By Richard Lipsitz Jr.
For 50 years and more, cities of the Great Lakes have faced a full economic crisis. The de-industrialization of the American economy was felt in Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo and other communities in profound ways.
The question all these years was onto whom would the burden of this crisis fall? In the era of “trickle down” the answer was: If taxes, regulations and services were cut, somehow the wealth created from the cuts would “trickle down” to those hurt the most by de-industrialization.
This “trickle down” theory has been exposed as a fraud and smokescreen for the most lopsided shift in wealth in American history. The rich really became richer, and the burden of the economic crisis was passed onto the great mass of the American people.
In desperation, communities pushed multiple proposals to address the problems created by the loss of quality jobs. In New York, industrial development agencies were established in 1969. Notice the word “industrial” – these agencies were intended to promote jobs to replace those that had departed. The granting of tax abatements and subsidies was to encourage job growth.
The recent changes in the economic base of Western New York signals a hopeful departure. The medical campus, expansions of Ford and GM, two new plants at the old Bethlehem Steel site and the green industrial projects on the old Republic Steel site are startling and welcome moves.
We must use these and other developments to address the question of wage and income disparity and to advance measures that mandate community standards in the areas of wages and working conditions. In other regions of the country, the minimum wage has been increased well beyond the federal rate. In Buffalo, a living wage ordinance was passed several years ago, and a community benefit understanding exists over the HarborCenter Project.
We need these developments. We need to turn the page on failed “trickle down” strategies. President Obama and Pope Francis have spoken to this issue as a historical necessity. Further, we need to continue the push to reform the numerous subsidy agencies. Tax breaks should be for high-road economic development, which means a diverse workforce, prevailing wage and at least $15 per hour for service sector employment, local labor, project labor agreements and card check/trade union neutrality. Finally, we need repayment for promises on job goals that go unfulfilled. The granting of tax breaks is a serious business. It should be treated as such by those receiving the community’s largess.
Buffalo was one of the great cities of this country. It can become such a place once again, but only if the entire community benefits from new economic development.
Richard Lipsitz Jr. is president of the WNY Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO.