Tax Subsidy Opposition and Community Benefits are Battling in California

San Francisco     The Inland Empire is largely Riverside and San Bernardino Counties in southern California east of Los Angeles.  Warehouses and distribution centers are the kings of this empire, workers and communities are too often the serfs and poor villagers.  In the last decade since the Great Recession new work in this section brought in 84,000 jobs, nearly a quarter of the region’s employment, averaging a little more than $15 per hour for a workforce population where 45% have no more than a high school education.  Amazon with a dozen warehouses in the area now is the largest Inland employer.

A community fight has now become public over a proposal to build a $200 million air cargo facility that claims it would eventually create 3800 jobs and deliver $6.5 million in revenue for a public airport on the repurposed site of a former Air Force base.  What’s the rub?  Community organizations such as Inland Congregations United for Change, part of the Faith in Action network (formerly PICO), want the guarantee of a community benefit agreement. Unions, like the Teamsters who represent many warehouse workers, want organizing neutrality to prevent wage erosion for their members.  Many elected officials want transparency on the incentive deals and negotiations for the highly secretive companies, including Amazon notorious for its additional headquarters search and its efforts to extract billions in tax breaks from New York City, and Google which has done the same for its server farms in scores of secretive deals around the country.

An article in the San Francisco Chronicle made it clear that despite all of the claims by the economic development and local officials, the community and unions are not opposing the project, but they are clear that they want real guarantees on job quality and community benefits, none of which are being assured them at this point.  State legislators have proposed bills on a variety of these matters.  One measure that has passed the state Assembly and is pending before the Senate would require any warehouse receiving more than $100,000 from local governments to at least be transparent about the number of jobs, wages, and other employment plans.  Another also moving forward would mandate public hearings annually on such incentive deals and whether or not they really deliver and, importantly, demand clawbacks if the job development and similar commitments are not fulfilled.  Similar bills were vetoed by former government Jerry Brown, but may have a better chance now in the changing environment on tax giveaways without any accountability.

Another issue, similar to the one where ACORN and our Walmart organizing project worked with the Teamsters and others in trying to win accountability in Merced, California when a huge Walmart distribution center was being built, is the environmental impact of thousands of diesel trucks coming through and polluting lower income neighborhoods, and in that case students at the new university location in Merced.  Similar concerns are being raised here about “diesel death traps,” and part of the controversy has been the quiet around the environmental impact statement done and released without any local attention in order to avoid public participation.

These fights are breaking out all over the country exploding the economic development hype about “low road” projects without community and worker benefit agreements.  Add the Inland Empire to any list of these battlegrounds, since warehouse and distribution centers are now front and center in the dispute.

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Why is it so Hard to Talk about Organizational Structure?

Milwaukee       Amani United, like a butterfly trying to emerge from a cocoon, is an embryonic organization attempting to emerge from its status as a project of a larger organization into a membership, resident-led organization that can spread its own wings and fly.  On this point everyone agrees, including the leadership core of Amani United and its parent organization, the Dominican Center.  Getting there is never easy, but it is easy to forget how important it is to get the structure right from the very beginning, and that was the task for hours of discussion on a harsh spring evening in Milwaukee as Amani leaders gathered to take on this task.

Ironically, structure is so important, but why is it so hard to talk about organizational structure?  I think there are a lot of reasons.  Organizational experience and participation continue to plummet whether in unions, voluntary associations, scouting, church, or even the NRA.  People just don’t have the cradle-to-grave kind of organizational attachments that were common fifty years ago.  But, it’s not just that.  The models are less transparent and less discussed.

Regular reports indicate that civic education is no longer a fundamental part of public education throughout the United States.  Fewer schools teach it at all as a mandatory subject.  People no longer know, even in a rudimentary way, how local, state, and federal governments work.  There’s also every indication that confusion is by design rather than accident.  Right now, in the standoff between Congress and the White House over information and transparency and the Trump administration’s refusal to respond to subpoenas, we can see a vivid example.  Politicians and governmental employees at all levels don’t want the public to know how it all works or see behind the screen of TV, tweets, and press releases.  Such concerted efforts to not make democracy work, make it harder even at the grassroots level for people of good will and intention who are trying to design a structure for their own organization to puzzle out exactly what their own democracy should be, making every choice hard and every decision difficult.

Trying to address this with the Amani United leaders, I devised a page-and-a-half “decision tree” or checklist of threshold structural questions with yes-or-no answers in some cases and little-more-none and similar multiple-choice selections when it came to accountability questions.  Where people came to consensus most quickly was on the need to hold leaders accountable, and this might be part of the reaction to current organizational and governmental practice.

The hardest questions revolved around confusion over exactly what a nonprofit association is and what it can do as a nonprofit versus a tax-exempt nonprofit.  Funders and others have so hopelessly blurred the lines that regular citizens simply don’t know the difference, forcing them to make kneejerk decisions that might hobble their futures without even understanding the choices they might be making.  The other Gordian knot is membership itself.  People are clear they want leaders accountable, but it becomes harder for people to easily sort out their conflicting desires to both be inclusive in their community and also be effective as an organization.  Can just anyone be a member?  Should there be classes of membership with different rights and obligations?  Should members pay dues and agree to the principles of the organization?  Can nonresidents be members of a community-defined organization like Amani United, and what should be done about property owners who may be absentee landlords.

Yes, these questions aren’t easy to answer in the best of circumstances, but once everything about organizational and civic activity is “throw the rock and hide the hand,” people are left clueless in trying to devise a more perfect union in their own organization.

What can I say?  It’s a process!

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