The impetus for the two to run now and run hard ignited when the Lansing City Council split 4 to 4 on developer Pat Gillespie’s plans to renovate the Marshall Street Armory into office space and to build condos and other amenities at Market Place on the riverfront next to the Lansing City Market. Concerns raised about both projects centered on whether they deserve tax breaks unless the developer negotiates a PLA – a Project Labor Agreement with local unions. And some of us would also like to talk about whether unrestrained development is the key to making the most of Lansing’s potential.
First let me say that it’s great to see talented young people who are committed to Lansing. Neuner and Manzella are the kind of well-educated and energetic next-gen leaders the city must attract and hold onto.
However, as a card-carrying member of the Rust Belt retirees, I want some assurance that I will like their positions as much as their panache. Both were active in creating the recent Parking Day event downtown that promotes developing public spaces. Nice job.
But the larger issue is whether the candidates appreciate the importance of the union movement and whether they are willing to entertain alternative development models that may be a better choice for the city. That’s a conversation worth having throughout the entire community.
Solidarity forever or only when times are good?First, about the unions, I worry that us oldsters who support unions are painted as out of touch with the need to do everything we can to generate jobs. A commenter in the Lansing State Journal echoed others when he wrote: “Way to go Union lackeys, now NOBODY works.”
Another commenter wrote, “Mr. Freeman (of the AFL-CIO) needs to be sent a clear message that the days of union extortion are long over. While there was once a time that unions protected workers, now they only exploit them. The union has become the problem, not the workers. I suspect that the workers want to work, and are willing to do so for less money.”
Michigan is supposedly a pro-union state. So it amazes me to see the backlash against unions such as the UAW that helped to generate whatever fat of the land Michigan still enjoys. Since when did fighting for good wages and a comprehensive health plan become a bad thing?
Yet it is hard to be reflexively pro-union when too many of their leaders have indeed acted like jerks and thugs. Jimmy Hoffa was certainly no choirboy. And I vividly remember when a Teamster called me at home to persuade me to help them start a union in the office where I worked. When I told him I was worried about how I would support my dying husband if I lost my job, he alluded to an incident a manager fighting the union had his house burn down. He made it clear that he had ordered the arson and that he would do the same to anyone who threatened my job. Gulp.
Yes, union leaders can be corrupt, but the issue is whether there is any other institution with the power to push back against corporatist goal of keeping wages as low as possible. Corporate leaders may know that it is important to pay wages sufficient to allow workers to buy the products they make. But unless unions backed by government work to ensure that outcome, individual companies have every reason to cut and cut and cut – and outsource.
Maybe a new slogan for unions should be mend ’em but don’t end ’em.
Perhaps the union movement’s biggest failure has been its inability to tell its own story. High-school kids in Michigan graduate without ever learning that the enviable standard of living previous generations enjoyed was the direct result of the work of the unions in our state.
College kids everywhere must take economics, but that discipline focuses on the corporate side of the story. Why no similar mandate to teach college kids about labor issues?
Newspapers long ago abandoned the labor beat in favor of the business section. (Lansing Online News would love to have a labor blogger. Email me if you are interested.)
The union movement arose because people need collective power to battle back against a model that imposes race to the bottom, where we compete against each other for scraps from the corporate table. We need to educate young people about why unions arose – to end abuses such as child labor, starvation wages and unsafe working conditions.
Especially in desperate times, people are willing to work for close to nothing. That’s understandable. Yes, jobs matter, but good jobs matter more.
So the challenge in avoiding a Third World future is to balance corporate power with union solidarity. If there is another way to accomplish that goal, I would be happy to hear it. But our best bet so far is union power.
Is growth truly a panacea?
The other issue worth debating is growth. Capitalism was once defined as a system where a merchant is willing to sell you the rope that you can use to hang him. In the case of development, the question is whether an economic model based on unrelenting growth makes sense in an era of the constraints imposed by climate change and peak oil.
At the local level, it is also time to challenge whether giving tax breaks to promote unrelenting growth is a form of extortion that produces a less-than-zero sum game. All too often, we seem to end up with ticky-tacky that never produces the wealth we were promised.
Cities such as Boulder and states such as Oregon are exploring alternatives to traditional development, perceived as a model where communities often give away the store in a vain effort to attract one. In the Myths of Development, we learn that:
Myth 3: We must stimulate and subsidize business growth to have good jobs. – A “good business climate” is one with little regulation, low business taxes, and various public subsidies to business. A study of areas with good and bad business climates (as ranked by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the business press) showed that states with the best business ratings actually have lower growth in per capita incomes than those with the worst.
More questions than answersFrankly, I look at the new Lansing City Market and I see a pole barn, a facility far smaller and less appealing than the one it replaced. Does this inspire confidence about building Market Place next door? And why do the artist’s renderings rarely resemble the final project once it is built?
Now we are told that we must “pay the ransom/provide tax breaks” (take your choice) or developer Pat Gillespie will turn that land along the river into a parking lot. My problem is that the natural riverbank ends up lost under concrete either way. It wounds me to see our new Michigan State Police headquarters squeezed onto an unsuitable site that also scars our riverfront.
I look at the Marshall Street Armory and note that the new condos built nearby stood empty for a long time, adding to concerns about vandalism in the neighborhoods nearby. Do we have sufficient guarantees that the new development will enhance the area? Is there a need to build that much new office space when existing office space often still goes un-rented?
Fresh ideas or SOS (Same Old Stuff)?
The rise in gasoline prices that will inevitably result from peak oil will push people back into our cities. As we struggle to create a model for making Lansing more inviting, affordable, diverse and sustainable, it would seem the key to appropriate development requires taking the time to ensure the promises become reality and that everyone prospers along the way, not just those who are promoting the project. A project delayed is not necessarily a project denied.
The city needs young people with fresh ideas. Let’s hope the candidates emerging now embrace unions as a way to ensure workers make a living wage and strategies that will produce a truly sustainable city.
#lovelansing is a catchy and appealing slogan. Now is the time to make sure that both the process and the end product mean more than Chamber-of-Commerce boosterism.