Union Activists Fight Sprawl to Preserve Union Jobs, Wages

Suburban sprawl has caught the critical eye of several labor leaders who see the decline of cities and inner suburbs as a threat to the future of unions.

Employees in new outer suburbs earn less than their city counterparts, while most cannot use public transportation or find affordable rental housing and child care near their jobs, according to Mike Fitzgerald, president of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 134 in Chicago.

The move to the outskirts does not necessarily create more jobs, said Fitzgerald. ”There is just as much work to be done here as out there,” he said from downtown Chicago. ”Smart growth,” such as restoring cities, cleaning up damaged sites, and building more densely along lines of public transportation, is best for every classification of worker the local represents, including construction and manufacturing workers, he said.

Politicizing Suburban Sprawl
Fitzgerald said the city of Chicago is completely rewriting its zoning ordinance for the first time since 1957. ”We’re going to have an input in the rewriting,” he said. ”And our [political action] committee is supporting candidates for smart growth.” Local 134 is also using an allocation from pension funds to help create affordable housing near public transportation.

”We here in Cook County have had record man-hours in the past five years,” he said. ”There’s an impression the counties downtown are built out. That’s not true. Buildings and infrastructure are decayed. There’s lots of open space. There are brownfields to be cleaned up.”

One of the first anti-sprawl union campaigns involving grocery jobs was run by IBT local 264 in Buffalo, N.Y., and local 52 in Cleveland in 1996 in opposition to the construction of enormous warehouses and the practice known as cross-docking. The plan by Royal Ahold, a Dutch owner of U.S. supermarket chains, to have groceries delivered to mega-warehouses rather than directly to stores ”would have eliminated a lot of jobs, ” according to Richard Lipsitz, the Buffalo local’s business agent and now dean of labor studies at Cornell University. Community, small business, and environmentalist groups also opposed the plan, because they feared the quality and selection of groceries would deteriorate, and prices for consumers would eventually increase as locally owned markets were forced out of business, costing cities tax revenue. Loss of wetlands and farmland and increased air pollution from trucks were other concerns, Lipsitz said, adding that ”it was an interesting coalition.”

The coalition pressured the Erie County legislature to pass a resolution against cross-docking and forced Royal Ahold to sign a code of conduct requiring it to work with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and Friends of the Earth, a worldwide environmental group, on studies of the effects of cross-docking and alternatives. The campaign ended with a compromise: One warehouse already under construction was built on a wetland in Lancaster, N.Y., but all union members were guaranteed jobs and most of the cross-docking plans were blocked.

The campaign caught the attention of Greg LeRoy, a 26-year member of the Transportation Communications Union who in 1998 founded the Washington, D.C.-based Good Jobs First, a resource center dedicated to holding subsidized corporations ”accountable for family-wage jobs.” LeRoy, author of No More Candy Store: 20States and Cities Making Job Subsidies Accountable, called the Ahold effort ”a model,” and said unions now working against sprawl include the Amalgamated Transit Union and the Transport Workers Union in New York, as well as the AFL-CIO in Silicon Valley and central labor bodies in other cities.

Making Good Jobs First Priority
Don Turner, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, said his organization supports smart growth. ”Unions are basically an urban institution,” he said. ”Preserving urban areas is essential to our well-being.”

Turner said governments subsidize sprawl through tax incentives. For example, in 1989, Illinois gave Sears Roebuck Co., which had threatened to leave the state, $61 million in land and subsidies to move from downtown Chicago to the outer suburbs. This was supplemented by $81 million in local subsidies, Turner said. In its old location, Sears employed workers from all over the city, whereas now almost all of its workers live in a distant suburb.

Turner said Chicago and other cities are seeing a convergence of interests in downtown renewal, preserving open space, and easing transportation congestion. ”There’s actually more work when you renew something,” he said. ”It’s getting to the point where people have two jobs every day, work and getting to work.

This is probably going to be the most important political issue for the next 20 years,” said Turner.

According to LeRoy, ”unions, by focusing on the human aspects of the issue – the need for every working family to have good jobs and access to them – can personalize the issue,” making people ”much more likely to actively support the cause.”

By David Swanson

For more information, visit the Web site at http://www.goodjobsfirst.org.

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