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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White Collar Blues is an Unaddressed Economic and Political Issue

Washington    A line in an Associated Press story in the local papers caught my eye:  “Since 2008, roughly a third of major US metro areas lost a great percentage of white-collar jobs than blue-collar jobs.”

That’s not the political and economic headliner that most people are following.  The Trump administration is trying to save the jobs of the last coal miners and their segment of the angry, underemployed factory workers in heavy industry.  General Motors announced layoffs of 14,000 workers recently, 8000 were white-collar and 6000 were blue collar.  Most of the focus has been on production facilities being shut down in the United States and Canada, but it seems that a huge number of the white-collar jobs shed by the company are highly skilled and well-paid engineers.  The much heralded and rocky transition from fuel injected combustion engines to self-driving and in many cases, battery operated vehicles means that mechanical engineers are being scuttled for software jockeys of a coming generation of workers.

These white-collar workers, just like the millions of blue-collar workers, are trainable and many of them are highly educated and proficient, but that doesn’t mean transitioning them to new skills and new jobs solves the problem of age, location, and simply the time necessary to learn and become proficient.

Where is the investment being made by federal and state governments in those retraining programs?  For decades it has been a poorly recognized scandal that virtually no level of government has built a replicable training and reskilling model. The Amazon search was interesting in bringing attention to a couple of cities that had made real progress in this area, but nationally we aren’t Germany.  We are still training hairdressers and auto mechanics in some communities!  I’m not sure how many of these white-collar workers are going to be voting Republican if the only job training is getting a certified nursing assistant certificate.

As candidates start to look at platforms that might make a difference in upcoming elections, these high-road training options need to be front and center.   Some politicians are getting this.  Talking to a friend in Wisconsin recently, it was encouraging how a newly elected governor and his staff were already reaching out for help and advice to the best and brightest with experience in the areas of exactly this kind of economic development, way past the daily news about trade spats and blaming other countries for our lack of investment in our people.

This is a fast-moving disaster coming our way with huge implications everywhere for everyone.  We need to move this closer to the top of the list.

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