Some people face unemployment. Some people fight it.
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.