The Fresno City Council potentially made the correct decision when it voted unanimously to support a project labor agreement that mandates the use of local workers from underrepresented communities and minority-owned businesses for the expansion of Fresno Yosemite International airport.
Fresno city and county lag behind other California municipalities in making developers, and the projects they profit from, accountable to the community. About 18 years ago, social justice organizations nationwide began pushing local governments to enter into community benefits agreements (CBAs) to regulate land use for both public and private projects. Many of these agreements aimed to alleviate poverty by forcing private developer support for affordable housing, public parks in underserved neighborhoods, and targeted hiring programs of residents from economically vulnerable zip codes.
In California, Los Angeles’ Staples Complex is the largest and most visibly successful project that has used CBAs. Importantly, these specific CBAs originated from a coalition of grassroots activists and lawyers who worked with low-income residents around the arena site to identify community priorities, and then translate them into contract demands. As a result, developers, who enjoyed enormous profits and government subsidies, were compelled to funnel a portion of these economic benefits back into the local community.
It is darn near impossible to hold developers accountable to the communities that support them as patrons and subsidize them as taxpayers without the work of progressive coalitions. In the Valley, we have collectively supported entertainment (e.g. SaveMart Center), residential (e.g. Copper River), and prison projects (all of them), but asked little to nothing in return for economically vulnerable residents.
Fresno City Council’s plan to hire non-union laborers from underrepresented groups for the airport enlargement offers an opportunity for community benefits agreements to gain a foothold. But a lot must happen first.
Labor unions rightly worry that the council’s decision merely undercuts the decent wages the building trades have fought hard to secure without ensuring any additional direct economic benefits to vulnerable communities. Without regulation and oversight, business owners can simply use the agreement incentives to fill their own coffers. The council, then, must carefully craft the project labor agreement to make sure this doesn’t happen.
The council’s most important task in this effort will be to collaborate with and defer to progressive community organizations. These organizations have deep ties to, and even deeper ethical commitments to, underserved populations. Ask these organizations to identify the training needs that will help low-income women and men gain the skills necessary to work on the airport project. Ask these organizations to identify which census tracts to target when looking for workers. Ask these organizations what else these workers must have to secure long-term employment. If caring for elderly relatives or young children prevent people from working, how can the city provide incentives to increase the number of affordable care providers? If inadequate transportation impedes workers’ ability to get to and from the job site, how might the city facilitate ride-share programs or expand public transportation routes?
Without a doubt, the answers to these questions will reveal that the people the city hopes to help with the new labor agreement have a variety of needs that must be met to make their employment in the airport project possible. Additional investment in vulnerable communities, then, will be necessary and should be included as part of the deal.
And developers should pay for it. Some cities have worked with community partners to develop specific CBAs for large-scale building projects that mandate comprehensive training for skilled laborers; other cities require developers to pay into a fund for community amenities — public parks, senior/youth centers — for small-scale developments. Both models would require a significant shift in the way development has typically taken place in the Valley — a shift toward development policies that benefit everyone, not just a few rich builders.
Vulnerable communities must be placed on equal footing with developers. This will lead to deeper scrutiny of proposed projects, including the expansion of the airport.
Kathryn Forbes is the program coordinator of the Women’s Studies Program at Fresno State.