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Can Bernie Sanders' fight for forgotten California workers propel him to victory?


Allen Hernandez, 39, has spent his life fighting against the deadliest air in America.

The pollution in southern California’s Inland Empire gave him life-threatening asthma attacks as a child, and now he watches his eight-year-old niece regularly go to the emergency room instead of school.

Despite the lack of progress toward clean air over the decades, Hernandez recently had reason to feel hopeful: Bernie Sanders was sitting with him, listening to his story.

If the Vermont senator wins the 3 March California primary and Democratic presidential nomination, it will be in part due to his campaign’s aggressive outreach to communities like Hernandez’s, a strategy that includes direct advocacy on hyper-local issues and collaborating with grassroots activists often ignored by their own elected representatives.

“No community should have to live like this,” said Hernandez, an activist who grew up in the city of Fontana, in an area long plagued by the most toxic air in the US due to a major rail yard, industrial warehouses and brutal truck traffic. “The studies show we’re dying. The diesel is killing us.”

The Sanders campaign and Latino activists in the Inland Empire, a region straddling two counties about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, have banded together against a shared enemy – Amazon. The retail giant has been rapidly expanding its local warehouses, in the processing worsening truck pollution and offering jobs that critics say can be hazardous and exploitative. Some workers and community organizers fighting for better labor conditions and environmental protections are also canvassing for Sanders, energized by his campaign’s presence in their neighborhoods.

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Sanders speaks at a rally on 16 December in Rancho Mirage, part of the Inland Empire.



Sanders speaks at a rally on 16 December in Rancho Mirage, part of the Inland Empire. Photograph: David McNew/Getty Images

“Bernie has paid attention to us and thrown his voice behind our fight,” said one worker at an Amazon sort center in San Bernardino, who requested anonymity for fear of losing their job. “It does bring me a lot of hope.”

The Sanders strategy: ‘You can’t just have a Spanish flyer’

Sanders, the frontrunner in the race for the Democratic nomination since he won the Nevada caucuses, is betting that his campaign’s strategic early investments in a California ground game will translate into votes from working-class communities typically forgotten in state and national races.

Last year, Sanders was the first 2020 candidate to open an office in Riverside, an Inland Empire city. The billionaires in the race, Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg, later followed suit.

“You have to speak to those voters. You have to organize, not just translate an English flyer into Spanish,” Rafael Návar, the campaign’s California director, said in a recent interview. That means partnering with, and hiring, longtime activists: “The folks who have been fighting on the ground to improve the conditions of working people can see themselves reflected in a presidential campaign that is not only committed to those values as well, but is going to lift up their individual fights.”

In the Inland Empire, the campaign is engaging groups taking on the industries poisoning their neighborhoods.

The region was once home to the west coast’s largest steel plant, a major air force base and an agricultural economy. Over time, those sectors and jobs disappeared, and in the last decade, more than 150m square feet of industrial warehouses have moved into historically rural and equestrian areas. Hubs for distribution centers and the logistics industry, with massive warehouses for Amazon, UPS, Walmart and other retailers, have taken over.

“There are so many warehouses being built at such a rapid rate, it’s really difficult to keep up,” said Anthony Victoria, a 28-year-old local activist, while driving through the industrial corridors of his hometown, passing by new warehouses in longtime residents’ backyards, truck routes adjacent to schools, and “notice of filing” signs at construction sites warning of more warehouses to come.

Anthony Victoria: ‘How many of these kids struggle to play ball now because they can’t breathe?’



Anthony Victoria: ‘How many of these kids struggle to play ball now because they can’t breathe?’ Photograph: Sam Levin/The Guardian

After passing a field where he used to play baseball, he gestured to a new nearby warehouse: “How many of these kids struggle to play ball now because they can’t fucking breathe?”

Victoria’s mother was originally from Honduras and his father from Mexico, and the family bought a house in Rialto in San Bernardino county in the early 2000s when real estate was affordable. Owning property was part of their American dream, he said.

But they lost their home in the recession and were forced to move into a trailer park near a rail yard, an area with terrible air quality that eventually made his mother sick. She died last year at age 56 after battling cancer that was exacerbated by her health problems: “It’s a slow death, the slow violence of the supply chain.”

He rattled off the grim statistics. In 2018, San Bernardino had 102 “bad air” days, meaning unhealthy smog levels that can trigger asthma attacks and cause lung problems. The region ranks as the fifth worst place in the nation to raise children and is at the top of the list for America’s “deadliest” air quality.

Out of five women who have been central in the community organizing against warehouses in recent years, four have died of cancer and other illnesses, said Victoria: “People are literally dying fighting this.”

The Sanders campaign made clear to Victoria that it took this crisis seriously – and not just by having the candidate hold a rally in the region.

Fighting for Amazon workers: ‘Bernie went to the people’

Hernandez, the Fontana native, who leads an environmental justice group, said it had been easy for him to collaborate with the Sanders team: Sanders’ Inland Empire campaign director is one of his mentees.

Last year, Sanders and his wife met Hernandez and Victoria to discuss the scourge of the warehouses and the impact of Amazon. Sanders endorsed the coalition’s fight for a “community benefits agreement” with Amazon, which has more than a dozen warehouses in the area. Advocates have been organizing against a proposed air cargo facility in San Bernardino, which is rumored to have Amazon as its tenant.

Hernandez said some of his friends who are politicians were jealous they didn’t get time with the candidate: “It’s because you’re elected. Bernie went to the people.”

Anna Bahr, Sanders’ California communications director, said: “The campaign takes its political cues, its policy cues, the stands that it makes, from people on the ground, from folks who have been very vulnerable to corporations.” She noted that the campaign had also offered support to striking graduate students and residents affected by wildfires.

That kind of localized engagement can energize activists who are trusted in their communities to volunteer. Hernandez has hosted “Bernie walks” in the region, encouraging his neighbors to vote for the candidate who has fought for better jobs at Amazon and other warehouses in their community.

Ana Gonzalez, a 33-year-old Sanders supporter and single mother who has fought the warehouses, said voters like her were used to feeling under-represented in the local Democratic party. With Sanders, “I feel like we’re finally being seen. And voters are seeing organizers they know and have relationships with work with the campaign.”

Gonzalez, of Rialto, has knocked on hundreds of doors since meeting Sanders.

“There’s still this image of the ‘Bernie bro’, but I don’t think that’s the reality of his supporters here,” added Katherine Palomares, 27, who grew up in the Inland Empire and is now doing census outreach. The campaign seemed inclusive of people who are so often disenfranchised and trapped in bad jobs. “Out here, people don’t have hope. They’re at the hands of their employers, very vulnerable.”

Some organizers aren’t used to having their goals overlap with candidate platforms in the Inland Empire, where local politicians openly court warehouse developers, citing the jobs they bring.

“They bend over backwards to convince the community that this is good,” said Andres Garcia, 28, who previously worked at a local Amazon warehouse and is now supporting Sanders.

Andres Garcia: ‘This is environmental racism.’



Andres Garcia: ‘This is environmental racism.’ Photograph: Sam Levin/The Guardian

While driving through his native San Bernardino, Garcia pointed to decaying streets and a shuttered mall. The warehouse jobs are temporary, but the negative health impacts on the community can be long-term, said Garcia, who was born with asthma: “This is environmental racism.”

An Amazon spokesperson said the company had created more than 15,000 jobs in the Inland Empire with “industry-leading wages, comprehensive benefits [and] safe workplaces’, and noted its $15-an-hour minimum wage. The company also cited its “climate pledge” and investments in renewable energy and alternate-power vehicles (though Amazon has also recently faced scrutiny for threatening to fire employees for speaking publicly about the climate crisis).

For voters like Hernandez, the election is personal and the stakes are high. When he was salutatorian in high school in Fontana, his graduation speech ended up being a eulogy for his best friend who died of cancer. These days, he fights for his niece, whose home is surrounded by seven warehouses and whose asthma is so severe that she has to immediately take a shower and change her clothes when she gets home from school, and then again before bed.

She likes to wear her Snow White costume when she is forced to go to the ER for asthma: “She says, ‘This makes me feel better. Can I just be a princess when you take me there?’”

These challenges are severe and demand an urgent and radical response, Hernandez said: “Bernie is not trying to soften it or … find a solution steeped in capitalism. He’s saying, we’ve got to take this on.”





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