LINTHICUM, MD. – Washington-based Good Jobs First (GJF) brought together 300 labor union, community and environmental activists July 11-13 to demand that corporations provide living wage jobs with health care and union rights in exchange for the tens of billions of dollars in annual taxpayer subsidies they enjoy.

The conference at the AFL-CIO-connected Maritime Institute Conference Center near Baltimore made clear that making corporate America accountable is much more than cracking down on crooked bookkeeping. It was titled “Reclaiming Economic Development” and focused on living wage ordinances and community benefit agreements as ways of forcing corporations to give something back for the subsidies they receive. GJF director Greg Leroy told the crowd that cities, counties, and states dole out an estimated $50 billion each year in economic development subsidies including outright grants, tax abatements, and taxpayer funded construction of plants, roads, water mains, waste treatment and other infrastructure.

To cite just one example, the city of Arlington, Tex., spent $150 million in taxpayer money to build a new sports stadium for the Texas Rangers, then owned by George W. Bush. He later sold the team, raking off $14.9 million in profits.

“We now know from so many studies, campaigns, audits, and news media reports that those dollars often fail to create good jobs or to benefit low and moderate income neighborhoods,” Leroy said. “We also know they can harm the tax base critical for vital public services such as education.”

“Only through increased grassroots participation on the economic development process can we bring about positive change,” Leroy said. “Research and coalition-building are the keys to enabling more participation. We come from many places but we all share the same goal: making our massive government spending on development live up to its official intention of reducing poverty and creating more opportunity for those who need it most.”

In a panel discussion, Jason Bailey of the Kentucky Democracy Resource Center cited a report he wrote, “Kentucky’s Low Road to Economic Development.” Kentucky set up a secretive Cabinet for Economic Development that has squandered $3 billion in tax credits since 1992, he charged. Willamette Industries, a forest products corporation, was lured to Kentucky with a $600 million bond and $100 million in tax credits for an expansion that created only 82 jobs. “That makes the deal worth over $1.2 million for every job created,” Bailey said.

Jen Kern, a leader of ACORN, told a workshop on living wage campaigns that ten cities have enacted ordinances that require any corporation doing business with the city to pay wages substantially higher than the federal minimum wage. “Many of these living wage campaigns have forced corporations to open their books for public scrutiny,” she said. “Living wage campaigns are also a tool to organize the unorganized. These campaigns build power for grassroots people so they can force implementation” of the ordinances, she said.

At least 83 living wage ordinances have been enacted by cities, states, school boards and other public bodies, she said, with wages ranging from $9.00 to $12.92 an hour. “Corporations that get tax breaks, economic development assistance and other subsidies should also be covered by living wage laws. Why give our tax dollars to companies that bust unions and beat up on their workers?” she demanded. She warned that corporate America, with Bush administration backing, is engaged in an aggressive drive to outlaw living wage ordinances in advance or repeal those already approved.

Amaha Kassa, a leader of the East Bay Alliance in Oakland, Calif., said, “Public resources should not be used to create poverty-level jobs.” The aim must be to extend living wage ordinances to entire regions and states and to expand them to include health care and the right to union representation, he said. He reported on the victory won by the people of Oakland over the opposition of Mayor Jerry Brown in forcing the Port of Oakland to sign a “project labor agreement” protecting union rights in a $2 billion expansion of the port. The same coalition went on to win passage Dec. 4, 2001, by the Oakland City Council of a living wage ordinance.

Kassa told the World, “You can see by this conference that grassroots movements are springing up across the country to say: ‘We need to know where our money is being spent. We are demanding a return on the investment of our tax dollars.’ But the national scandals show that while the people are demanding answers at the local level, we still need answers at the national level, the federal level. Which corporations are getting our federal tax dollars and why are we giving them money?”

Kristen Arant, GJF outreach coordinator, told the World, “This is our first national conference and we have over 300 people here from 38 states. It is a coalition of community based organizations, unions, environmental and anti-sprawl groups. It seems like everybody is on the same page, trying to shift the tide toward accountable economic development. A lot of stuff doesn’t get out in the media. But Enron did, Worldcom did. There are a lot of people out there now who are seeing for the first time just how the corporations have been screwing up. There is a movement to be built for better jobs, better benefits, a higher standard of living for all.”

Folksinger and labor-community activist Si Kahn, leader of a group called Grassroots Leadership in North Carolina, told a workshop on the private prison industry that it is a disgrace that more than $1 billion in taxpayer subsidies has been doled out to firms like Corrections Corporation of America and Wackenehut to build and operate their prisons. “Profiteering on the incarceration of human beings has no place in a democratic society,” he said. “We are not trying to reform private prisons, make them better. We are trying to abolish them.” He ended by singing a song from his new CD, “Blood from Stones” depicting inmates in private prisons as slaves.

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