Cliff Willmeng ran for City Council on a campaign that focused on labor and community rights. In the past, he worked with the East Boulder County United coalition to successfully ban fracking in Lafayette. Before the elections took place, Left Voice spoke with Cliff about organizing against fracking, socialists running for office, and working-class politics.
What is the focus of your campaign?
The original motivation was to get us thinking about running for local office. I live in Lafayette, which is on a shale formation in Colorado. Erie (the neighboring town) has 160 fracking wells. The industry is moving to the Front Range, which is where 95 percent of the population lives in Colorado. The industry wants to drill in very residential areas. They have woken up communities that want to protect their families from an industry that has a reputation for being very dangerous and toxic.
The entire political apparatus operates as a proxy for the oil and gas industry. Both parties—Democratic and Republican— are in favor of fracking. We may have different strategies, but we realized that we are going to have to fight this industry as an independent grassroots movement. After a year of going to the city council, asking for protection and being told there was nothing they could do, we did our organizing.
How were you able to ban fracking in Lafayette?
We (East Boulder County United) enacted the Lafayette Community Bill of Rights, which banned oil and gas drilling in our town. We have learned that the legal system that we live under in dominated by industry and that the environmental laws have been essentially written by the oil and gas industry. So, when they come into a place and say they want to drill and we say, “No thanks,” they invoke these laws that force drilling onto the community. The Lafayette Community Bill of Rights was written to codify our rights as a community. It also prohibits Oil and Gas drilling and the disposal of associated industrial waste as well as prohibiting new fossil fuel infrastructure. Through this we were able to ban fracking in Lafayette.
The conflict around this again is that the whole legal system is designed to overcome community opposition. Although our local was passed by 60 percent of the vote, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association sued our town the industry sued based on Colorado state law. Because the effort to protect Lafayette was coming under wider threat, we decided to start taking political positions.
In the industry lawsuit against Lafayette, EBCU was not allowed to be a party to that lawsuit. The entire defense of our law then, was given to the same City Council which had opposed it before.
The main lesson is that the democracy you were promised in your fifth grade text book doesn’t actually exist. The law is operating to keep people and communities at am increasing distance from power and decision-making. So when a community like Lafayette wants to protect its people, the result is already predetermined. In this sense, the Lafayette Community Bill of rights was an act of community-level civil disobedience. It was enacted with the understanding that we can’t obey the existing laws and protect our community at the same time.
The Lafayette Community Bill of Rights passed with a 60 percent vote from the Lafayette community. The Colorado Oil and Gas Industry sued within a month. The City Council hired a law firm and defended the measure. The lower court determined our law was illegal and then city stopped defending the lawsuit without appeal. So the system is a democracy until you try to act upon it. Then the reality of the system becomes obvious. It’s anything but.
That was part of the motivation for running. Our position: if the welfare of our community is dependent upon these political positions, these offices, than we are going to have to stop asking for power and start taking some.
The difference between a movement candidate and a politician: we can use the campaign and office to drive the ideas to build a much wider movement. On my website as a councilor, I can only do so much, but the quality of change that is necessary for working class people is going to have to come from a movement—from below. The campaign for city council is a means to drive that movement and secure power for that movement along the way.
How is your campaign financed?
Seventy five percent came from individual contributions. Some doctors helped. We got a $10 check from a post office worker in Wisconsin; $575 bucks from the Local Firefighters (IAFF Local 4620); from working class people, from activism on fracking and other issues.
The Firefighters are big supporters because they have been fighting for union recognition from the city of Lafayette for six years. It’s a ballot measure in the same elections. They will be voting on Ballot Measure 2k, which would give union recognition for the local firefighters. It would be the first public union in Lafayette’s history.
Why are unions/workers important to your campaign
I believe that working people have been historically disenfranchised in our workplaces and the community we serve. The result is an ever-increasing amount of poverty and worsening of work conditions and the enormous upward redistribution of wealth. I believe that the decision-making of our country should be determined by the working class and the communities. In this sense, I believe in a democratically-run economy.
Democratically-run economy: Right now, what passes for an economy is a predetermined arrangement of Wall Street and the “1%”. Capitalism has two parties and the working class has none. The results speak for themselves: massive poverty and entire communities disenfranchised, poor working conditions, lack of healthcare, mass incarceration and systemic racism.
I consider myself a workers’ candidate. I am a registered nurse and work in Lafayette. We want to build political power for the working class and can articulate the needs of the Lafayette working class.
A Socialist Candidate
I am an environmentalist, a candidate of the working class, and an open socialist. Socialism means an economy that is democratically run through decisions made by working people and community members.
What does socialism have to do with the environment?
At this point, capitalism has been so effective at environmental destruction that we can talk about the extinction of all life on earth. The economy is being run for the short-term profits of the very few. They are the ones making the determination of what will be produced and they don’t give consideration to the environment at all. This is relevant because (I am a new environmentalist — I worked more on labor issues in the past) right now, we are negotiating the terms of our environmental surrender. That is what passes as environmental regulation. To me, it had a perfect parallel to what passes as labor law. We are negotiating the terms of our exploitation rather than whether we should be exploited at all.
To be an environmentalist, you must be a revolutionary. Under what terms will the environment be totally destroyed? We are negotiating our labor under terms of surrender. So labor law is not there to emancipate, but to define the terms of our exploitation.
Why aren’t you running as a candidate for the Green Party?
I know people in the Green party that would consider themselves socialists. I don’t know what it’s future is. The Green Party tends to focus primarily on elections to the exclusion of building real grassroots movement that can push candidates forward. Political candidacy should be an extension of a grassroots movement. The election must be a political extension of that movement. Like, “Oh we’ll, just get everybody elected and the system will change.” We can put candidates in office, but the only way we can make the change is if we can start enforcing ideas through the basic grassroots movements and workplaces. That’s a different emphasis.
It’s important for the revolutionary and socialist to know that when the working class takes initial steps forward, it will likely not be explicitly anti-capitalist in its formation. The firefighters union is a workers’ organization. The vanguard party isn’t going to fall from the sky. The revolution led by the working class will come in waves and we have to fully integrate ourselves into that process.
What other campaigns and organizing have you done?
I started out as a political activist when I was fifteen. My first protest was against racism when the Aryan nation and the KKK were marching in Chicago. I consider the Black Lives Matter movement in its real form as one the best things that has happened to our country in decades. It has all the elements of an actual fledging movement. It has broken through the constraints of conventional activism. I should add that beyond the fight against racism, some of my other activism is mainly against U.S. wars in Central and South America and fighting U.S. militarization in those countries. I was one of the protesters in a Seattle WTO group in 1999 and was arrested there. It was when we shut down the WTO. We won that battle. Following that, I was a rank-and-file organizer in the Chicago Carpenters Union Local 1.
The pathetic thing is when we moved from Chicago to Colorado. I honestly thought my activism was going to dissolve or take a backseat and I fucked that all up. Since moving to Colorado, environmentalism is something I have begun to understand. We are making tremendous strides and are seen as a major threat to one of the most powerful industries in the world. That is the result of working class communities standing up. That movement has not been led by a single politician or big environmental group. Every victory is through the defiant act of regular Colorado communities.
Can you tell us more about East Boulder County United? And what is your perspective on political organizations?
EBCU is technically a non-profit. My perspective on organizations is that it is one of the elements that has helped us build this movement in Lafayette in the effort against fracking, but we have now built a State organization: Colorado Community Rights Network.
I think that while a lot of times these movements will occur spontaneously, but at some point there needs to be an organizational expression of that movement. And that’s what we have attempted to build here. An organization that fights fracking and explains the system that forces it upon us and links the organization to other movements fighting for everything from a living wage to affordable housing and every other necessity that the system has deprived us of.
How have people responded to your campaign?
The Community members and workforce identify me as an effective fighter. They may not totally understand some of the other concepts that motivate me, but they know me as a genuine and dedicated community member and someone fighting with the motivation of a father and someone that comes from the real Lafayette workforce.
It’s been wonderful! Because I am an independent candidate, we go out in the community and workplaces and talk to people. Among the reasons we moved to Lafayette are that we felt it was a very thoughtful and caring working class community. It has a lot of diversity and political history. We celebrate MLK day and March for Cesar Chavez—major labor struggles. In the local cemetery, there are five dead miners that were killed by police during a labor dispute in 1927. The last ashes of Joe Hill were scattered on that grave. On my campaign website, I have a photo of the place.
It’s also a community with increasing living costs and lack of affordable housing and minimum wage jobs – going through a process of gentrification, and I have taken a very sharp position on this.
People are reacting positively. The campaign has many elements from the community rights effort to an environmental and labor platform. The campaign is resonating with different elements of the community for different reasons. I am mostly known for keeping oil and gas companies out of Lafayette, but the campaign has also focused on minimum-wage workers in the city. This has led to some of the most inspiring interactions with people. Typically, these folks are people of color, single moms and so when I talk to them and introduce myself and talk about the $15 minimum wage platform, the reaction is almost identical. First, there’s a period of disbelief, but once they understand that I am quite serious, there is a change. People stand taller and smile. People become stronger. I will never forget those conversations.
Typically, the industry will identify people they consider a threat. I’ve gotten personal threats to my job and family and regular smear campaigns. It’s because they are scared of us. I have had to deal with harassment from police because of my organizing and their support for the oil and gas industry. The intent is to weaken the bigger, more powerful ideas.
It’s been tiring, but someone reminded me that regardless of the results of the election, I have already won. What does that mean? Its means we have driven the issues, that we have been politically direct and honest, we haven’t attempted to soften the ideas and in the campaign itself the working class of Lafayette has had an elevation in thought about the things that are necessary and how we can begin to fight for them. That is the chief differentiation between the movement candidate and a politician.
Can you talk about the idea of people running for office as socialists?
I think that this is important for socialists to consider running for independent office. Five years ago, they would compare that idea to Stalin and today they think you are Bernie Sanders. What socialists have to spend time and thought in doing is defining what socialism means and emphasizing that it cannot be separated from an independent force of the working class; the two dominant parties of American political life are an extension of Wall Street—they are the political proxies of wall street; and socialism cannot be confused for support for either of these parties.
This is like a rebirth of socialist politics. We didn’t invent this wheel, but we happen to be experiencing it for the first time. Fracking is a newer phenomenon. Building confidence of the working class is also important. In the last few decades, there has been a lower level of activities and victories and that has to change in tangible ways.
How do you compare yourself to presidential candidate Bernie Sanders?
Sanders is a politician of the 2nd Wall Street Party. I believe that a lot of people who are supporting him are supporting him for the right reasons, but I learned a long time ago that a fight for the working class and for our environment has to create a movement that is independent of the two parties that are destroying both. I would add that the stronger and more defiant the American working class becomes—whether through fighting police brutality, environmental destruction or worsening labor conditions—the better marketing these two parties need to come up with to keep us from creating our own independent political force.
Are you aware of other socialist environmental campaigns?
I saw the video that the Argentine socialist FIT (Left & Workers’ Front) created about the mining interests there. We are both experiencing corporate imperialism and two edges of the same sword. To be an environmentalist in any sincere way means to be a revolutionary. I think that one of the advantages that the industries experience is that while all of these communities suffer, we are somewhat isolated. We are taught that this problem is only Lafayette’s problem, and that we are somewhat exceptional. That’s the marketing of the extraction industry.
What is being described in Argentina is almost identical to what we experience in Lafayette. If these industries are operating internationally, the resistance must be international. We are suffering the same type of devastation that these industries are threatening to impose on Lafayette.
In elections, what we want to do is begin to establish a model of what independent working-class candidates can accomplish. We are running on a labor and environmental platform. But what would be a positive campaign is to learn and be affected by the campaign, so we become better candidates.
How have you incorporated the workers at fracking facilities in your demands?
The workers at fracking facilities suffer fatalities at seven times the national rate. They are also the ones exposed to these chemicals. When this industry is no longer profitable, they are the ones who will be hurt the most. While Lafayette will continue to protect its community and environment, it’s also important that we reach out to the workers in the industry, so these workers are brought into jobs that don’t risk their lives.
I want to create a local labor council. I want to build power for the working class for Lafayette and beyond and start challenging the system. But I think as candidates, we need to learn from this. These types of campaigns aren’t happening regularly and we don’t have a model. Our hope is that this can be the beginning of a movement of people building where they live. To any of those people considering running for office for strategies or tactics, I would offer support, help and guidance but we are doing something new here. We hope to get better at it so that as these types of campaigns become more common, so they can become stronger.
How will you unite the working class against police brutality?
Environmentalists in many areas are predominately white and middle class. How do we take and bring this analysis and raise awareness of this issue? The community rights efforts are starting to go beyond environmentalism, to establish a “Worker’s Bill of Rights”, for example in Spokane Washington. What about creating a community bill of rights to limit police powers?
If you could write a law, what would it say?
A law that weakens them or fractures them and is designed to radicalize the population. It’s illegal in Colorado to create a minimum wage higher than the state, illegal to create rent control. Communities could have superior legal standing over corporate power. The community can be given legal standing to have precedence. One of the first endorsers on our state ballot initiative was the Colorado $15 now movement. If you can’t walk down the street without being shot at by the cops, you don’t have community rights.
The Carpenters for a Rank and File union (of which I was a member and lead organizer) took a position against racism because they knew they would not win the fight on their own. One was apologetic to me because he felt bad, but when you grow up in the Bridgeport area in Chicago in a racist area then you will learn.
The police are the armed enforcement of the corporate state. A local law that recognizes this will ultimately create conflict with the Fraternal Order of Police.
What are your final thoughts?
The most important question for revolutionary socialist candidates is how you get the ideas to engage with the current consciousness of the working class. Where those two meet—that’s the most important dynamic of this kind of work. There is no formula for it— it won’t be on a bumper sticker because it’s dialectic. The process will be unique to the people, issues and community but will have all its basis in those ideas.
Another component is where is the consciousness of the working class? If the nature of the consciousness is fighting, militant, and unapologetic then these campaigns will go a lot further. But if it’s still developing, then the campaign will assist in elevating that consciousness, to strengthen and embolden it.
The environment we are working in is inseparable from us. We are coming out of a period where there have not been other recent examples of socialists in office, or prominent in political movements. Most of the people fighting fracking have never done activism before and you can’t get so ahead of the parade that you can’t hear the music. The voice of the working class is the highest authority.
People will say, “The system is broke,” but it isn’t. The system is fixed and we have to break it. It’s not getting twenty million people to sign on, or getting the right people. Instead, the system is designed for the kinds of outcomes people experience, like in Lafayette. The laws are going to have to be redefined – from the labor to the A to the civil rights movement. Because of this revolutionaries have to look at themselves as a work in progress.
The Lafayette Community Bill of Rights City council resolution against community bill of rights
Colorado Community Rights Amendment (State ballot initiative)
Legalizing Democracy Where we Live
Coalition Forming in Colorado
NPR police story