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At Oakland’s Abandoned Army Base, a Jobs Plan Brings Hope to Locals

A new $1 billion plan to turn a vacant base into a shipping and logistics center will create thousands of jobs for the Oakland residents who need them most.

Oakland Port photo by Tunnelarmr

Photo by Tunnelarmr.

At the former Oakland Army Base in Oakland, Calif., it’s difficult to tell where the old parking lots start and end. Sunburned weeds grow through cracks in the asphalt next to a few shabby-looking buildings and palm trees that still stand. All of them are surrounded by chain-link fences.

It’s not a scene that suggests much in the way of change, but the base, which is located just across the street from the active container cranes at the Port of Oakland, is about to get a radical renovation. 

This summer, the Oakland City Council approved a $1 billion redevelopment plan that will transform the site into a state-of-the-art shipping and logistics center. Under the plan, developers Prologis and California Capital and Investment Group (CCIG) will lease nearly 130 acres of the 366-acre former base to create a facility that provides packaging, shipping, and distribution for goods shipped to and from the nation’s fifth busiest port. Advocates and community members who fought for the plan’s approval hope the nearly 5,000 jobs created by the warehouse center—half of which will be reserved for locals— will catalyze economic growth in a city long plagued by poverty and unemployment.   

Against all odds

DeShawn Clinton was excited. When the 23-year-old father and Oakland resident first heard about the planned redevelopment, he thought the warehouse center would start hiring immediately. But even when he discovered that it would probably be a couple years before he could even apply for a job, he wanted to get involved anyway. 

Clinton isn't so concerned with how soon the jobs will come; the more important thing, he says, is that the new development will bring the kind of high-quality jobs needed to revitalize Oakland—jobs that are good enough for workers to support their families and keep young people off the street. "You know how Oakland is," Clinton says. "If people can't get it right now, they want to do it another way."

...it would be a project that proactively lifted the community up, instead of dragging it down.

When done right, the creation of warehousing jobs can provide good wages for working families. The problem is, they’re often done wrong. Recent reports in The New York Times, Mother Jones and the Huffington Post have detailed wage violations and unsafe working conditions in warehouses across the country. Warehouse employers—many of them in Southern California and the Midwest—have widely adopted the practice of using workers sourced through temporary staffing agencies to replace full-time employees, denying them job security, benefits, and the ability for career advancement. A 2010 University of Illinois at Chicago study found that one in five warehouse workers have been hurt on the job, but that only one-third of them report their injuries for fear of losing their jobs. In September, workers at a Walmart warehouses near Riverside, Calif. and Elwood, Ill. went on strike to protest low pay and poor working conditions.

In Oakland, community leaders and activists fought for more than a decade to ensure that, however the base was redeveloped, it would be a project that proactively lifted the community up, instead of dragging it down. 

Revive Oakland!, a coalition of 30 organizations convened by the East Bay Coalition for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), wanted to be certain that the new development would create quality jobs and establish hiring practices that favor Oakland residents. This summer, the group celebrated as the city and the developer reached a labor agreement requiring the new facility to pay a living wage, hire from neighborhoods affected by the development, and provide job training to local residents. 

Oakland Base photo by Mark Boyer

The city's portion of Oakland’s old army base currently sits vacant. Photo by Mark Andrew Boyer.

Restoring a community

When the Oakland Army Base was shut down in 1999, it took about 7,000 jobs with it, striking a serious economic blow to a city already suffering from widespread poverty and joblessness. The property was then divided between the city and the Port of Oakland. In the 13 years since, the city's portion of the property has sat vacant.

Several other major developments have been proposed for the site in that time, ranging from a movie studio and retail center that was floated by Hollywood's Wayans brothers, to a casino and even a baseball stadium. But none of these options was consistent with the function of the adjoining Port of Oakland, one of the region’s key economic engines.

"Oakland used to be a great place for African-Americans and other immigrants to move from the lower class firmly into the middle class – getting a house, a garden, and the whole nine."

Oakland's unemployment rate peaked at 17.5 percent during the height of the recession, and it's currently stuck at about 14 percent. The numbers are much worse in pockets of East and West Oakland.

That wasn't always the case. 

"Oakland used to be a great place for African-Americans and other immigrants to move from the lower class firmly into the middle class—getting a house, a garden, and the whole nine," says Pastor Brian Woodson of Oakland's Bay Area Christian Connection and the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice. Woodson and other supporters of the army base development hope the new shipping and logistics center will help Oakland once again become a place where workers can find good opportunities, while also injecting some tax revenue into the local economy.

"I think the biggest problem is that there's no hope," explains Woodson. "Our kids are growing up without a sense of, 'If I do these things, my future will be better.' So they make no investment in the future."

A promise of hope

The challenge for local labor and community groups throughout this process has been figuring out a way to ensure that the project’s sorely needed jobs go to the people who need them most. The development is expected to create 2,810 construction jobs and 2,032 permanent operations jobs, with half dedicated to Oakland residents. During the construction phase, all new trade union apprenticeships will be reserved for locals. Once the facility is up and running, there will be limits on the use of temp agencies for all warehouse and operations jobs. 

That’s a significant regulation. In recent years, some of the nation's biggest warehousing hubs have used temporary staffing agencies to replace what would otherwise be full-time jobs. They tend to pay workers significantly less while providing them with little job security and virtually no benefits. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, temporary packagers earn a median wage of $9.15 per hour nationwide, while direct hires earn $14.73 per hour. Similarly, temporary warehouse laborers and freight, stock, and material movers earn just $9.43 per hour on average, while direct hires make $13.57 per hour. Capping the use of temp agencies is believed to help keep wages up while creating careers instead of short-term work. 

"There was a risk that if these agreements weren't put into place that Oakland residents wouldn't directly benefit from the opportunities," says Kate O'Hara, a program director at EBASE. 

No longer outliers

Perhaps some of the residents set to benefit the most from the negotiated terms are people who have been convicted of crimes in the past and are now searching for work. A key condition of the jobs package restricts employers from pre-screening job applicants based on prior criminal records. 

Woodson hosts a parolee program every week at his Oakland church, and he says that one of the most important ways to rehabilitate people coming out of prison is by giving them work. "One of the first things they ask and the last thing they ask is, 'O.K. where can I get a job?'" Woodson says. But these days, jobs for ex-convicts aren't easy to come by, especially when employers pre-screen for criminal records. 

None of the warehouse and operations jobs controlled by ProLogis and CCIG will be able to ask about criminal records on job applications as positions open up in the next years.

The city of Oakland has a policy of non-discrimination against those with criminal records for city jobs, and the community activists involved in the jobs package negotiations sought to extend that policy to the army base. Here’s what they secured: During the construction phase, employers won't be able to ask job applicants if they've ever been incarcerated, and none of the warehouse and operations jobs controlled by ProLogis and CCIG will be able to ask about criminal records on job applications as positions open up in the next years.*

It isn't just parolees who are asking about work, though; Woodson says the mayor's office is already getting calls about jobs at the army base. For unskilled workers who are looking for employment, the most important part of the jobs package might be the construction of an on-site jobs center—a brick-and-mortar facility to help people (especially those without Internet access) connect with employers. 

For DeShawn Clinton, who has never worked at a warehouse before, the training the center will offer is one of the most important elements of the whole deal: "For them to create job opportunities and then, on top of that, establish a training place where people can actually get the skills necessary to do the jobs—I think that's big."

EBASE and its partners didn't get everything they fought for. Despite the quotas for local hiring and limits on hiring temp workers and screening for criminal backgrounds, there are concerns that future managers will be able to exploit loopholes in the deal's local hire requirements. But overall, the labor agreement represents a major step forward.

Oakland’s community organizers and labor groups have done their part to raise the bar for warehousing jobs across the country. The army base project will be the largest new development Oakland has seen in decades, and instead of letting outside developers dictate the terms of business, the Revive Oakland! coalition fought for—and won—the opportunities its city deserves. 


Mark Andrew Boyer wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Mark is a photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His work has appeared in GOOD, Inhabitat, and Mindful Metropolis.

*If it's a company's national practice to screen job applicants for criminal records, they'll be able to continue the practice at the army base.

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