Unions and Smart Growth

Urban Density: Good for Union Density

Unions are mostly urban institutions. So as America's central cities and inner-ring suburbs have suffered from the effects of sprawl, so have union members.

In the first-ever investigation of this problem, Good Jobs First created the “Smart Growth, Good Jobs” curriculum for the leaders of the Chicago Federation of Labor in 2000. We mapped the geography of the CFL's major unions and compared the locations of union jobs to the whole six-county Chicago metro economy.

The results were striking. Across the board, as jobs thinned out geographically, they also de-unionized. It wasn't just Wal-Mart invading the United Food and Commercial Workers' base. The same pattern held in hotels, health care, manufacturing, transit, and public sector (and anecdotally in construction, which we could not map). Only janitorial coverage was strong in most suburbs, thanks to a big organizing campaign.

We also found that sprawl harmed union families as homeowners. Factory shutdowns and job flight to newer suburbs undermine the tax base of older neighborhoods where most union members live. So sprawl causes union members to get hit with far higher property tax rates. That also means union families suffer poorer public services and more pressure for privatization.

Finally, we mapped the AFL-CIO ratings on the voting records of state representatives, state senators, and Members of Congress. As a group, elected officials from newly-developing sprawl areas have very anti-working families voting records. And, of course, such areas gain more political clout every ten years after the census is taken and districts are re-drawn to reflect more sprawl.

In 2004, we performed the same analysis in the five-county Philadelphia metro area for the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO. The findings were very similar to Chicago: across the board, sprawling growth and tax-base thinning undermined union density and harmed working families. And areas with few union jobs or households also had very anti-working families elected officials.

At the 2001 national AFL-CIO convention, the Chicago Federation of Labor, the Cleveland Federation of Labor and the Contra Costa County Labor Council submitted a successful resolution denouncing sprawl and urging all unions to weigh in for smart growth.

Our publication Talking to Union Leaders About Smart Growth is a concise "Cliff's Notes" summary of how sprawl harms union members in all the major sectors of the economy.

Union Leaders Get It, Even If They Don't Know the Lingo

In our study Labor Leaders as Smart Growth Advocates: How Unions See Suburban Sprawl and Work for Smart Growth Solutions we surveyed 50 labor federation leaders, mostly central labor council presidents (metro labor federations). We asked them two sets of questions: about their regional economies and about their legislative advocacy.

By both measures, labor leaders are big-time smart growth champions (even if they don't call themselves that). For example, three-fourths or more said they believe:

  • · there is a mismatch between where most new jobs are being created and where most affordable housing is located;
  • · air pollution is a growing public health problem; some suburbs in their metro area use exclusionary zoning to keep low- or middle-income families out;
  • · their regional infrastructure systems—like roads and sewers— do not treat older areas fairly compared to newer areas; and the property tax system is not fair to all cities in the region.

And they clearly see sprawl harming union members. Three-fourths or more believe that:

  • · the thinning out of jobs into the suburbs is undermining union density;
  • · the growing political power of the suburbs is bad for their state's working families political agenda; and
  • · cities in their metro area that are pushing for privatization of public services are doing so because they have lost a lot of their tax base.

Labor federation leaders' legislative advocacy is also extremely pro-urban. Two-thirds or more have: lobbied state or local legislatures for more funding to repair and rehabilitate existing schools; supported a campaign to stop a factory shutdown in an older area; or opposed a “big box” retail project such as a Wal-Mart. Almost as many have lobbied for school funding formulas that would improve funding for schools in older areas.

They are also staunchly pro-public transportation: more than two thirds have lobbied to preserve or expand mass transit operating budgets. Three fourths believe that regional transportation authorities should have more flexibility in how they allocate transportation dollars between highways and transit. Asked a hypothetical question, more than half said they believe that one out of three workers who drives to work in their area would switch to transit if the transit system gave them a choice.

Two-thirds of the labor federation leaders said they have worked in coalition with environmental groups on environmental issues.  The leaders reported personally belonging to environmental organizations at a far higher rate than U.S. adults generally.

Building Trades: Critical Players on Growth Issues

The Building Trades are the most active unions on growth issues. However, in the past, some have adopted the position that “any construction is good for the Trades.” Rooted in that belief, they have sometimes opposed smart growth ballot initiatives, told by developers that “smart growth is no growth in sheep's clothing.”

We now know better. As Good Jobs First documented in The Jobs Are Back In Town: Urban Smart Growth and Construction Employment, the Trades get far more work from smart growth than they do from sprawl.

By every credible measure we could find—from construction estimating data to long-term regional building permit data—when construction is more compact, when it involves rehab, when it uses less land, when it is more vertical and complicated, it requires more work hours and is more likely to be done union.

The same is true for highway construction. We found Federal Highway Administration data that broke down work hours by the type of project. We separated them into “fix it first” projects (which is a smart growth basic) and sprawling projects (such as brand-new rights of way). The “fix it first” projects created more work hours per million dollars spent because the projects don't require any new land purchases, and they often involve partial demolition and rebuilding, making them even more labor-intensive.

We also found long-term national data showing that when a metro area has a regional policy to manage growth, it  makes a really big difference in construction jobs. Portland, Oregon is an outstanding example. In the late 1970s, the state required every metro area to create “Urban Growth Boundaries” to protect farms and forests and encourage urban revitalization.

Portland's downtown was sagging in post-war sprawl; there were many abandoned and under-utilized buildings. Today, however, Portland's downtown and nearby Pearl District are international showcases in high-quality urban living. They are full of new and rehabbed high-rise buildings—and the construction has been overwhelmingly union.

Then-Oregon Building Trades President Bob Shiprack attributed the Trades' high density directly to the Urban Growth Boundaries that brought construction back downtown where the Trades have their greatest strength. And the amount of work has not suffered due to growth management. In fact, just the opposite has been true: Oregon statewide has also enjoyed far higher long-term growth in construction jobs than the overall United States.

Finally, not all public infrastructure is created equal in terms of the private construction it stimulates. Consider two kinds of road-building projects: a new highway on the fringe of a metro area (or in a rural area) versus a road-rebuilding and improvement project in an inner-ring suburb. Both projects will stimulate private  construction activity in the surrounding real estate, but will it be union? The fringe/rural road will encourage new building like Wal-Mart big boxes and other sprawling, big-footprint projects. But the urban road will stimulate redevelopment that is far more likely to be dense, mixed-use, and/or transit-oriented—and union built.

Of course, the same difference would be true in spades between a rural road and an urban light rail, bus rapid transit,  or subway construction project. Transit works like “urban Rogaine;” it is great for thickening urban areas where all unions are strongest, including the Trades.