Meet Chris Hoeppner, the Socialist Workers Party candidate for city controller
Standing next to a table full of books with titles like Coal Miners on Strike, The Communist Manifesto and Trade Unions, Chris Hoeppner was going out of his way on May Day to speak to whomever would listen in Elmwood Park. Come November, he plans on running for City Controller, a job that’s come under much scrutiny over the last few months as the race between Alan Butkovitz and Brett Mandel has heated up and arguably become the most talked-about primary in town.
But Hoeppner isn’t a Democrat. He’s a member of the Socialist Workers party—as well as a mechanic at the rail plant in South Philly and a member of the Transit Workers Union Local 234. He tells Philadelphia Weekly he’s ready to turn his race and subsequent time in office into a forum to engage workers throughout the city and learn from, of all things, the Cuban Revolution. He has until August to file.
It’s the first we ever heard of a local candidate for office (and Controller, no less) running with Castro on mind. We had a pretty lengthy conversation with him to figure out what his deal is. Here’s how it went.
PW: So, first off, how long have you been working as a mechanic?
Hoeppner: I actually just moved there. I worked at Allied Steel but I was working the night shift, so I had to get off the night shift. I was working that for the last couple of years, but it was too much for my family. So I moved over and got this job.
Why do you want to be the city controller?
You look at what’s happened in the city, and it’s true countrywide. They’re slashing services, they’re slashing jobs, I mean, you see what’s happened in the Board of Ed. They’re closing schools, there’s going to be massive layoffs, school employees, teachers, other employees, but it’s happening in private industry. The whole crisis, you can’t really just look at Philly. You have to look at what’s happening in the country and the world. It’s a deep-going crisis. We’re in a recovery, and it actually is a recovery from the capitalist point of view.
OK, but the controller specifically–
I want to speak on the big questions. This isn’t going to be resolved by getting just one better person in the election. I mean, the unions, a lot of unions fought and paid a lot of money to get Nutter in there—another Democrat, and it’s like slash and burn … obviously that doesn’t work. We need independent, working class political action. And it’s going to be fought out in the streets. It’s just beginning, and we’ve got thousands of miners (he shows me the cover story of The Militant, that’s in his hand, showing coal miners in St. Louis going on strike). Why? Because the coal companies declared bankruptcy and we’re getting rid of the pensions.
I was reading the Times and they had the mayoral debate in New York and one of the questions they asked was, ‘are you for using drones in New York for surveillance?’ It’s an issue. This is what’s happening. I think for the biggest questions, we’re going to have to organize and fight and it’s going to be in the streets and I think the election campaign gives an opportunity to raise these questions. And my immediate thing is, we need a massive government-funded public works program to put millions of workers back to work. We can rebuild the bridges, the roads, the crumbling infrastructure. We could do that. We could have done it after Sandy but no government—federal, state—would do it. That’s why we’re facing unemployment, in a recovery, that’s increasing.
Wait. So, you’re saying we could have done the public works program with the funds that the federal government would have given out after Sandy?
I tell you something, it has nothing to do with funds. That’s a bogus question. It has to do with whether we fight, and we’re big enough to force them. Think about it: When did we get Social Security? 1934, 35. We didn’t get it because there was a budget surplus. We got it because people were in the streets marching on City Hall, state, federal, and forced the government to do it. Because [the government] were afraid we’d make a revolution, so they had to give a concession.
We’re going to have to get back in the streets and organize. It’s outrageous: they’re talking about laying off thousands of postal workers. They’re talking about laying off thousands of teachers. They’re already laying off, I mean, they’re decimating the working class right now, so we have to organize the fight. So, the point is, let’s organize and let’s learn the lessons of previous experiences. We’ve never won anything depending on a politician. We won it by fighting for it and, I’m old enough to have caught the end of the struggle of working people who were black to end segregation, and we won. We didn’t win it because of the politicians. And that’s what we have to do now is fight. And the most immediate question is jobs. Because it’s tearing us apart. It’s tearing the working class apart. There’s nothing from the federal government, because Obama’s slashing it all, he’s going after federal employment, he’s going after government workers’ jobs.
Yeah, federal employment was higher under Bush than it is now.
It’s getting worse. He’s attacking our rights. All this stuff after Boston, they’re using that. And I’m totally opposed, I think it was horrible, I’m totally opposed to that terrorism, but, now the government’s using it to attack our rights. They’re going to step up surveillance. How are they going to spy and go into your organizations?
So, you think the government is now going to try to move into organizations?
They’re doing it! Look at what the New York City Police Department’s doing … They’re doing it!
It’s going to take a revolutionary struggle. That’s the only practical—to put working people in government, so we can start to organize society in a different way. And that’s one of the reasons we highlight the Cuban Revolution. Because Cuba’s one of the few countries—we just publishing this book (he shows me a book titled Cuba and Angola). Here’s Fidel [Castro], Raul [Castro] and Nelson Mandela. How was Nelson Mandela freed? How was Apartheid overthrown? It’s the story that you don’t learn here [in the United States].
It tells you something about the Cuban Revolution that they sent 100,000 troops at the request of the Angolans to defeat South African invasion that led to the freedom of Nelson Mandela. You have a living revolution in Cuba to this day. With all the difficulties, to me it’s an example of how we can—when we empower working people, which we will—how we can begin to reorganize society and organize solidarity with people as opposed to, you know, one of the things they say is, when they left Angola, they didn’t take one goldmine, one oil well, they just took back their debt.
Do you really think the United States or parts of the United States could be reorganized to look like Cuba?
Yeah. Any time people are involved in a struggle, people are capable of things you cannot believe. I’ve seen workers where people say, oh they’re racist, they have an American flag (he puts his left hand on his right shoulder), but he’d be involved in the struggle. Other workers who may have been black, joined in solidarity. All of the sudden, you start to see the consciousness changes and you can see that when you’re engaged in struggle. It’s part of the particular challenge because in recent generations there haven’t been any mass struggles. But we’re going to see that. It’s a question of when, not whether. But to me, the other question is not when there’s going to be revolutionary struggles. There will be. But will we be victorious? Most revolutions go down in defeat. Because we’re not organized or politically conscious enough. That’s one of the lessons, I think, from the Civil War. After the abolition of slavery, what was the—why was Jim Crow established?
Part of the reason was that the political class of the United States was so politically backwards. It wasn’t conscious enough to throw its weight in the balance, to say it’s in the interest to have unity amongst black and white workers. We were still too inexperienced. Well, we have more experience now. It’s going to be very hard for that—we have learned some lessons, and the plant where I work? We have black workers, white, or, Caucasian workers, Puerto Rican workers, it’s more international. So it’s much harder for them to get away with that. So I think that’s true if you look at the immigration question.
Let them work, let them get a license. So that’s a big conquest, nevermind trying to push blacks back into the Jim Crow south—not going to happen. That’s when you start to see how the consciousness has already changed, but you have to organize. The election campaign for the socialist, we need to raise the discourse. We don’t say do what I say, no, we say I’ll join with you in any struggle that’s taking place. Together we’ll go through experiences, we’ll learn together, and we’ll fight. That’s why, you know, there’s no other party that’s involved in the coal miners (he shows me the newspaper again).
OK, so if you’re going to be, let’s say you become the city controller. How will you organize around that? Are you thinking of it more as a random spot in government to help workers organize?
There’s no question. There’s no way that will happen unless mobilizations take place. If you go back to the 30s, 40s or even the 50s, there were communists who were mayors and in city councils all over the country, particularly in working class places—coal fields and steel towns.
That’s all gonna happen, so we can use the office to advance the struggles of working people. The point is, capitalism cannot be reformed. That’s a real lesson. There’s going to have to be a revolutionary struggle with millions and millions of workers. Working people, workers and farmers—even though farmers in the United States are a relatively small percentage of the population, they still produce a huge amount of food. So it’s going to be, these classes together, certain classes of the middle class are going to come together, like they did in the 30s. You know, professors and others, who are by and large overwhelmingly liberal, democratic. But workers, you know, are open.
What I find is interesting is workers are open to revolutionary causes because they see everybody. You have enough experience over the last number of years, no one, I mean, I would ask you, if you can ask anybody, I’m not talking about a radical. I mean, go door-to-door and ask if they think the next generation is going to be better off. Everybody knows this crisis is not going to be upturned to solve our problem. Capitalism isn’t going to solve our problem. We need to lead a revolutionary struggle.
To me, the unions are a big thing. They’re getting weaker, but as they get weaker, to me, it’s within, among industrial workers, you have less illusions about what does exist.
But the unions continue supporting Democratic candidates.
Although workers are open to socialist–
But without the union bosses who support Democrats, can there really be unions with all the money to give to all these candidates and give to these causes?
Well, in time. This has been going on for decades. We’re paying a price for what started in the 30s. You gotta realize, our party was involved in the labor movement, including in the Teamsters union, we opened the road for what became the Teamsters union. Our whole leadership was imprisoned, the Teamsters leadership was imprisoned, that’s where Hoffa comes in. He was actually one of the people that we worked with, but when our leadership was thrown in prison, the Teamsters, he became the leader, and that becomes our leadership. This is the leadership of our unions, including the best of them. They’re all pretty much the same, don’t care whether it’s SEIU, AFL-CIO, they’re all part of the Democratic party. They all collaborate with the bosses, you know?
But workers, you ask workers, and they’re not interested in that. They say, unions suck—and it’s true! It’s true! So, I might say, what are we going to do about it? That’s not new. Let’s do something. Our campaign, I’ll say, anytime we’re involved in a fight, for example when the postal workers organized and protested we were down there. When the teachers organized and protested against their potential layoffs, when the Hahnemann nurse’s aides went out, we joined because that’s how we learn: Through experience. And then we bring the books and the theoretical… I mean Marxism, all it is, is a generalized experience of the working class over decades. It’s not a philosophy, it’s not a theory, it’s real experience. That’s what we can all recapture. And we print a lot of books because we don’t want to reinvent the wheel.
We’re the only ones who run in elections anymore, as you know. The communist party stopped. Workers world party, it’s because there are more and more [people voting for] Democrats. And it’s interesting, they’re not in plants anymore. It used to be, and I’ve been around long enough, I worked at Ford; there were communist party members, revolutionary community party, none of them are in the plants. They’re all professors, doctors, social workers, lawyers, students, international socialists. But there’s a middle class layer and they’re oriented toward the Democratic party—the left wing of the Democratic party. There is no other party like ours. It’s why we’re the only ones who are willing to even talk about the Cuban Revolution and print that kind of stuff. And, so, we think it’s important.
You go door-to-door in the neighborhoods because, you know, we’re not interested in only talking to radicals. I mean, you go to things like this, but this is mostly radicals.
It’s very interesting. You discuss, you say [to people when going door-to-door] ‘I’m a socialist workers party candidate, I work in a rail plant, we need to organize ourselves. What do you think?’ No one feels confident in what’s going on, but you’ve got to listen. I think it’s a very good time to be a revolutionary.