Before the year ends, Philadelphians will gather at their local polling places for the Philadelphia City Council election. While Cindy Bass has held the seat for 13 years, this Germantown native passionate about labor union organizing will place his bid for the seat.
Seth Anderson-Oberman grew up in the Brickyard section of Germantown in the 70s and early 80s with vivid memories of porch hanging and games of stoop ball with friends. Though he describes his childhood as great, he now realizes the economic disadvantages.
“My parents were broke, and most of my friend’s parents were pretty broke,” Anderson-Oberman explains. “I don’t think we necessarily knew what that meant. At the time, we didn’t have a whole lot of content or things to compare it to. We just knew how we grew up.”
Anderson-Oberman says his parents were often stressed as they moved around low-wage jobs. He recounts living in about 20 different homes before the age of 10 because of it. It wasn’t until his stepfather started working in maintenance at Giuffre Medical Center and became a member of District 1199C Union that he noticed a change in finances for the better.
This new financial circumstance came from the fight and resilience of his stepfather’s co-workers, who went on strike to improve the conditions. Oberman-Anderson says his stepfather brought him to the picket line, which would be his first revelation of the power of labor organizing.
“It was one of the first places that I saw a large, multiracial group of people standing together fighting for the same thing.” the 8th district candidate says, remembering a very segregated Philadelphia. “That had a real impact on me, and they won that strike. And I noticed, as a kid in the house, that things got a little easier.”
Anderson-Oberman carried that moment into his adult life as he grew into the labor organizer that he is. After leaving Temple, where he also organized, he worked for Philadelphia Jobs for Justice on contract campaigns AFSCME DC 47 and 33.
He was also a line cook for the Four Seasons Hotel, where he says there were low wages and no health benefits. He enjoyed cooking because of the atmosphere and camaraderie among co-workers but sensed the field’s inequity.
He says, “we’re sending these dishes out, and these bills are like $1,000 a table, you know? And we’re making $10-12 dollars an hour with no health benefits. That contradiction just eats away at you.”
Anderson-Oberman left cooking and went back to labor organizing, holding various jobs. He helped organize parking garage workers with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union in DC — another impactful moment for him, as many of the workers were Ethiopian & Eritrean. Ethiopia and Eritrea were at war then, so seeing folks in solidarity was inspiring to him.
He then worked with the American Federation of Teachers in Philly and New Jersey, NJ AFL-CIO, and the Philadelphia Labor Council, where he organized at Germantown’s Working America office.
One of Seth’s favorite wins as a labor organizer came when he assisted support staff at Chestnut Hill Hospital with the fight for new pay scales and promotions. He says they prevailed after decades of discriminatory practices.
He describes it, saying, “you had a situation in the hospital where a lot of support staff were Black workers who had been hired and working for years but hadn’t seen raises ever. And white support staff, who [Black support staff] had trained, would come in after them and get promoted or get raises.”
He called the win “hugely satisfying,” as there were about 200 workers in the hospital who live in our community. “It wasn’t a huge number of like 1,000 people,” Anderson-Oberman states. “But it’s a group of workers who live in my community. And really helping to reverse this kind of entrenched racist practices that pervade our economy in a real tangible way.”
Now, turning to his run for the 8th District Council seat, Anderson-Oberman is wearing his love for working people on his shoulder to pave a new future for younger generations hopefully. He cites his children as a source of inspiration.
“As a father, it’s been really interesting these last ten years or so,” he says. “My kids are 19 and 15. I stay up at night with deep levels of anxiety about the kind of world our kids are going to inherit. You know, we’ve got a climate crisis that is bearing down on us, and that window is closing, so we have to act with an incredible sense of urgency for future generations. That’s one of the things that’s personally motivating me to do this right now. And to make the switch from union organizing into building working-class, political power in our communities to make a difference is big because the fight is so big and the challenges are so big.”
The candidate’s main priority is the housing crisis, as it affects the country and Philadelphia’s 8th District. As someone with firsthand experience with housing insecurity, he says he understands how the developments in the neighborhood displace families and threaten the safety of community members.
The development in the neighborhood in the past 12 years is something he says has been “woefully inadequate,” and he would like to work with community members to remedy it. One of his ideas is to require a percentage of new construction to have affordable housing. Beyond this, he also wants to clarify what “affordable” means.
According to the U.S. Census, the median household income for Philadelphia in 2021 was $52,649, compared to $37,322 for zip code 19144 and $44,455 for 19138.
Anderson-Oberman expands on his thoughts around affordability, saying, “we need to have zip code and even micro-area definitions around affordability that can really look at the income levels that folks in specific neighborhoods can afford.”
He also says that other pieces of housing and development, like parking, illegal dumping, and safety, can be tackled along with addressing the crisis. Another primary concern is ensuring that public schools are fully funded, resourced, and free of mold, asbestos, and lead.
When asked how it feels to run for an elected office position for the first time, Anderson-Oberman says it feels great. As a union organizer, he sees a lot of similarities going into this work, except instead of helping workers build power in the workplace, he’ll work with people in the community to assemble people power.
The first-time candidate assures the neighbors he is running because he loves this district and its people. He gives an honest testimony about what it will take to build a new future for the 8th District.
He says, “I’m not running because I think I have all the answers. I think that’s a mistake to think that we can ask anybody we elect to have all the answers. But, I think as a community, we have the experience, and we have the answers. When we come together to identify our needs, and we fight together for what we need, we can make incredible progress.”
Anderson-Oberman held his campaign kick-off for neighbors to hear more about his plans for the 8th District City Council this past Saturday, February 11, from noon until 2 p.m.
His campaign will also host a petition party at 6525 Germantown Avenue on Tuesday, February 14th, to connect with neighbors, get sign-ups for Seth’s ballot petition, and receive training for petition collection. Neighbors can visit from 12-2 p.m. or 6-8 p.m.