Economy in Crisis


The Fight for Quality Jobs: Our Battle Against Neoliberalism

Globalization is not a new phenomenon. The transatlantic slave trade was a manifestation of “globalization.” The carving up of Africa, Asia, and Latin America into colonies of Europe was a manifestation of “globalization.” Twenty-first century globalization shares some features with these previous eras, chief among them, the reality that the costs and benefits of a global economy are distributed unequally and, hence, our true challenge is building organizations and alliances with sufficient power to force a redistribution of these costs and benefits.

These issues of power and control are particularly important when fighting for quality jobs. Most jobs are not inherently good or bad; the key question for workers is the power to control the terms of work. Jobs in the auto and steel industries became “good” jobs because workers organized unions, which brought better wages, benefits, and dignity. Jobs in the casinos of Los Vegas became jobs that could sustain families because workers formed unions, and their collective action forced casino owners to redistribute their winnings. The victories of janitors in Houston, which led to the recognition of their union, will give them the power to improve their jobs.

The crisis of bad jobs in the United States is simply a domestic manifestation of twenty-first century globalization. The policies which harm many people in other countries are closely linked to the policies which harm many people in the United States. Just as people and nations are battling to transform structural policies with respect to international economic forces, there is a need to transform certain structural policies in this country. In the area of work and employment, this means a need to develop campaigns to transform the jobs which workers in the United States currently hold.

There are two essential economic elements of twenty-first century globalization: the rapid movement of technology, capital, goods and services, and people across space (“the world is getting smaller”); and the subsequent changing of the global division of labor. Production, which used to be exclusive to the United States, Europe, and Japan can now take place in most countries throughout the world. Also, during previous globalization eras, dominant countries contained most manufacturing and colonies and other lands were sites of raw material extraction. Now, manufacturing can occur in countries with cheaper labor forces and the production of services play a larger role in the economies of the global North. In addition, these policies have led to a change in the relationship between corporations, governments, and workers. This new relationship can be called neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism and What it Means


Key features of neoliberalism include a reduction in the role of government in regulating the economy; a greater role for the market in determining economic and social outcomes; and less protection for workers and citizens provided by governments. International economic institutions, such as the World Bank, reward countries that privatize national assets and balance budgets, even if these actions harm citizens. Transnational corporations seek those countries where markets are free of government regulations. The drive to balance budgets and have “business friendly” climates result in the elimination of needed social programs.

These features should sound familiar to activists in this country. Starting (with the Carter administration) in the late 1970s, the federal government has cut back its role in the economy and deregulated numerous industries, including trucking, telecommunications, and airlines. Local governments respond to insufficient revenue with cutbacks and contracting out. In the face of healthcare and pension crises, the Right calls for “market-based” solutions. Education is underfunded and welfare “reformed” to the point where former recipients are forced to take poverty level jobs.

What do these changes mean for jobs in the United States? Among the many impacts, three can be singled out. First, the rising importance of manufacturing in foreign countries means a greater role for the “goods movement” industry in this country. This industry includes the ports, which receive the goods, the trucks and trains, which move the goods off the docks, and the warehouses, which temporarily hold the goods. Second, the rising importance of a number of service industries, including hospitality, healthcare, and building services. A special feature of these jobs is that they cannot be shifted overseas because they involve people-to-people contact. Third, the strain on budgets cause local governments to use their land use policies to increase revenue streams. Thus, the retail industry becomes a special target for subsidies, with the resulting increase in retail jobs.

Given these domestic manifestations of neoliberalism, what lessons can be drawn by activists? Many advocates reference a so-called “Golden Age” of the United States economy between 1945 and 1973, when blue collar workers could earn decent incomes and the government had social programs to address poverty, healthcare, and retirement. In addition to the fact that this era was more complicated than depicted, it is important to note that the benefits of this period reflect a confluence of many factors, including the dominance of the United States in the international division of labor; the relative strength of labor, civil rights, and other social justice movements; and a range of social protections provided by the State. The first factor, United States pre-eminence following World War II, cannot be replicated. (Nor is it clear that we would want to return the world to such a state.) However, the other two factors reflect the conscious efforts of activists.

As we move forward, the battle for quality jobs in goods movement, services, and retail industries is a key arena where social justice activists should place their energies in the struggle against neoliberalism. Strong labor and social movements can indeed win direct concessions from employers and from the State, and force a redistribution of the gains from globalization.

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The Great Corporate Job Scam: Money for Nothing


Lurking within the records of most cities and states in America there lies a scandal. A tax scandal. A jobs scandal. A corporate and political scandal. Look up the names of corporations that have received taxpayer subsidies in the name of jobs. Almost every big company has gotten them, since the average state has more than 30 subsidy programs: such as property tax abatements, corporate income tax credits, sales and excise tax exemptions, tax increment financing, low-interest loans and loan guarantees, free land and land write-downs, training grants, infrastructure aid, and just plain cash grants. Chances are you will find many companies that have failed to create or retain as many jobs as they said they would. Companies that are paying poverty wages or failing to provide healthcare to their employees. Companies that are abandoning our cities and sprawling onto farmland and natural spaces. Even companies that are outsourcing jobs offshore.

Dig a little deeper and you’ll undoubtedly find companies that have

not created any new jobs, even some that have actually laid people off since they got the subsidies. Others that have gotten paid just to move existing jobs from one place to another, where they are proclaimed to be “new.”

How can they get away with this? Because the system is rigged. Corporations have it down to a science. They have learned how to chant “jobs, jobs, jobs,” win huge corporate tax breaks—and still do whatever they wanted to all along.
That’s the great American jobs scam: an intentionally constructed system that enables corporations to exact huge taxpayer subsidies by promising quality jobs, even when they fail to deliver. The other benefit often promised, higher tax revenues, often proves false as well.

This system costs taxpayers an estimated $50 billion a year in total spending by states and cities.1 The bottom of the iceberg is tax breaks. Those granted by states—income, sales, and excise—are the least visible, least accountable, and most corrosive ways of funding economic development. Those granted locally—property tax abatements and diversions—are especially problematic for their harm to schools.

Metastasis of the Business-Friendly Climate
This system has a long history and many moving parts. It can be traced at least as far back as the Great Depression, but it really matured in the 1970s. By then, most of the key actors were in place: secretive site location consultants who specialize in playing states and cities against each other; “business climate” experts with their highly politicized interpretations of tax and jobs data; and an organized corporate network orchestrating attacks on state tax systems.

Today, this $50 billion-a-year pot has spawned an even more elaborate cast of characters: rented consultants packing rosy projections about job creation and tax revenue; subsidy-tracking consultants to help companies avoid leaving money on the table; and even an embryonic industry to help businesses buy and sell economic development tax credits.

Maybe we could overlook all this chicanery if all boats were rising. But we are not getting higher wages, better benefits, a stronger tax base, or better public services. Instead, for the last quarter century, most wages have stagnated or fallen, healthcare has become less affordable and available, and pensions have shrunk in number and value. States and cities have developed structural budget deficits, prompting cutbacks in everything from school programs to infrastructure maintenance.

The only clear winners are large corporations. For building new facilities in many states, companies are actually paying negative income taxes. Subsidy packages routinely exceed $100,000 per job. Guess who’s getting stuck with the tab? When the big boys pay less, the rest of us pay more, or the quality of our public services declines.

Defining Competition
At the core of this scandal are corrupted definitions of “competition” that obscure cause and effect. We must create no-tax zones for factories, say the governors, to be competitive with other states—even though the whole country is bleeding manufacturing jobs and the obvious issue is globalization. We have to create a new Tax Increment Financing district and steal shoppers from neighboring suburbs, say the mayors, to compete for tax base—even though the metro area is strewn with dead malls.

These corrupted definitions salute corporate bottom lines while thumbing their noses at common sense, social science, and good government. They are the deliberate creations of a 50-year campaign by corporations to divide and conquer the states—as well as the suburbs. This corporate gospel of competition preaches that governments at all levels must not be allowed to cooperate, even if it takes litigation all the way to the Supreme Court, lobbying federal and state legislators, public relations campaigns, and consulting studies. Governments must not be allowed to cooperate. They must be kept in the dark and allowed into the room only when it’s time to talk about subsidies.

States must not be allowed to compare notes to determine if companies are lying about competing subsidy bids or cheating on their income taxes. Instead, states must only be allowed to compete to see who will tax the least, or who will give the biggest tax gift to a trophy deal.

Cities and suburbs must not be allowed to cooperate either, even though their fates hinge upon the health of their regional economies, not upon individual deals. Instead, localities must compete for tax base by pirating jobs and retail sales from each other, even though it means chewing up farmland for wasteful sprawl, and throwing away older areas, poor people, and past infrastructure investments.

Internalized by public officials, these corrupted definitions prevent governments from cooperating in the taxpayers’ interest. Business becomes the Alpha constituent. In these “public-private partnerships,” government gets to play spigot. Public officials get to practice economic development with a Seeing Eye® dog.

At every level, the system demeans and degrades public officials: the economic development official forced to bid for an unknown company against unknown competing sites; the school board members who have no say when property tax abatements corrode their budget; the revenue director whose sober advice is upstaged by the frothy projections of an economist rented by the Chamber of Commerce; the governor who overspends on a “trophy” project because she so fears the label “the governor who lost Mercedes.” Those who would dare to ask an impertinent question are quickly singled out for ridicule and isolation: They must be against jobs.

Collateral Damage
Besides creating corporate windfalls, the great American jobs scam is causing all manner of collateral damage. It was used to blunt calls for trade reform long before the North American Free Trade Agreement. It bankrolls interstate job piracy. It corrodes state budgets. It subsidizes private prisons, concentrated animal feeding operations, and hundreds of Wal-Mart facilities. It is used to help bust unions. It subsidizes poverty-wage companies that saddle us with hidden taxpayer costs, such as Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program bills. It is helping create a massive tax-burden shift away from big companies onto working families and small businesses. It is diverting precious resources away from the two investments that really do grow good jobs—skills and infrastructure. And just don’t get me started about stadiums.

The scam has also created mass confusion about cause and effect, about how little tax cuts and subsidies matter for jobs. The prevailing “business climate” ideology that plagues us today is a hangover from the meanest elements of the Old Economy. Our beliefs about taxes and jobs were shaped by a very politicized series of studies in the 1970s and 1980s that served the lobbying agenda of footloose manufacturers looking for cheap labor in the South on their way to Mexico or China. That agenda had no value for the rest of the economy then, and it is downright corrosive to succeeding in the New Economy today.

Much of our prevailing ideology about jobs and land is a hangover from a manufacturing site-location bias against cities, and a post-war consensus built around white flight from cities, concentrated poverty among people of color in older areas, and lots of subsidies for jobs out by the Interstate, be they factory, office park, or Wal-Mart. That consensus has left us with a sprawling, dysfunctional built environment that is harming our health and our economic competitiveness.


That the scam could get this far out of hand suggests a profound breakdown in whatever consensus we ever had about corporate responsibility to our society. The way you handle your money is your value system. By their rampant tax dodging, corporations are collectively saying: we don’t care if the schools fall apart and the bridges are crumbling and the public health systems are impoverished and college is becoming unaffordable. We are not all in this together. We are not investing in our communities’ futures. We are disinvesting.

The scam belongs in the dustbin of history. To put it there, we need strict accountability measures that will curtail private disinvestment and restore public reinvestment. By getting our taxpayer dollars out of private deals and into public goods, and by integrating our jobs strategy with land-use planning, we can spend less and get more.
We must eradicate the sub-scams that have grown up around the corrupted definition of competition and replace them with a healthy new form of competition in which places compete based on their assets, which are equally available to all employers: their skilled labor base, their infrastructure, their schools and universities, their entrepreneurial culture, their quality of life.

Fortunately, despite the siege of disinformation, there is a rich bipartisan history of reform that has created proven precedents to peel away the scam. The most important of these is disclosure. When more information is available about costs and benefits, many more people will get involved—and that’s the scammers’ darkest nightmare.
Getting a lot more people involved is the only way to challenge the prevailing ideology. Go to a conference of economic development professionals today and watch the public officials. You will never hear them crow about how well their working families are doing, about rising median incomes or declining dependency on Medicaid or fewer children suffering from asthma. But you will hear them touting big deals. And you will see them courting site location consultants and corporate vice presidents. That is what economic development in the United States has become. Welcome to the Great American Jobs Scam.


1.    Kenneth Thomas estimated total state and local subsidies at $48.8 billion as of 1996, and many states have enacted new subsidies since then. (Competing for Capital: Europe and North America in a Global Era, Georgetown University Press, 2000.) Peter Fisher and Alan Peters conservatively estimated total subsidies at $50 billion (“The Failures of Economic Development Incentives,” Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 70, No. 1, Winter 2004).

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The Economic Crisis Ahead

Millions of Americans are deeply worried about their economic futures. The signs of the economic crisis ahead are literally everywhere, if one bothers to look at the statistical evidence. The first, and most important indicator, is the unprecedented concentration of wealth within American society. According to USA Today columnist Yolanda Young, in 1970, the bottom one-third of all United States households (today, about 96 million people) “earned 10 times that of the top one percent” of all households. By 2004, the upper one percent “made as much as the bottom third of Americans.”

The vast destruction of millions of manufacturing jobs and outsourcing of United States businesses have pushed growing millions of black, brown, and working-class whites into what can be described as “the fringe economy.” Over half of all Americans, according to Young, now “live from paycheck to paycheck.”

Hundreds of multibillion dollar companies are reneging on their past promises to workers to cover healthcare, transferring those costs to their employees, past and present. In March, 2006, for example, Ford Motor Corporation announced that it would “charge the spouses of its workers to participate in its healthcare plan, if another healthcare plan is available.” The new fees for spouses, $110 per month, will force hundreds of thousands of Ford retirees to make hard decisions between their healthcare vs. home mortgage payments, food, and college savings for their children.

The same day, Chrysler announced it would eliminate 10-15 percent of its salaried employees. As of 2006, Chrysler employees must come up with 31 percent of their total health coverage costs based on their salaries.

About 56 million Americans, nearly one-fifth of the population, are unable to afford a checking account. On payday, millions of low-income Americans cash their paychecks at check cashing stores that charge three percent of a check’s total value. For a check worth $800 the check-cashing company skims off $24. Those exorbitant transactions generate millions of dollars daily for financial institutions and banks, taking unfair advantage of the poor.

What practical political measures can be initiated to reduce the economic insecurity of low wage, working families? Maryland’s legislature came up with one excellent solution when in January, 2006, it passed a state law requiring employers with 10,000 or more workers to pay at least eight percent of their payroll toward their employees’ healthcare coverage. The only corporation in Maryland with at least 10,000 employees is Wal-Mart, a corporation that has 1.3 million workers across the United States, over one-half of whom have no health insurance. In New York State, the progressive Working Families Party proposed in early March, 2006, an even more ambitious healthcare proposal. Called the “Fair Share For Health Bill,” it would tax all employers with more than 100 employees the equivalent of three dollars per hour, per worker, unless it provides health coverage worth that much. Similar legislation has also been proposed in New Jersey and in more than 20 other states.

These progressive healthcare reforms indicate that the economic crisis for the working poor has become so intense that even the established political parties are finally addressing—modestly—aspects of the misery which affects millions of uninsured Americans. It also indicates that a new political agenda could be constructed around a “social insecurity index.” Because, if you have no health insurance, no savings, no home ownership, no pension or individual retirement account, you are economically relegated to the edge of society.


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Fastest Growing Jobs: Are You Handy with Bedpans and Brooms?

Urgent breaking news for all job-seekers: The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has released a list of the fastest growing jobs, and you might want to revise your resume accordingly. I quickly scanned it to see if “dissident freelance blogger” was on the list, but alas, no. Nor were several other job categories that I would like to see on the increase, like primary care physician and particle physicist. I’m sorry, but we’re never going to get out of this nightmarish tangle of string theory and dark matter until we start generating huge cohorts of baby physicists.

Worse news—only 10 of the 25 jobs listed pay over $30,000 a year, and four of them pay less than $20,000 a year, which is just about the poverty level for a family of four. These are waiter/waitress, food preparation worker, home health aide, and “personal and home care aide.” Hovering just a little bit above $20,000 are janitor, hand laborer, receptionist, nursing aide, landscaping worker, and teacher assistant. And topping the list as the fastest growing job of all is retail salesperson, at $22,880.

You see a pattern here? That’s right, these are not the kinds of jobs you are hoping your brilliant, or at least above average, children will aspire to. In fact, the most shocking feature of the BLS list is that only five of these fastest-growing jobs require a college degree—or exactly 20 percent. OK, the third fastest growing job is “postsecondary teacher,” but in a job market dominated by janitors, truck drivers and customer service reps, what are these professors going to be teaching—“combination food preparation and serving”?

Of course, the fastest growing jobs aren’t the only jobs available. There’s still a need for a few elevator operators, blacksmiths, and dissident freelance bloggers. But the list does give us a clue as to where our economy is headed, and it’s not in the direction we were promised.

For at least 20 years now, the mantra has been, “get an education and you’ll be OK.” In some ways it made sense: Over those 20 years, the earnings gap between college-educated and non-college-educated workers widened to the point where the educated had a 70 percent advantage. That gap has begun to shrink a bit, although a B.A. on your resume remains almost as essential as an email address.

In fact, at a certain point in the late ’90s and early ’00s, higher education was beginning to look like the solution to all our problems. Robert Reich touted it when he was Clinton’s secretary of labor and, on the more conservative end of the spectrum, dozens of readers of Nickel and Dimed wrote to inform me that the problem with the working poor is that they just hadn’t bothered to go to college. Outsourcing was no threat, according to this line of reasoning, since the United States would send the dumb, routine, jobs abroad and keep the creative ones here. We would be a nation of thinkers and innovators, and the world would be our assembly line.

But that’s not how it’s turning out. Some companies have begun outsourcing their R&D to places like India—i.e., their creativity and innovation. And when we study the list of fastest growing jobs left here in the United States, we see a future filled with mops and trays, shovels and bedpans, and cash registers.

Don’t let this stop you from going to college if you haven’t already and you’re lucky enough to have the money to do so. After all, we, or the science nuts among us anyway, need those particle physicists.

But you should consider revising your resume to suit the demands of our new “new economy.” Did you ever make lattés, rake leaves, or change diapers? Good, pump that up! And you might want to lose that M.F.A. or Ph.D., because it would be a mistake to look “overqualified” for life in 21st century America.


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Are Bad Jobs Good for Poor People? The Wal-Mart Question

With over $315 billion in annual sales, 6,500 stores in 15 countries, and 1.8 million employees worldwide, Wal-Mart is now selling itself as a solution to urban racial inequality in the United States. Having built its base in rural and suburban United States in the latter part of the twentieth century, Wal-Mart began the twenty-first century by approaching poor, urban neighborhoods with a pitch that goes like this: Wal-Mart is good for poor people of color because they get jobs and get to buy cheap goods. So what if Wal-Mart offers notoriously low wages and cracks down on union organizing? As the largest private employer in the United States, with over 1.2 million workers, Wal-Mart is also a leading employer of African American and Latino workers, so company executives believe that poor people of color are in no position to be picky about their jobs.

And some city government and community leaders seem to be in agreement with the Wal-Mart executives. Most notably, Chicago City Mayor Richard Daley, who last September vetoed an ordinance drafted by local labor, religious, and community groups, requiring all “big-box stores” to pay a $10 minimum wage, provide health benefits, and remain neutral in employee unionizing efforts. Thanks to Mayor Daley’s veto, Wal-Mart did not have to concede to any of the community’s demands.

Chicago’s West Side Story: A Tale of Seduction

 Inglewood: The Little City That Could Inspire

In 2003, Wal-Mart came to Inglewood, a poor city near Los Angeles, where 47 percent of the residents are Black and 46 percent are Latino, claiming that it would create several hundred much-needed jobs—an attractive proposition for a small city with an official unemployment rate approaching double digits. The store would have been the first Wal-Mart Supercenter in a major urban area.

Wal-Mart failed to mention that it had been embroiled in over 200 so-called “site fights” in states such as Virginia, Vermont, and Oregon, and that it had subsequently been blocked out of those sites.


Wal-Mart spent over $10 million on the initiative, including running newspaper ads to publicize its financial support of Black and Latino organizations. Despite that, Inglewood voters rejected the initiative, 61 to 39 percent, in 2004.

The Inglewood initiative provided a spark for the Los Angeles City Council to consider an ordinance proposed by a coalition of labor groups, clergy, and community organizations.


In August 2004, the Council passed the ordinance, which requires a study of the economic impacts of any proposed superstore and allows the community to weigh the potential benefits against the real costs of the project. 



  Billionaire Medicaid Moochers

Five of the 11 wealthiest people in the United States are members of the Walton family, and 40 percent owners of the Wal-Mart chain of superstores. Collectively, these five people are worth in excess of $75 billion, yet the average salary of a Wal-Mart employee remains stuck at the federal poverty level for a family of four. Is there a connection between the wealth of the Waltons and the poverty of Wal-Mart workers? Some strongly believe so.

Critics, and most prominently labor unions, denounce the company for paying low wages, providing inadequate healthcare benefits, displacing local businesses, and contributing to undesirable sprawl.


A study at the University of California, Berkeley, estimates that California pays in excess of $86 million in public benefits to Wal-Mart employees whose low incomes qualify them for food stamps, healthcare, and subsidized housing—programs that are funded by taxpayers. Recent studies have also identified Wal-Mart as the leading employer of workers receiving public health benefits in Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Tennessee, Washington, and West Virginia.


It all began in May 2004, when the Chicago City Council met to discuss proposed zoning changes that would allow the construction of two Wal-Mart Supercenters—one on the South Side and another on the West Side. It was a heated debate.

Just as it has done in other poor urban areas, Wal-Mart appealed to Black church leaders and City Council members. And it worked to a certain extent. “Any job is better than no job,” declared the Reverend Ronald Wilks at the time.

While Wal-Mart was reaching out to the Black community, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 881 found that it could not easily build a coalition across race lines because some unions—particularly in the building trades—had historically excluded Black men from well-paying union jobs by keeping them out of apprenticeship programs. In the minds of many Black leaders, the rapid de-industrialization of the inner city, combined with the racism of some building trades unions, was largely responsible for the severe joblessness on the South and West Sides of Chicago. So, when the union spoke of fighting Wal-Mart, it only stirred more resentment. “Some of these same unions never say a thing about the lack of African Americans in the trades,” Alderman Isaac Carothers of the West Side complained at a City Council meeting.

Despite the company’s efforts to build support, however, not everyone was sold on the plan. The 8,500-member Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side became a center of opposition to Wal-Mart, and its leaders directly linked the store’s attractive low prices to its low-paying jobs. “Whenever price means more to you than principle,” wrote Trinity’s Pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright, in the church newsletter, “you have defined yourself as a prostitute.” Wright charged that Wal-Mart’s backers in the City Council and the Black religious community were “pimping” Black residents and their economic hardships.

In the end, the City Council gave a split decision. It rejected the South Side location and approved the proposed West Side store. In what has been described as the most controversial City Council issue in two decades, all but two Black aldermen supported the West Side Wal-Mart.

While the City Council debated, a coalition made up of unions and progressive Black church leaders was formed, led by Jobs With Justice, a national workers’ rights organization. Conceding that it was not politically feasible to ban Wal-Mart from Chicago, as the residents badly needed jobs, the coalition pushed instead for a Community Benefits Agreement that would require Wal-Mart to pay higher wages and hire local residents.

The ordinance was “a way to regulate the terms on which these stores come into the community,” explains Chirag Mehta, a researcher at the Center for Urban Economic Development, University of Illinois in Chicago. According to Alderman Joe Moore, one of the sponsors of the measure, which passed in July 2006, nearly 10,000 employees of giant retailers, such as Target Corporation, Sears Holdings Corporation, and Home Deport, Inc. would also have benefited from it.

Wal-Mart, however, paved its way with strategic contributions to the local NAACP (Rev. James Demus, director of the South Side NAACP testified against the ordinance) and City Council Member Emma Mitts (who voiced her strong support for the West Side store after receiving $5,000 from Wal-Mart).

When Mayor Richard Daley vetoed the ordinance, the Chicago City Council failed to override the veto on September 13, 2006 and the West Side Wal-Mart store opened on September 27, 2006—entirely on Wal-Mart’s terms.

The Unfinished Business of the Civil Rights Movement

Everybody is familiar with the “I Have a Dream” refrain from Martin Luther King’s 1963 speech. What is less well known is the full title of the rally led by Dr. King (“March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”), who saw a clear link between the struggle for civil rights and economic justice. And in many ways, the enduring racial economic inequality is the unfinished business of the civil rights movement.

“It has been one of the weak links of racial justice organizing over the last three decades,” says Dorian Warren, an expert on race and labor from the University of Chicago. “We have been unable to answer what our fundamental demands are around economic justice, and how they relate to racial justice.”

Now that the rhetoric of race is being strategically used by developers, economic development is the only area of urban policy that emphasizes issues of race—however hollow that talk may be. There is no similar discussion from local politicians regarding education and health disparities.

Recognizing that the promise of jobs is often promoted to win the support of communities of color, New York City Councilman Charles Barron cautions, “We need to distinguish between economic development and economic exploitation.” In Barron’s district, which includes some of the poorest sections of Brooklyn, a cinema complex recently opened with the promise of jobs for community residents. “All we got was a bunch of popcorn-selling jobs,” says Barron.

Pitching proposals to poor communities who are desperate for jobs, private developers are able to exploit the failure of public policy to create jobs in these communities. But there are plenty of other ways to create jobs, insists Barron, such as increased investment in public infrastructure—hospitals and schools, for example—to revitalize poor areas. “But private developers [will] manipulate the race question for their financial gain.”

In response to Wal-Mart and other development projects, groups in urban communities around the country are using a variety of tools to broker deals that also address other vital areas of economic development, such as housing. Some organizations are pushing for “inclusionary zoning,” a regulation that requires developers to set aside residential units in a new development for affordable housing.

Other community groups, including some in New York, want to attach standards to jobs at Wal-Mart, if it does open a store somewhere else in the city. Besides its low wages, the lack of adequate healthcare provided to Wal-Mart workers places an unfair burden on the public healthcare system, many critics charge. A coalition of labor, community groups, and responsible employers in New York has sponsored a bill called the Health Care Security Act, which would require businesses in certain industries to either provide health coverage to their workers, or pay fees that the city would use to provide public healthcare to workers. If passed, the bill would cover any Wal-Mart Superstores that open in the city.

Organizers view Community Benefits Agree-ments and related tools as a critical first step in laying the groundwork for a long-term goal of redefining the terms of economic development. But, Warren points out, “As long as private developers set the agenda, we may just be trying to get a piece of the pie. What we need to do is ask, ‘What does a different pie look like?’”


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Healthy Jobs for All: What Will It Take?

What is a healthy job? For most people, it is first and foremost, a secure job that pays well. After all, a job is how you pay the bills, stay under a roof, buy groceries, and raise the kids. Without a way to obtain basic material necessities, one can’t possibly remain healthy.

Research in public health supports this common sense notion—employment correlates strongly to good health. This research also shows that unemployment is a cause of stigmatization, stress, and social isolation. Overall, the unemployed live fewer years and have higher rates of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, depression, and suicide than do their more employed counterparts.

How much money you make also matters—above and beyond what it takes to meet material needs. Income is one of the most consistent predictors of health and disease ever shown in public health literature. For example, people with average family incomes of $15,000 to $20,000 are three times as likely to die prematurely as those with family incomes greater than $70,000. The strong statistical relationship between income and health is not limited to a single illness or disease: people with lower incomes are at greater risk than people with higher incomes to have low birth weight babies, to suffer injuries or violence, to get most cancers, and to suffer chronic health conditions.

Employment supports health by providing non-monetary benefits, including paid sick leave and vacation. In the United States, a system of universal healthcare for its residents does not exist. Therefore, employment provides the primary means of accessing health insurance for working-age adults. Individuals without health insurance frequently forego timely health care, suffer more severe illness, and are more likely to die a premature death than their insured counterparts. Union jobs tend to more often include employer-provided health benefits, reduced cost-sharing, and substantially increased extension of coverage to retirees. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) estimates that 18,000 unnecessary deaths are attributable to lack of health coverage every year.

From 1995 through 1999, there were 30,824 fatal work injuries in the United States, an average of about 17 fatal work injuries per day. These statistics underscore that workplace hazards remain a significant and avoidable concern in the United States. Truck drivers, laborers, janitors and cleaners, carpenters, nursing aides, orderlies, and attendants are the occupations with the most non-fatal injuries and illnesses in California.


More recently, work-related “stress” is being recognized as an important workplace hazard. Chronic illnesses that are caused or exacerbated by work-related stress include infections, hypertension, coronary heart disease, and depression. Some researchers assess “workplace stress” by looking at the number of workers who agree or disagree with the statement “I have a lot to say about what happens in my job,” and “My job allows me the freedom to decide how I do my job.” This is because an employee’s ability to control the pace of their work seems to have a significant effect on their ability to manage work-related stress. Workers with a high level of stress and low ability to control workplace demands were 50 percent more likely to suffer heart attacks.1 Despite the significant research associating job-related stress and poor health, occupational health surveillance systems do not provide routine and reliable measures of stress at work.

A lack of control over work time is also stressful. Shift work has been linked to sleep disturbances, smoking, drinking, a poor diet, digestive problems, and cardiovascular disease.1 For women, working night shifts is also associated with fetal loss during pregnancy.2 Conversely, flexible work arrangements that allow workers to work non-standard or flexible hours, or share jobs, may give workers a greater sense of control, greater job satisfaction, and more commitment to the employer. A recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that workers who felt they were treated fairly by their supervisors had a reduced risk of coronary heart disease.

Clearly, there’s much to creating a healthy job. While our understanding of healthy jobs has grown beyond gaining a living wage and avoiding dangerous employment, our labor market is not meeting these demands.

In fact, the region’s labor market seems to tend towards two extremes: highly paid professional positions and very low-wage service jobs. Blue collar jobs, which traditionally provided less educated workers with secure employment, health insurance, vacation benefits, and pension plans, have been rapidly disappearing. In their place we find occupations with very low median hourly wages that typically offer few benefits. These types of jobs cannot be considered “healthy”: they barely pay a living wage; they usually do not have health insurance benefits; they frequently involve shift-work, which contributes to worker stress; and they do not provide workers with a high decision latitude or the opportunity to control work pace.


Earlier this year, the Program on Health, Equity, and Sustainability at the San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH) profiled workers in several common occupations, and asked the question: “What is a healthy job?” We profiled four occupations using focus groups and interviews: restaurant workers, domestic workers, computer software programmers, and artists. Although the lower wage workers—restaurant workers, domestic workers, and artists—worked in very different employment environments, there were striking similarities among their stories. All these workers described situations that placed them at high risk for employment-related injuries. Very few reported that they had health insurance. None of them had employer-paid vacation or sick time. Many of them had to work more than one job. Both, the restaurant workers and the domestic workers reported abusive treatment by supervisors. The domestic workers, in particular, articulated that they wanted their employers to respect them for their work.


SFDPH is not the only group to document these conditions. In 2005, the Coalition for Domestic Workers Rights in the San Francisco Bay Area conducted a survey of 247 domestic workers in San Francisco. Sixty three percent of the domestic workers surveyed believed their jobs were dangerous; however, only 26 percent of participants reported receiving protective equipment to prevent occupational exposure or injuries, and only 14 percent had received occupational health training. Twenty percent of participants reported that they had suffered a workplace injury requiring medical attention; nine percent of workers reported being victims of sexual harassment; and nine percent reported experiencing violence. While most domestic workers worked for minimum wage, many employers appear to ignore wage laws. Only eight percent of live-out domestic workers reported receiving overtime pay, and 12 percent of live-in domestic workers reported receiving overtime pay. Furthermore, 78 percent of workers report that they do not always receive a meal break after five hours of work and 83 percent of workers report not always receiving a paid 10 minute break.

Policymakers should look at the many possible ways to improve the health of work, particularly for marginalized groups. Some of these include:

?¢‚Ä쬆  Setting a minimum wage, or self-sufficiency wage, so that all workers can meet basic material needs through work

?¢‚Ä쬆  Recruiting and protecting industry, particularly in the light industrial and manufacturing sector, which often provides jobs with higher wages, standard work hours, sick leave, and access to education and training

?¢‚Ä쬆  Establishing a minimum standard of benefits for all workers, which includes health insurance, vacation time, and paid sick tim

?¢‚Ä쬆  Ensuring that workers in high risk occupations get training on common workplace hazards and safe work practices, along with necessary protective equipment

?¢‚Ä쬆  Improving workplace health and safety, with a focus on both traditional workplace hazards and the psycho-social aspects of work, which include a supportive work environment, job security, and workplace control. 

1.     Kornitzer, M., Desmet, P., Sans, S., Dramaix, M., Boulenguez, C., Debacker, G., Ferrario, M., Houtman, I., Isacsson, S.O., Ostergren, P.O., Peres, I., Pelfrene, E., Romon, M., Rosengren, A., Cesana, G., Wilhelmsen, L., “Job stress and major coronary events: Results from the Job Stress, Absenteeism and Coronary Heart Disease in Europe Study.” Eur. J. Cardiovasc. Prev. Rehabil. 2006;13:695-704.

2.     Zhu, J.L., Hjollund, N.H., Andersen, A.M., Olsen, J., “Shift work, job stress, and late fetal loss: The National Birth Cohort in Denmark.” J. Occup. Environ. Med. Nov. 2004; 46(11):1144-9.

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JUST Jobs? Organizing for Economic Justice | Vol. 14 No. 1 | Spring 2007 | Credits

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