What could be more important than economic development for Northwest Indiana? Sustainable economic development, that’s what! And there is a big difference between the two.
Gary has weathered the storms of economic crisis with an unacceptably high unemployment rate, due in part to the loss of manufacturing and public sector union jobs.
Privatization, in particular, has eliminated or downgraded jobs throughout the region. Consider, for example, the toll road, schools and garbage collection. The private sector has shown by its own practices that it pays less and cares less about workers and their communities; only the bottom line matters.
That is why economic development efforts have to be sustainable, which means providing training, education and decent wages for area residents.
With jobs, workers can make purchases, feed their families, improve their homes, pay more taxes and raise the quality of life in Northwest Indiana. Isolated development projects, such as the U.S. Steel Yard or the Gary/Chicago International Airport, can attract investment, but the community continues as a wasteland.
At present, the expansion of the airport has been a model for unsustainable development. The Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, set up to channel public funding into development projects, has allocated millions of dollars into the airport expansion, yet only 5 percent of the jobs so far have gone to area residents in distressed zones, including those around the airport. The RDA even passed a resolution to exempt itself from local hiring agreements, and has argued it cannot tie the hands of contractors and private businesses.
With an additional $10 million pending legislative approval, we have to ask ourselves, “Who will benefit?” Will there be good jobs for residents or just profitable business deals for private partners?
No one wants to call the new deal “privatization.”
“As problems with infrastructure privatization have come to light,” wrote Ellen Dannin, author of "Crumbling Infrastructure, Crumbling Democracy," “the deals have been rebranded partnerships, such as public-private partnerships.”
In Chicago, the mayor is pushing public-private partnerships; City Council members are fighting for an ordinance to protect residents. The Privatization Transparency and Accountability Ordinance would set up a council committee to evaluate every proposal, requiring that at least half the jobs stay in the city and pay fair wages.
Yet in Cleveland, this past September, 10 of the city’s largest contractors and construction unions signed on to a community benefits agreement that, according to Crain's Cleveland Business, “sets standards, … encourage[ing] the use of local labor and labor contracting firms, in particular minority and female workers and firms.”
Cleveland’s mayor bragged: “Never before have you seen the private sector step forward … and participate in a program that would result in community benefits.” This is the kind of CBA we need here in Northwest Indiana.
The Northwest Indiana Federation of Interfaith Organizations Coalition for Jobs has been fighting for years for such a Community Benefits Agreement. Both the Gary and East Chicago city councils endorsed the CBA unanimously, with support from the mayors.