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.