In spring 2006, Community Labor United (CLU) won its first campaign: to get Boston Public Schools to change its contracting policies, and to hire local residents for high-wage union painting jobs and training opportunities.
In the aftermath of the 2001 California energy crisis, several energy companies were sued for overcharging and contributing to the fake shortages. The companies eventually settled, and $4.5 million of that settlement is earmarked for the city of Oakland, to be spent over the next three years on renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. Thanks to the Oakland Apollo Alliance and the Oakland Mayor’s Office of Sustainability—and pending formal approval in early 2007—$100,000 will be used to create the Oakland Green Jobs Corps.
When the fledgling United Automobile Workers staged their decisive sit-down strike of 1936-37 in Flint, Michigan, they won union representation for auto workers, collective bargaining, and better wages and benefits for workers in Flint and throughout the auto industry. But as has been true for so many other industrial midwestern cities, global competition has decimated Michigan’s manufacturing sector and left the state with one of the highest jobless rates in the nation.
"I couldn’t stand; my eyes were watering and my throat hurt from the gas. I would run outside the field to get some air. The boss made me go back, to keep working without a mask. Now I can’t breathe well, and my vision is blurry, cloudy.” Jorge Fernandez pauses to gasp for breath, a result of chronic on-the-job exposure to pesticides. Fernandez is a Salinas, California farmworker who spent 11 years applying fumigants without access to protective equipment. “The inspectors are friends with the bosses. They say, ‘So what if this Mexican dies, there are more.’ They just find other workers.”
Industrial agriculture is notorious for low wages, workplace health hazards, racial discrimination, and dependence on the legal vulnerability of undocumented immigrant labor. This is especially true in California, where twenty-first century agriculture was built on wringing short-term utility from workers, soil, and petrochemicals to minimize costs and maximize profits.
Picketers surround a chainstore clothing outlet and hand out leaflets about labor conditions on the Pacific island of Saipan. A mainline church sponsors a talk on how the world’s largest sneaker companies use Indonesian sweatshop labor. Students at the local college take over a campus building, demanding that the school quit licensing its logo to appear on goods made in sweatshops.
The economic development deal usually offered to low-income communities is very much like a bad trade deal: it offers minimal jobs and ignores environmental sustainability. The jobs created tend to be the dirtiest and most dangerous and—especially in the case of retail—jobs without living wages. The result is unchecked degradation that pits unions, environmentalists, and communities against each other. The only winners are the businesses that profit from the divide.
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