Job Quality & The Stimulus Package

Posted by Bobbi Murray on March 23, 2009

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — the Stimulus Package — passed by Congress in a painful process in February, proposes to create or retain at least 3.5 million jobs — green jobs, construction jobs, infrastructure refurbishment jobs.

But with all the drama surrounding the bill’s approval, one central question failed to get a hearing: does the $787 billion measure offer any guarantees that the jobs it create offer decent pay, benefits, a career ladder?

The answer(s): Yes and No.

Yes — because all construction projects must pay the industry’s prevailing wage, which is set by union standards, and there are $188 billion worth of construction in the 1,071 pages of legislation.

But no — there’s no language that clearly attaches job standards to the funding as a general principle. It would have clarified things to have phrasing that spells out the notion that billions in public investment should not create Wal-Mart-level, low-paying part-time jobs that leave taxpayers holding the bag for such “amenities” as health care.

It’s easy to imagine why the language didn’t make it in — speed was key in getting the thing past the ideologically-based cavils of GOP obstructionists.

Check out the Heritage Foundation’s huffing about the prevailing wage then imagine bold language about job standards and the apoplexy it would have provoked. (Although there are those of us who approve of occasional apoplexy as part of the legislative process.)

But some advocates did try to make job standards an explicit part of the law.

The Partnership for Working Families, PWF, a national network of accountable development organizations, joined with long-time union allies and scrambled mightily to place a sentence about job quality.

Literally ONE sentence.

The Partnership for Working Families’ research chief, Kathleen Mulligan-Hansel explains that PWF got the heads-up from legislative allies: “If we wanted to add something, we should come up with a single sentence.”

But even that didn’t slip in as the whole legislative process hurtled along with the momentum of a down-bound train.

Advocates had hoped, for example, to see the legislation incorporate hiring standards that would consciously recruit people from traditionally excluded communities and place them in career-path job training programs that lead to family-supporting jobs.

Union apprenticeship programs, by the way, do that.

“Job training” is often offered as a panacea for chronic unemployment like welfare-to-work programs — but training that doesn’t track the trainee into a worthwhile job is worth the paper the graduation certificate is written on.

The way you get new members into an industry, Mulligan-Hansel points out, “is to put in hiring requirements attached to training.” That would provide a way into a career for groups that have been chronically excluded — communities of color, inner city youth, to name two — and give them a shot at a middle-class life.

Maybe there was not much political room to move when it came to the reinvestment act, but the White House took a couple of positive steps on job standards outside that framework.

One of them: on February 27, the White House Middle Class Task Force released a staff report called Green Jobs: A Pathway to a Strong Middle Class.

The energy sector of the reinvestment act gets a good chunk of change — $38 billion in direct spending, plus money for incentives. Analysts say the reinvestment act could jump-start renewable energy production.

The Middle Class Task Force report begins with the observation that there is a lot of talk about “green jobs” but no real definition. It then sets out to create one. It defines green jobs as those that improve the environment, provide a family-sustaining wage along with benefits and good working conditions and are available to a diverse community of workers.

Kudos to the Task Force for insisting that a green job by definition should be one that pays a family-supporting wage. But they certainly know that saying it doesn’t make it so.

Phil Mattera of Good Jobs First, the venerable subsidy accountability organization, says that the jobs the task force report discusses are indeed green, but that tells only part of the story.

There are already-existing green jobs that pay well, Mattera says. (Those are listed in the Task Force report.)

But “there’s nothing automatic that says if a company is helping with the climate crisis it has decent jobs standards.”

Mattera is the principal author of a green jobs study Good Jobs First released in February, commissioned by the Sierra Club and Change to Win, along with the Teamsters and Laborers’ unions.

Some notable nuggets in “High Road or Low-Road? Job Quality in the New Green Economy”:

  • Wage rates at many manufacturing solar and wind-power equipment facilities fall below average for the manufacturing sector;
  • When it comes to technology, companies are sending significant chunks of alternative energy industry manufacturing off-shore.

The conclusion: just because a job is green doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. The green jobs report is an accessible read. Take a look here.

But beyond the confines of the Reinvestment Act, the Obama Administration has taken a particularly significant step in promoting job quality .

In February President Obama signed an executive order that labor activists rightfully see as a watershed. It rescinded a George W. Bush directive that prohibited the recipients of federal funds from signing a contract called a project labor agreement, or PLA.

As the name suggests, a project labor agreement sets up a labor relations structure on a given construction operation, so when work begins everyone–the feds, the contractors, the workforce — has agreed on the rules.

Seems like a good idea on a multi-million dollar enterprise where time is money — you put all the workplace rules in place, then roll out the whole thing in an orderly and businesslike manner.

It averts the misunderstandings that can happen toward the end of a long and multi-faceted construction project and bog down the whole thing.

A PLA also inevitably includes unions to represent the labor piece and was thus anathema to the Bush administration.

Obama’s executive order reverses the Bush administration ban and says that contractors receiving $25 million or more from the feds will be required to sign one except, it seems, in very rare cases. (The executives order says “project-by-project basis.”)

PLAs will involve unions in the big-ticket energy and infrastructure projects.

Analysts also foresee changes in labor regulations that could help boost labor standards.

Meanwhile, there will be a crucial role and organizing opportunity for unions that have been working locally with Partnership for Working Families and other grassroots groups like the Apollo Alliance.

to develop programs to recruit young people from economically marginalized communities, train them and track them into career-ladder jobs.

An example from the Partnership for Working Families member organization: they organized and successfully pressured the developers of a large, publicly-subsidized project to agree to the following:

A minimum of 200 units of affordable housing; a commitment that construction jobs pay prevailing wage and use apprenticeship programs to supply workers; retail space suitable for small businesses and $800,000 for as yet unspecified community uses.

That’s one example–read more about it by clicking on Victories on the PWF Web site.

The labor-community alliances that grew up and succeeded during the Bush years have developed the skills and know-how to track the stimulus funds and demand standards.

Not that it will be easy — it could be a lot like opening up a fire hydrant — or several — and getting slammed with a powerful gush of cash and projects.

The challenge now, says Mulligan-Hansel, the PWF research director, will be to make sure groups get access to information and to figure which local projects groups should target for organizing, which would potentially yield the most community benefit.

The money has not yet begun to reach the local levels. For now, says Mulligan-Hansel, “We’ll keep putting one foot ahead of the other.”

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