NEWS is a volunteer-based community organization with several hundred members. Founder Marty Bennett, a longtime labor activist and a history professor at Santa Rosa Junior College, and Boyce, a graduate of Sonoma State University’s master’s program in public policy studies, are the core staff. While Boyce is busy with alliance building, community organizing, and activism, Bennett’s responsible for research operations, which have so far resulted in the publication of three papers and numerous articles on subjects related to the regional economy.
A growing concern is that the North Bay’s economic growth is increasingly lopsided — a so-called “hourglass economy,” with growth in very high-paying jobs and very low-paying jobs, a vanishing middle class, and a general lack of economic sustainability. Addressing these issues led local groups from lobbying for living wage ordinances to the idea of “accountable development”: the notion that, if public funds are going to be used to fund or subsidize a project, it must truly benefit the entire community.
As early as 2000, Marty Bennett invoked the principle of accountable development in connection with the building of the Petaluma Sheraton, a nice hotel on a municipal marina for which the city was lending the developer millions in taxpayer redevelopment money. Bennett successfully persuaded the city council that in return for this largesse, the hotel jobs would pay living wage (so, after all, the workers wouldn’t be forced to get health care from the public sector at taxpayer expense), and the hotel would not oppose its employees’ efforts to organize. “As a result of that, we have a union hotel in Petaluma,” says Boyce.
We were recently able to speak with Boyce about NEWS’s ongoing work, and in particular the real-life challenges and rewards of coalition-building.
Rex: For the benefit of those who are new to these issues, could you explain a bit about your work, and why it should concern everyone?
NEWS: We’re trying to challenge the assumptions that are condemning about a quarter of the population to low-wage jobs that typically don’t pay health-care benefits, that are very unstable, highly insecure, and don’t actually pay people’s bills. So people have to work two and three jobs and engage in lots of underground economic activity to make up the shortfall.
The NEWS director, Marty Bennett, has made it his mission to awaken policymakers and the citizenry to the growing crisis of the working poor — so they can make appropriate policy solutions for the problems generated by low-road economic development, which has been going on since the ’80s. We’re setting up demonstration projects, and showing people: “This is an alternative. This is what it could look like.”
NEWS founder Marty Bennett, speaking at the
Limits of Prosperity conference in 2005
Different models of economic development place different emphasis on the role of labor and the function of government in relationship to the role of public policy in regulating job markets. The currently dominant philosophy that’s coming out of Wall Street and out of the neoconservative movement is what we call the low-road economic strategy, or free-market fundamentalism, which basically regards labor as a cost center.
What we’re trying to do, at NEWS and with the Living Wage Coalition, is reframe the discussion and introduce people to what we call a high-road, sustainable economic development model, one that looks at labor as an investment; one that seeks public policy that provides incentives for companies and employers to create more good full-time jobs with health benefits, jobs that pay a self-sufficiency wage or a living wage.
We’re establishing a metric other than the minimum wage in order to talk about wages. As the comedian Chris Rock says, minimum wage means “If we could pay you less, we would.” That should not be the standard by which wages are measured. A more adequate standard is the self-sufficiency wage — what it takes to pay for food, gas, rent, basic expenses. That’s the living wage.
From a moral standpoint, paying a living wage is the right thing to do. We as a society have chosen to value work as a way of demonstrating commitment, by showing up and doing the work. There’s something morally odd about a situation in which people make that socially positive gesture, but it doesn’t pay off in terms of being able to support their family. This is not inevitable; this is not because it was decreed by the invisible hand of The Market, like a commandment from God; it’s the result of deliberate corporate decisions, which are then reinforced into the legal structure by their bought-and-paid political functionaries. The crisis of the working poor is a socio-economic phenomenon that we have the capacity to address through public policy.
In our view, the purpose of public policy is to set some kind of norms so it doesn’t become this kind of social Darwinist race to the bottom — particularly since the spread of this low-wage economy is actually reducing our total economic growth. The bottom end of the wage scale has been pretty much stagnant for decades, and increasingly that end of the population is not able to participate in wealth creation: they can’t save; they don’t have the money to spend on the plethora of consumer goods being produced.
Ben Boyce of NEWS addresses the Sonoma City Council
In areas where they’ve passed living wage or minimum wage laws, there’s a measurable uptick in local business activity because of increased disposable income for working people. We support creating this virtuous cycle of economic activity by raising the wage floor, as contrasted to creating a vicious cycle of working poverty through low-road wage and benefit policies.
Rex: There’s a strong presence of churches and religious groups in your coalitions, which some might find surprising.
NEWS: Part of that is the result of a conscious effort on our part, as there’s been a growing realization nationally that we need to bring back into the fold the progressive elements of the religious community.
The high-water mark of the progressive movement in this country was the civil rights era, when there was a deep involvement of the religious community. A number of things — not least of which was a sort of residual hostility on the part of a lot of secular activists toward religious expression — drove out of the movement what should be a natural ally.
This left the field open to the right, which has been vigorous in recruiting the evangelicals and the various conservative religious movements, even to causes that are contrary to their own constituents’ economic interests. So we’re making a deliberate effort to welcome and engage with the faith community.
Also, for us it’s a natural way to help create community support for low-wage workers, who in this area are mostly Latino and Catholic. One of the greatest sources of support for worker organizing we’ve had from the beginning has come from these Catholic social justice groups.
We’re currently supporting the drive to organize the health workers at Memorial Hospital in Santa Rosa. Many of these workers are Latinos, and some of them are parishioners at my church, St. Leo’s. St. Leo’s has also served as base for a local organizing drive for nursing home workers at the Sonoma Valley Health Center in Sonoma, and it gives these workers a great deal of comfort to know that the people who go to the same church they do and share their values are supporting them in their struggle to get representation.
Rally in support of union organizing efforts at Memorial Hospital
in Santa Rosa. Photo: Dogzen Arts
A lot of my colleagues who are what I call secular fundamentalists have this belief that they are oppressed if they have to hear religious language. What I explain to them is that they’re defining a public square in which the only way religious allies can enter is if they shed their religion when they walk in. Now, that’s not going to work, when in fact their primary motivation for being involved is that Moses and Jesus said that you need to help the poor. It’s not that you have to believe it yourself; it’s that you have to allow a space for them to express their engagement in the cause in a way that works for them.
Rex: How did the Accountable Development Coalition emerge?
NEWS: Over the last few years, the living wage movement has evolved to a broader agenda of accountable development: that public money should not be used to subsidize low-wage employment that benefits the owners of the business but has a deleterious effect on the rest of society by offloading their costs, in terms of the low wages and lack of health care benefits.
The thing about the use of public money is that you, we, as a citizen’s group, have standing to come before councils, boards and commissions and demand an accounting. There has to be some accountability for how this money is used. Literally tens of billions of dollars are given away every year under these redevelopment grants, and it’s typically a very shadowy, opaque process.
Two years ago, we joined forces with the North Bay Labor Council, the building trades, housing advocacy groups, environmental groups and others to form the Accountable Development Coalition of Sonoma County, looking at a broader picture of a sustainable and equitable economic development.
We wanted to find a project where we could interject ourselves early on and make a difference, because what normally happens is that people don’t get wind of things until they’re practically a done deal; by the time it’s been endorsed by the planning commission and approved by the city council, it’s too late. And people feel frustrated because their government is not responsive.
There was a $100 million project proposed for downtown Santa Rosa, revitalizing the downtown — the anchor depot for the SMART train. A couple members of our coalition were on the SMART train campaign committee, and they said, this is a project where we should get involved.
The old can become the new
So we got in early on. We lobbied the public officials involved, we held a number of forums and public events to educate people. As a result of close to a year and a half of lobbying work, public education, op-ed writing and lots of groundwork, our group was able to produce an excellent Community Benefits Agreement, or CBA.
For us it’s been very encouraging. It’s proof that this kind of coalition-building works.
Rex: And without that broad network of contacts, you wouldn’t have had allies on the SMART board giving you the heads-up.
NEWS: Exactly. I think it’s really emboldened all of us. All of these groups have been working in these trenches for years — the housing groups have been doing it, the Sierra Club and the environmental groups. None of us would have been able to accomplish this alone, but having put together this very coherent entity — we’re on the map now. The policy-makers know us.
We’re very disciplined; we all walk in, half a dozen of us, we’ll get our speaker cards all in a row, we’ll have caucused with each other so we don’t just get up there and rant about the same thing; each of us is touching on a different point. So they know that these guys mean business. We have material to give them; we’ll be lobbying them. We’ve become hard to escape (laughs) and that’s our goal.
Rex: What are the biggest challenges you face going forward?
NEWS: Currently we’re working to pass a living wage ordinance in Petaluma, which is going to mean negotiating with some of the council conservatives. That’s a difficult process, but I actually think we’re succeeding with that.
Our ultimate goal with that is to pass a countywide living wage ordinance; our biggest opposition in that comes from the Chambers of Commerce, who, at least on the national and state levels, if not the local levels, are dominated by free-market fundamentalists who are ideologically opposed to intervention in labor markets.
In terms of our accountable development work, it’s a constant challenge to hold the coalition together.
One of the places it’s easy for the coalition to break apart is between labor and the environmentalists. The people in the building council — they want to see construction going on. And there are certain elements in the environmental movement who, if it involves pouring concrete, they’re “agin’” it. And so our environmental allies kind of have to keep a wing of their own constituency in check.
What we’re trying to do is move away from this idea of environmentalism as preservationism, toward an idea that environmentalism is more of a strategy that involves what we call smart growth. As long as the population’s growing, there’s going to be growth; the real issue is if it’s going to be intelligently designed and economically viable.
We’re working as a coalition to try to encourage that city-center, infill kind of development, concentrating development along the 101 corridor. So we have our internal work of selling parts of the environmental community on this vision, as opposed to stopping everything they can, a strategy that has historically diminished their power. If people’s only options are unreasonable people who will oppose any project, no matter how socially valuable, or the right-wing guys who will approve it, you’re forcing people into their camp.
We need to provide an intelligent alternative that involves not just approving anything that comes along but looking at whether it meets certain criteria. We try to establish those criteria and make it part of the public conversation. I think that’s a real challenge for us.
Our internal meetings can be pretty fierce. But we try to iron it out behind the scenes so that when we do step forward publicly we’re speaking with a united voice.
Rex: How do you manage to get so much done with so little?
NEWS: Marty Bennett is a driven man. (laughs) He’s 24/7 and brings me along in tow. We have quite a bit of volunteer help; a number of members of the coalition put time and energy into helping us with our lobbying projects or helping us with our materials.
To really get up to speed we need to hire a Spanish-speaking organizer; that’s the missing piece for us organizationally. So much of our work in support of the low-wage worker organizing is with the Latino immigrant community, and it would be really good if we could get someone who’s bilingual and bicultural. I’m not that person.
And at some point we’d like to get a development director, or a consultant that we could hire, because it’s very time-consuming. Marty puts a lot of time into it and I help him, but the funding thing is a whole world in itself, and personally I prefer putting my energy into the organizing part rather than the fundraising.
“In my personal experience, I have found that coalitions of interests working together to create community change make the most difference,” says board member John Leopold, who first brought NEWS to the Rex Foundation’s attention several years ago.
John had worked on living-wage issues with a group called Working Partnerships in Silicon Valley, and seen for himself the results that could be achieved when local community groups figured out common goals and worked together. Thus he was intrigued by the fledgling organization’s Living Wage Coalition of Sonoma project. NEWS was achieving remarkable results with very little — and, like many small grassroots groups in outlying areas, it faced a very uncertain future, to the point where a well-timed small grant from Rex could make the difference between surviving and not surviving.
“They were having a hard time getting the attention of funders,” John recalls, “because Sonoma County isn’t considered a major urban area; it wasn’t considered on the front line of the effort to change the way local government treated its workers, or the people it contracts with, their workers, or environmental concerns. But to me they were doing very interesting work. That was a good match with Rex, because so much of what we’ve funded in the past is activity that’s going to benefit many people, where our money can make a big difference, and maybe they haven’t attracted mainstream funding. I thought it was an excellent marriage of interests to create positive change for the community.”
At John’s suggestion, Rex made a grant to the Living Wage Coalition in 2003. Three years later, he says, NEWS’ success in putting together the Accountable Development Coalition and in winning major community benefits as part of the SMART train development were a perfect fit for more Rex support on several fronts. “What impressed me was that they were leveraging the work we had already funded,” he explains. ”They were bringing together the coalitions they had formed around the living wage campaign in Sonoma County to create a larger coalition around community benefits with this SMART train station: Environmental issues, human rights issues, worker rights issues, and transportation issues. Within the SMART train activity were issues we’d supported individually in the past, and here it was all wrapped together.”
The coalition NEWS has helped spearhead has not only produced some short-term victories for the community, says John; the entire process has served as a model for future collaborations. He says, “There are several benefits to the local area: the actual construction and jobs that are created; the environmentally friendly way it’s going to be created, which has a long-term community impact; the fact that everybody who works there is going to get paid a livable wage, that has ripples. But it also becomes an important activity for the community to say: These are the values we care about as a community. So when it’s building the next office park, the next highway or the next school, these are issues that have been identified and supported by a broad base in the community. The ripple effects are that it will affect other projects in the area that will hopefully impact lots of different people, outside the ones directly impacted by just this one train station.
“One of the interesting things that could potentially flow from this is that they’ve brought more people into the coalition around these issues. Once you’ve got a county supervisor who’s worked with this coalition on these various issues, when you come to them and say, now we’d like you to support a living wage initiative at the county level, they’ve already been won over. They’ve already supported that kind of activity, and that will make it a lot easier to leverage this kind of work to the next level of NEWS’s community work.
“To me, people working together is always more powerful than people working separately. When you’ve got, for example, the building trades and the environmentalists and the progressive students working together, you’ll be able to do a lot more things once people have the experience of working together. You’ll find a lot of common goals.”
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