By Maria Elena Durazo and Denny Zane
(This feature first appeared on the Huffington Post.)
While Washington, D.C. has been stuck in what amounts to a partisan traffic jam on the 405 at rush hour, unresponsive and unwilling to rebuild our national economy and infrastructure, we took matters into our own hands in Los Angeles.
In November of 2008 business, labor and environmental organizations of Los Angeles County worked together to sponsor Measure R, a half-cent sales tax increase to fund transportation projects throughout the county. When voters overwhelmingly approved Measure R, they may have been looking primarily for solutions to traffic congestion and air pollution, but they succeeded in approving nearly $40 billion over 30 years to create hundreds of thousands of jobs as well as an economic stimulus for Los Angeles.
In addition, Mayor Villaraigosa is working hard to convince the federal government to create a program of low-interest financing for Measure R’s transit program to accelerate the implementation of those projects over 10 years, rather than 30 years. This proposal is part of a larger plan to create a national infrastructure bank, supported by the Obama administration. Imagine what it could do for Los Angeles!
Joseph Benjamin, a 42-year-old electrician journeyman and father, is out-of-work and struggling to pay his mortgage while he waits for a project to break ground. Jason Lopez, a student at WINTER Charter High School, will soon graduate and wants to become an apprentice iron worker to begin his career in the construction trades. These are just two people among thousands of unemployed construction workers and youth in Los Angeles who are ready to put on their hard hats tomorrow to build a better transportation system.
And for the rest of us, we’ll be getting out of our cars to ride more rail and bus lines. Our region’s prosperity will be enhanced by improved mobility, economic efficiency and a healthier environment.
But will this prosperity be fair? Will the workforce building this expanded system have the opportunity to attain middle class jobs and security for their families that has for decades characterized the American dream? Also, will the jobs created by Measure R benefit our high unemployment communities?
Last week, the Los Angeles Metro Board of Directors took steps towards answering these questions. They unanimously passed a Construction Careers Policy that will cover 17 transit projects worth over $6.2 billion and create more than 23,400 good middle-class career jobs over the next five years in Los Angeles County. Over the next 30 years, the policy could cover up to $72 billion in projects, including Measure R projects, and create 270,000 good construction careers.
This policy is the most significant policy of its kind nationwide to create thousands of good jobs while investing in much needed transportation infrastructure. Put simply, the policy sets out the terms of workforce employment that must be agreed to by all Metro contractors before they receive a contract to build Measure R projects and before they hire anyone. This policy has been proven by the LAUSD, the City of Los Angeles and the Port of L.A. to ensure on time and on budget projects that also create good construction jobs.
The Construction Career Policy will also ensure that 40 percent of the work hours on Metro construction projects will be performed by workers from areas affected by high poverty and unemployment.
In Los Angeles County our unemployment rate is 11.8 percent, down from a high of 13.4 percent in July 2010. Among construction workers the unemployment problem is much more severe, with unemployment rates up to 40 percent!
All economists agree, we will not see the end of this recession — the worst since the Great Depression — until we invest in our infrastructure. This will allow our construction workers to get back to work. In Los Angeles, we have figured a way to get out of the recession, get Americans working again and fight income inequality. Los Angeles can become a model for what is possible across the rest of the country.
Measure R coupled with a Construction Career Policy is the single best thing we can do to get these workers back to work and their families once again provided with the income and security they need.
We will be a stronger, more competitive, more prosperous Los Angeles County because of the investments the public has voted to make with Measure R. We will have reduced our congestion, cleaned our air, improved public health, and ensured our workforce is treated with respect and dignity.
What more could we ask for? We are already in the prime location at the crossroads of a new world economy. And, we already have the best weather.
Maria Elena Durazo is executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO.
Denny Zane is the executive director of Move L.A.