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Labor's Role

Richard A. Feldman

In their analysis of the roots of urban decline, Luria and Rogers focus attention on American public policy. Their claims about the importance of policy in explaining decline are debatable: one could argue that outmigration from cities has been a norm in the United States for 100 years; that the federal government supported decentralization to increase survivability of a nuclear attack; or that real estate developers, mortgage interest deductions, and Internal Revenue Code homeseller capital gains treatment combined have had a far bigger effect than regional economic development policy.1 But whatever its causes, the current pattern of urban decline (including deunionization and deindustrialization) is disastrous for workers: loss of livable wage jobs, longer commutes to lower paying jobs, higher housing costs, and sprawl-induced environmental degradation of water, land, and air. We have no choice but to do what we can within our regions to change this pattern.

Luria and Rogers are right to think there are real possibilities to build coalitions in support of such regional efforts. In Seattle, for example, labor (through the King County Labor Council, AFL-CIO, and the Seattle-King County Building Trades Council, AFL-CIO) has actively supported growth-management laws. That support put us on the same side of the table as rural anti-sprawl activists and environmentalists working to preserve open space and farms by fighting green field development, as well as good government advocates; we were opposed by the usual array of subdivision developers, mall-meisters, and corporate land-use lawyers. Labor's position was that growth management protected and supported our scarce industrial land and its unionized livable-wage job base. We were also successful in catalyzing the multiparty Duwamish Coalition to address contaminated land, water quality, and job retention issues in Seattle's industrial heartland.

So alliances on economic strategy are possible, and they are important. But building them will require work: they will not happen if we think that lots of people are aimlessly milling around, mutually antagonizing each other, waiting for an enterprising leader to pick up the flag and snap them into concerted action in pursuit of their own interests. Labor in particular has much work to do building bridges and bases before we can depend on self-interest to bind us into a grand alliance. The problem is that labor is not now thought of as a natural part of an anti-sprawl alliance, nor in some cases is it ready to be in that alliance. The sources of the trouble--some of which are now being addressed--lie both within labor and the community.

The central problem within the labor movement is that labor's traditional contact with cities--through Central Labor Councils (CLCs) coordinating the efforts of different regional unions--was left to wither and die as Washington, DC-centered activity came to dominate the political scene in general, and labor in particular. This is now changing. With the leadership of Sweeney, Trumka, and Chavez-Thompson, the AFL-CIO is committed to rebuilding the labor movement's connection to its grassroots by encouraging the reemergence of CLCs and making sure that CLCs reflect the diversity of the community. The strength of this commitment is expressed in the Union Cities resolution recently adopted by the AFL-CIO's Executive Council. This resolution represents a fundamental change in the roles and responsibilities of CLCs to support organizing, political action, coalition building, and other strategic goals of the labor movement. Most importantly for my comments here, the Union Cities resolution explicitly recognizes the importance of community economic development strategies and of the role of CLCs in building community alliances to promote such strategies and fight corporate subsidy abuse.2

In developing those alliances, labor will need to open itself fully to central-city Black, Latino, and Asian populations, get back on the radar screen of urban activists, and bridge the divide that currently separates worker rights and human rights groups. Because of the declining numbers of unionized workers, a whole generation of activists have no direct experience with unions through their families or communities. Illegal firing of workers for concerted activity is not on the top of their list of issues. Labor itself bears principal responsibility for changing this situation: (re)introducing people to labor basics is essential. Again there is hope on this front with the preliminary actions taken by the new AFL-CIO leadership: Union Summer, "America Needs a Raise" town hall meetings, and labor teach-ins are all outward-focused, community-oriented actions. We will need to do much more.

What strategies of community economic development will these alliances adopt? Not CEDS, for all the reasons that Luria and Rogers give. What is unique about their proposal, though, is not simply the criticisms of CEDS, but the role of labor in it. Progressives working to counter urban unemployment and alienation from labor markets are boundlessly creative in developing business-oriented programs--to provide employers with screened and trained employees, establish suburban job links, or encourage small business capital formation. In contrast, discussions of labor are confined to strategies for getting building trades jobs for community residents on major development projects.3 Unions are something to be acted on; they are not seen as partners in efforts to increase economic opportunity. (We will know that we have arrived when the Aspen Institute or the Casey Foundation publishes a study on innovative ways to increase unionization in low-wage industries, the use of Taft-Hartley trusts to fund housing for hotel workers, or the use of economically targeted investments by pension funds.) Labor needs to creatively and boldly define how it will organize in the community to promote social and economic justice for all working people. But it will not be able to do this properly if it operates in a vacuum or is neglected by other potential allies.

Labor's own revitalization needs to be directly linked to urban revitalization. Luria and Rogers have taken an important step by presenting a program of metro reconstruction that includes such linkage. But let's not assume that economic self-interest alone lines people up behind such a program. We have some important political work to do in developing and understanding each others' interests and potentials before the grand (and necessary) alliance will be fully realized.


1 Section 1034 of the Internal Revenue Code enables homesellers to shelter capital gains only if they purchase a home at least equal in price to the one they have sold. In urban areas, home values increase in value with distance from the center; so the provision encourages movement out and away from the center. A study of the Cleveland area found that 81 percent of homesellers complied with the provision, and of those that complied 84 percent moved farther out. "The IRS Homeseller Capital Gain Provision: Contributor to Urban Decline," Ohio Housing Research Network.


2 The Union Cities resolution challenges CLCs and their local unions to commit to pursue eight goals:

1. Signing half of its local union affiliates on to a program coordinated with their internationals to shift 30 percent of the local's resources into organizing;

2. Developing a rapid response/solidarity team to support worker struggles in the community;

3. Reaching a member growth rate of three percent per year by 2000;

4. Organizing grassroots labor/community political action committees in each legislative district;

5. Sponsoring an economics education program for a majority of affiliated local unions;

6. Building public support for the right of workers to join unions by sponsoring a city council resolution and by insisting that candidates pledge to support organizing;

7. Ensuring diversity in the entire structure of the CLC; and

8. Working with community allies on economic development strategies that establish community standards for local industries and public investment.

3 See for example Cheryl Bardoe, Employment Strategies for Urban Communities: How to Connect Low-Income Neighborhoods with Good Jobs (1996).

Originally published in the February/ March 1997 issue of Boston Review



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