.
Oakland, on the other hand, has a legally mandated 50 percent local hire quota — but it operates with exemptions. That means contractors who work with a team of long-term employees can reduce their local hire requirement to 25 percent.
It's unclear whether some of the construction trade's resistance to local hires is simply racism under a different name. In the Bayview, hiring neighborhood workers usually means hiring black workers. Subcontractors throughout the Bay Area often complain that "local hires" aren't as productive as other employees, and that they sometimes have an attitude. Theriault says this isn't racism, but he wrote that some contractors might have doubts "about whether a minority member from the inner city can carry the same work load as someone from a farming or peasant background."
Local hiring quotas force contractors to overcome these doubts and give neighborhood workers a chance. But, Theriault argues, these quotas need to be realistic. Historically, this city has rarely been able to meet its optimistic local hire goal. In the past 10 years, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency has never met the city's 50 percent good-faith quota, according to a May 2010 memo. It has exceeded the 25 percent mark in only three of those 10 years.
Part of this failure may be a pipeline problem. Residents of neighborhoods like the Bayview may be dealing with a long list of impediments to working or getting into an apprenticeship program, such as a lack of a high school diploma or GED, criminal records, or unpaid union dues. Part of it could be entrenched opposition to local hiring from certain unions, including the electricians' union, which refuses to dispatch workers to projects based on where they live — or based on any factor besides how long they've been on the unemployment list. (John O'Rourke, a representative of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
To many community advocates, all of these factors boil down to simple discrimination. It's one of the ABU's favorite slogans: "They don't give a damn about us."
Last year, the ABU created so much tension outside several Third Street construction projects that the mayor had to intervene in order to avert violence. The ABU was intimidating individual workers and calling out anti-Latino and anti-immigrant slogans. ABU members would occasionally block the project gates at 6 a.m., and in response, the project managers would call the police.
One former employee at a residential construction site at Third and Armstrong streets, who doesn't want his name used, remembers 20 or 30 big, menacing guys standing outside his construction site day after day. They would chant his name, "saying that I would only hire Hispanics or Mexicans and that I was going across the border and bring[ing] them in."
"Not even the strikes are like that," he says. "In 28, 29 years that I've been in the trade, I never saw anything like that."
Scott Smith, president of James E. Roberts–Obayashi Corp., the general contractor at the site, says the protest started out with just barbecues and chanting, but soon got nastier. "Really, the drive was to not have Hispanics on the job. They wanted to make sure they were all black workers," Smith says.
The ABU wasn't just advocating for neighborhood hires or for black hires: It wanted its own members on the job. When another local hire replaced an ABU member, the group protested that. As Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Fred Blackwell points out, the ABU's protests may benefit the wider community, but there's no question that Richards' followers benefit the most.
Smith says his construction project ended up in a tug of war between the ABU and the unions.
"We were kind of getting held hostage by the ABU," Smith says. When he tried to make accommodations to the ABU in order to defuse the protests, he says, the electricians' union wouldn't let the hires go through. The ABU started targeting electricians in particular.
"They'd follow guys up the stairwell, trying to block them from getting [into] the job ... guys were very nervous being out there."
For Smith, the breaking point was when ABU members shouted out the home address of the site superintendent, who happened to be a local hire from the Bayview, and promised to pay him a visit.
Freddie Carter is a black man who has lived in the neighborhood for 37 years. He says he knows most of the ABU protesters. Not only did the ABU members shout his address, he says, but one protester confronted him in the neighborhood, demanding a job, and also drove by his house. That crossed the line, Carter says. "Now you're dealing with my family. Mess with me, but don't mess with my family."
Blackwell says the threat of violent confrontation between the workers and the ABU became serious enough that Mayor Gavin Newsom stepped in to broker a deal between the conflicting parties.
The Third Street construction conflict highlighted some of the most unsavory elements of the ABU's tactics, but it also prompted real advances in the city's approach to local hiring. As a result of the ABU's protests, the pressure on contractors and subcontractors to meet their local hiring goals, and the high-level intervention by the mayor, the Third Street construction sites reached the 50 percent local hiring mark.
That kind of involvement by city leaders isn't a sustainable model in the long run, Blackwell says. But a group of city and union officials and contractors are now meeting to try to hammer out achievable — and enforceable — local hiring goals. Local hiring is also getting a lot of political attention. Supervisor John Avalos proposed legislation in January that would give the "good faith" requirement teeth by mandating a minimum percentage of local hires on city jobs, instead of merely requiring contractors to make an effort to comply with quotas. This legislation would also make it easier for the city to fine contractors who don't cooperate. Avalos says he wants the required quota to be as close to 50 percent as possible, but he's still in conversation with stakeholders about what's really feasible.
"I would not be happy at all with 25 [percent]," Avalos says. "I think that's probably where the contractors and the labor unions would like to see things end up, and community groups want to see things much higher."
At the moment, though, even some of the ABU's targets say the group's aggressive tactics are serving an important purpose. Local hiring goals are often ignored, Freddie Carter says. "The city, the programs, they don't have the muscles to make these things really function."
Smith, Carter's former boss, is on the same page: He says that even though his company makes real efforts to meet the local hiring goals, it's often difficult to convince subcontractors to take the requirement seriously. "To be honest," he says, "I think James Richards has done a lot for this issue."
Much as he dislikes the ABU's tactics, Carter says, "When something works, you keep pushing the button that gets results."
The ABU members moved quickly through the metal detectors and piled, one by one, into the small gold cage of the City Hall elevator. It is a charming structure, all delicate gilded bars. This did not seem to impress them. One of the men said City Hall reminded him of a prison. The elevator door slid shut without a sound.
The ABU contingent was headed for the office of City Administrator Ed Lee. When they arrived, they informed one of Lee's staffers that James Richards and the ABU were here to see him.
Did they have an appointment?
No, they did not. But they would wait until Lee was willing to see them.
Within minutes, the ABU members were shown to a conference room, and Lee himself arrived to talk.
The issue on that day was the larger dispute between laborers and electricians over who should be allowed to install solar panels. Richards wanted to know why one of the city offices that Lee oversees, the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement (OLSE), had offered a ruling in the dispute that favored the electricians.
If just electricians could install solar panels, that would mean basic laborers — including the ABU's workers — would be shut out of a promising area of green-collar employment. The laborers' union was watching the issue closely, and a contractor from the Sunset Reservoir project had filed an official appeal of the OLSE ruling. But Richards was taking a more personal approach.
"We don't want to fight you, Ed, and we don't want to fight Gavin, but if it comes down to that — ," Richards said.
"I support every effort to get people working," Lee said.
The two men kept going back and forth, Lee's lips growing tighter and tighter under his small mustache.
Lee kept explaining that he also thought the ruling was a mistake, but at this point, his hands were tied.
"Well," Richards said at last, "we got to see the mayor." And just like that, the ABU members were gone, powering down the marble halls toward the mayor's office.
But before the group could enter Newsom's chambers, one of the mayor's staffers closed and locked the imposing double doors to the mayor's reception room. This did not get the ABU group to leave, nor did the news that Newsom was off somewhere else, possibly China.
For the next hour and a half, the group milled around in the hallway in front of the mayor's office, peering at the bronze bust of Dianne Feinstein, pushing the handicapped button at the side of the office entrance, and congratulating a slightly confused-looking couple who had arrived to take wedding photographs in the rotunda.
Rhodes watched in amusement as City Hall staffers keep bustling up to the mayor's door, only to find themselves locked out. Richards sat on a bench by the door and ate a hot dog. The stakeout ended only when the ABU was promised a meeting with the mayor in the next week.
That meeting, duly scheduled this time, happened in a large conference room. Steve Kawa, the mayor's chief of staff, led the meeting, which disappointed Richards, but he started in anyway with a tirade on how the electricians' union is trying to monopolize solar installation jobs.
"I know damn well, and everyone else in this town knows, that's the most racist union ever," Richards declaimed. He himself is an electrical contractor. "I don't want to talk about some of the things I had to go through twenty years ago."
"What do we say?" Richards asked his followers.
"Don't nobody give a damn about us!" they bellowed back.
It was clear the meeting was not going as Kawa expected.
"Let the mayor know, he's going to have trouble in his city," Richards said. "They're not going to be out there on Third Street building with us and talking about no good-faith effort and we standing outside the gate and my people not working. It's not going to happen."
"Never again!" the ABU chanted. "Never again!"
Between chants, two ABU members at the other end of the table were nodding off. But Richards was not finished. There was still the issue of OLSE manager Donna Levitt, who issued one ruling favorable to the electricians, and who refused to rescind her decision. While her ruling only applied to the Sunset Reservoir project, the next solar installation job might prompt another ruling from Levitt that could hurt the ABU.
"If that's your girl, you need to be on top of her," he told Kawa. "You can't come back later, saying, 'That's my girl, but she running around loose.'"
There was a burst of laughter.
"I don't speak like that to begin with," Kawa protested.
Richards corrected himself: Not girl. but "Employee."
"Coulda been 'your boy,'" he defended himself, later. "Same thing."
Forty years ago, the intimidation techniques of San Francisco's community activists were honed to a high art and chronicled by national media. Tom Wolfe described the scene in his 1970 essay "Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers." "If you were outrageous enough, if you could shake up the bureaucrats so bad that their eyes froze into iceballs and their mouths twisted up into smiles of sheer physical panic, into shit-eating grins, so to speak — then they knew you were the real goods," Wolfe wrote. "They knew you were the right studs to give the poverty grants and community organizing jobs to."
Back then, the roving bands of Wolfe's "certified angry militants" who were invading City Hall included a young James Richards, in his Black Panthers–inspired dashiki and beret. Wolfe's article even name-checks the United Council for Black Dignity, a Bayview group that Richards cofounded when his youth organization went soft.
Ask Richards about mau-mauing, and he pauses nostalgically. "When you say, 'Let's mau-mau,' that means we're going to turn over tables, we're going to kick down doors."
"That was a highly sentimental term," he says.
Richards started mau-mauing in 1966, after he watched a black teenager named Matthew Johnson die on the ground while white police officers stood over him. Richards says he headed straight from the scene to Third Street, where he and his friends started fires and raged through the streets in protest. The Hunters Point riots made headlines across the nation.
But what the ABU does now isn't mau-mauing, Richards says. He and the other leaders of the ABU have matured, and they're interested in solving problems. The ABU and CityBuild work so closely together that Richards jokes to his followers that the two groups are "married." And while the ABU has long resisted any kind of official control, it is considering transforming itself into a legitimate nonprofit, with proper funding and oversight. It's a move that would please city officials. Whether the ABU can make the transformation into a docile, Form-990-constrained nonprofit is another question.
When Richards visits the Lowe's construction site in the Bayview, he demands that the manager come out and negotiate the way Richards likes, leaning against the back of his pickup. Richards has said publicly that he thinks "bidding is for suckers," and he believes that no construction project in the Bayview should be able to hire an electrician without giving him part of the work, whether he bids for the project or not.
"I deserve everything I get, and more," he says. "I grew up in this community fighting, I've been subjected to every hardship. ... If I said, 'If I don't work, nobody's going to work,' then I deserve that, you know what I mean? I don't care if nobody in the whole world agrees with me on that, I know God do."
When Richards says this, he is sitting in a dim side room of the Double Rock Baptist Church. He's exhausted after a long morning speech to his followers, and he's just had an insulin shot for his diabetes. He is still recovering from a heart attack, his third. For the first time, his sunglasses are off, and there are dark pouches under his eyes.
Richards isn't one of those leaders who represent the community from inside their Cadillacs. The gloss of money is nowhere on him. He says he gets health insurance from his daughter, a hospital administrator, one of his 10 children. He's still out protesting twice a week, against the advice of his doctor, who thinks he's resting.
Al Norman, a longtime ABU supporter who runs a mechanical contracting business in the Bayview, says he's been in meetings with Richards when contractors offered to pay him off in order to stop the protests.
"Everybody knows about the offers and stuff, and they know that he's turned them down," Norman says.
"That's one of the big things. He ain't no rich person."
The bottom line, of course, is that Richards does get his followers jobs. Richards may be the Genghis Khan of local hiring — he considers jobs the spoils of battle, and they go to his followers first — but then, the men and women who show up at the Double Rock Baptist Church need a lot of help.
Michael, who doesn't want his last name printed, grew up in the Double Rock projects and spent years as a hospital worker. In the '90s, he got into drugs and has served 10 years in federal prison. Now, he's back home. But for 18 months after he got out of jail, Michael says, he couldn't find any work. He signed up for job training. He spent six months learning "life skills." Then he started showing up every morning to protest with the ABU.
After two months of protesting, he got a job at the Lowe's site. "I really, really, really appreciate Ashley and James, because they was the ones that went to bat for me," he says.
Construction is a crucial form of employment in the Bayview. It's one of the last fields that usually doesn't require a criminal background check.
"They pay good and they give you good benefits, and that's what I'm loving about it," Michael says. "Whatever you did in the past is in the past."
Richards and Rhodes still call him every two weeks to see how the job is going.
Of course, for the mainstream organizations that work with the ABU, the lack of accountability and transparency in how it assigns jobs is troubling. "I don't think they have any type of legal entity," says Christina Garcia, contract compliance supervisor for the Redevelopment Agency.
The ABU "expects CityBuild to contact them first," Garcia says, and the ABU constantly argues that it should have special privileges — namely, the first shot at available positions — even though Fred Blackwell has repeatedly told them that other community placement groups have an equal right to respond to job openings.
CityBuild Director Guillermo Rodriguez says only that the ABU has given his program quality referrals, and that, as far as he knows, the group isn't getting any money from the city.
"The advocacy of ABU," Rodriguez says, "to me it's — uh, it's part of doing business in San Francisco."
It's not easy to outmaneuver the ABU, but if anyone's done it, it's Terry Rawlins, the community hiring coordinator for the UCSF Mission Bay project. When the ABU started picketing the UCSF construction sites and Rawlins' own office, demanding jobs for its community, Rawlins did them one better. He called in 14 of San Francisco's community-based job placement groups, and started working out a plan in which each community group would be in charge of job placements for a certain period. This makes Richards furious. "He just neutralizing us," he says.
Rawlins doesn't exactly disagree. "We're trying to get them to come to the table with the rest of the community, because we can't cut side deals with them," he says.
Rawlins is also black, and a child of the '60s. He doesn't mince words, even though he and Richards both try to show some respect for each other. Rawlins calls the ABU "a maverick organization that claims to represent the community."
"His thing is a little militant theater," Rawlins says of Richards. "He doesn't seem to mean any harm by it. ... It's theater: It's not straight-up anger."
Richards has definite ideas about how UCSF's local hiring should work. He wants the ABU to be the lead job placement group on the UCSF Mission Bay project. After all, as he preached to his followers recently, the UCSF campus is on Third Street, and that's their territory, all the way up to Third and Market. At the least, he wants UCSF developers to work with CityBuild to do their local placements. But UCSF has decided to handle local hiring on its own.
As a result, Richards is starting to beat the drum about the UCSF project. Work has barely started on the Mission Bay campus' new women's and children's hospitals, but last month, the ABU held another pre-emptive protest. Members picketed for a while in front of the almost-deserted site, then piled their signs to one side and fired up the grill. They were standing there, munching their hamburgers and drinking cans of Shasta, as some of the site workers drove out of the gate in a red sports car, their white faces peering out perplexedly at the party.
According to Richards, this is just the beginning. On a recent morning, the ABU meeting was happening inside the church, where Richards greeted his followers, from the pulpit, with the Muslim greeting, "As-salaam alaikum!"
"Wa-alaikum salaam!" they call back.
Soon Richards is thundering about the coming conflict. It won't be like their Sunset Reservoir picketing, or the previous UCSF protests. "You better come on," Richards said, speaking rhetorically to the UCSF developers, "or people going to go to jail, and some bloodshed!"
"This is not going to be no peaceful demonstration, this is going to be some sirens coming!" Richards calls out.
"We going to batter their gates down!"
"When we going?" one of his followers calls out from the pews.
He pauses. "Any minute."