Fighting Exclusion!

From the May/June 2018 PNL #860

by Aggie Lane

In the 2015 report entitled “Architecture of Segregation,” Century Foundation fellow Paul Jargowsky reported that Syracuse leads the nation in concentrated poverty for Blacks and Latinos. His study confirmed what Syracusans living in the city’s segregated neighborhoods already knew: institutional and personal racism excludes them from decent housing, schools, health care and jobs.

Since jobs are key to the quality of life in city neighborhoods, in 2012 activists  started the Urban Jobs Task Force (UJTF), an advocacy collaborative of 10 individual and 17 organizational members. (The Syracuse Peace Council is a member.)  Its mission is to fight economic exclusion by creating job and training opportunities for city residents, especially on projects receiving public benefits or funding.

What have we done over the past six years?

  • We drafted a Community Benefits Agreement for the $350 million development of Syracuse’s Inner Harbor, demanding training, jobs and contracts for tax exemptions, but the developer, COR, refused to talk with us. Despite our protests COR eventually went around the Syracuse Industrial Development Agency to garner $44 million in tax exemptions from the Onondaga County Industrial Development Agency.
  • We drafted the Syracuse Resident Employment Ordinance and pushed for its passage with a petition drive. In June 2016, Mayor Miner signed the ordinance into law. It requires contractors on city projects over $100,000 to hire 20% of their workers from Syracuse.
  • We advocated for a city residency goal on the $300 million school renovation project. The Joint School Construction Board which oversees the renovation changed its diversification plan to include a 20% residency goal. The Board stood firm during the Project Labor Agreement (PLA) negotiations with the trade unions, indicating there would be no PLA on the school project if the residency goal was stripped out.   (A PLA typically ensures that union members work before a non-union member can be hired.)

What we are doing now?

Our current focus is on the jobs that will be created through the I-81 Viaduct Project. The original I-81 viaduct, built in the 1960’s, sliced our city in half and in the process destroyed the 15th ward, a culturally thriving African American community. During its construction, this potentially multi-billion dollar I-81 Viaduct Project  will impact many poor city neighborhoods. We believe it would be a travesty if these good-paying highway construction jobs enrich non-city, white male workers and exclude city residents.

Our usual tactic of advocating for a residency goal will not work on this federally-funded project. A Federal Highway Administration regulation forbids the setting of geographic preferences for workers’ residences on its projects. Due to this restriction, we have created a two-prong strategy.

  1. With Legal Services of Central New York, we are creating a Racial Equity Impact Statement (REIS) to deliver to the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) during the Draft Environmental Impact Statement’s public comment period.  The REIS is a tool which documents racial inequities by examining the historical record along with quantitative and qualitative data. Besides employing census data, publicly-funded construction project datasets and an asset-based survey, we will interview a range of stakeholders: academics, community leaders, policy makers, and knowledgeable and affected citizens. The data we collect will help expose the patterns and causes of inequities, especially in the construction trades. The REIS will also propose ways to address them. Our plan is to address the issue of exclusion before the I-81 project gets off the ground because, if nothing changes, its construction workforce will be predominately white men living outside Syracuse.

2. The UJTF has already inspected a number of Project Labor Agreement-based data sets and realizes that if the I-81 Viaduct Project is a PLA, very few city residents, minorities and women will work because they are not well-represented in the trade unions. For this reason, we are collecting signatures on a petition demanding that the NYSDOT, which is in charge of the project, not grant any PLA to the trade unions on the Viaduct Project unless the unions create a recruitment and retention system inclusive of city residents. This petition gives the community some bargaining power.

We haven’t launched the REIS and the petition in isolation. We have met with both the NYSDOT and the City of Syracuse to explain our two-prong approach. Both realize workforce training has to happen in advance of the I-81 Viaduct Project so city residents are ready to work on it. The NYSDOT has twice offered free Commercial Driver License training for prospective truck drivers. This summer, the city plans to launch “Syracuse Builds,” as a way to create a city-based construction workforce ready for development projects, including I-81. We have sent our petition to the trades with a letter asking to meet. In the beginning of April, we had our first meeting with the head of the regional trade council where we explored our common interests and scheduled a follow-up meeting.

Just to be clear: this petition isn’t anti-union.

  • It is about including city residents in the trade unions giving them access to well-paid career pathways.
  • It will not undermine wages; whether the NYSDOT awards a PLA or not, the workers will be paid the prevailing wage because it is a publicly-funded project.

If nothing changes, city residents will continue to watch others build Syracuse and take their pay back to their suburban or rural communities. It is time for the urban community to wield some power. It is time for an inclusive economy!

How can you help us fight exclusion?

Take the petition in this PNL issue (for subscribers) and collect signatures from your family, friends, neighbors and colleagues and return it to the Syracuse Peace Council or mail it to the UJTF (the address is on the petition). You can pick up more copies at SPC, or download the petition from www.ujtf.org. Even partially-filled pages help. Suburban residents can also sign. Together we can make a difference!

Aggie Lane lives in the city’s Southwest side. She is a neighborhood activist and is one of the UJTF’s founders. Currently, she is the UJTF’s policy committee chair. Find us at www.ujtf.org or www.facebook.com/SyracuseUrbanJobs

 

 

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