Image: LA County Federation of Labor / Creative Commons, lacountyfed, flickr

The 2012 campaign trail is already littered with silver bullets and peppy slogans about boosting America out of its unemployment slump. But for the most part, the plans that politicians have trotted out–from Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 mantra to the GOP’s latest corporate welfare formulas, to Obama’s limp blend of free-trade policies and woefully inadequate stimulus–stick faithfully to the path of neoliberalism, paving the way for more outsized corporate profits.

So does anyone have a plan to steer industry toward the needs of communities? Researchers at Cornell University have located a few novel ideas, well outside the Beltway, that are blazing small trails in economic disaster zones. Their study focuses on project labor agreements that are designed to meet workers’ needs for decent wages and working conditions, while upholding principles of equity in local hiring practices.

Community workforce provisions in labor agreements have been used in various cities to help low-income and working-class people land solid jobs with opportunities for advancement, while building in corporate accountability, to prevent employers from exploiting local workers or undermining labor rights.

The Cornell report points to key policies established by pro-worker labor agreements:

  • Requirements or goals for hiring of local residents
  • Hiring and workforce development of economically disadvantaged and so called at-risk individuals, who are local residents
  • Hiring and workforce development of women and members of minority groups, including African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, and others
  • Hiring of veterans or Helmets-to-Hardhats Programs
  • Apprentice Utilization requirements, and requirements or goals for percent of employed apprentices that should be local residents
  • Utilization of women/minority-owned and local small businesses
  • Utilization of union-supported Pre-Apprenticeship Programs, as well as of community-based pre-apprenticeship programs
  • Involvement of community-based Organizations in the recruitment and monitoring efforts
  • Development of an implementation and monitoring process or plan

To be sure, many project labor agreements fail to include all or even most of these principles. But the report’s basic thrust is that such elements can be successfully incorporated into broader jobs programs that leverage public resources for local development.

Take a look at a labor accord between the Cleveland University Hospital and the local construction trades union. The plan outlined goals for hiring graduates of a local vocational school’s pre-apprenticeship program, and emphasized creating ‘contracting opportunities for minority, female, and local-small business enterprises in Northeast Ohio.” The plan ran into various obstacles, including a trend of workers and small business fleeing the devastated area altogether. But in the end, according to the report, “The projects created more than 5,200 construction jobs and generated more than $500 million in wages and benefits,” while meeting guidelines for diversity and local hiring. Not bad for a city where economic decline over the past few years has driven people from their homes and deepened vast income inequalities.

In New York City, the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, which represents about 100,000 local union workers, has entered into project labor agreements that promote hiring of veterans, women, public high school graduates and public housing residents, along with other “adults in need of economic opportunity.” The agreements studied, applied to public construction projects estimated to generate tens of thousands of jobs, have exceeded targets for inclusion of women, public high school graduates and new local apprentices (with most of them coming from communities of color). In one of the country’s most segregated urban landscapes (and ground zero of a new anti-corporate grassroots movement), any jobs program premised on social equity marks a modest step toward constructing a fairer economy.

A separate report by the National Employment Law Project outlines various state and local job-boosting initiatives that show how public funds can be leveraged to help raise labor standards, generate sustainable employment, and even streamline the state budget:

  • In Portland, an initiative to upgrade home energy efficiency using a federal grant is paying median wages of $18.00 per hour, drawing on firms that are 100 percent Oregon-based and nearly 30 percent minority- or women-owned. A similar statewide initiative is now underway to upgrade 6,000 homes over the next three years and create or retain 1,300 jobs….
  • More than 140 cities and one state—Maryland—have adopted living wage standards for businesses performing government contracts. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have set minimum wage rates above the federal level of $7.25 per hour, and 10 states increase their rates annually to keep pace with inflation.
  • Currently, 23 states have work-sharing programs, which, according to the Department of Labor, saved 265,000 jobs between 2009 and 2010.

These initiatives don’t offer the structural reforms that would be necessary to truly rebalance the country’s corrosive wealth imbalance. Nonetheless they demonstrate a more innovative approach to the jobs crisis than the low-hanging fruit of tax cuts and fiscal austerity that Washington bandies about every election cycle. If state and local policies that can create good jobs aren’t percolating up to the national debate, it’s not because results don’t speak for themselves, but because Washington just doesn’t want to listen.