In The News
Chips fly both ways in City Hall jobs debate
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
Posted March 30, 2012
The aldermen took the jobs coalition leaders to the woodshed March 29 while telling them to keep taking aldermen to the woodshed about acting too slowly. That in a contradictory nutshell was the candid back and forth in City Hall Room 301 when the Judiciary and Legislation Committee threw the Milwaukee Jobs Act Coalition something slightly more than a bone – not the bull-rush to a full-fledged session, not the commitment to “Draft It! Introduce It! Pass It!” that had been the coalition rallying cry to force action before the April 3 election.
But the meeting, not quite a hearing, was an effort to give a fuller public discussion and show general support to do something about the entrenched unemployment centered on inner city minorities in Milwaukee. It was an aggressive defense by the Common Council ending with a recognition that the public had a duty to push for results.
You had to sympathize with these aldermen (Witkowiak, Hamilton and Davis on the committee joined by Kovac, Coggs and Wade) who have reason to be angry at how the public and the media – who mainly did not attend, again! -- do not recognize the complexity of their work and the effort they bring to it. But on the other side were ordinary citizens who also felt that if they had more money and lobbying power like big businesses had they would receive more instant attention from both the media and the government.
The coalition leaders kept their politeness in the face of some patronizing moments. Their biggest supporter on the Common Council, along with Milele Coggs, is Ashanti Hamilton, yet the chairman was also in full schoolteacher mode criticizing the squad of coalition speakers and the 40 or so supporters in the audience for pushing the council too hard seeking for rapid approval of the jobs act before the April 3 election.
He bluntly suggested that he was their biggest fan, he controlled the votes and only he was to blame for any slowdown and that the coalition deserved it. It was, frankly, a diplomatic response since it was not the coalition, but employees at city hall, who had described how political pressure from Common Council President Willie Hines had slowed the process to not move ahead until after April 3 despite the general lip service from Hines and the council majority – along with the mayor -- for the idea.
Hamilton, unopposed for election, was perceived by many to be generously taking the heat. Still, he had a point in making it clear how much work and detailed fine tuning was still needed on the jobs act despite the extensive resolution language provided by the coalition.
Strangely, both sides fully agreed on that, though the coalition, through spokesperson Jennifer Epps-Addison and others, kept quietly pointing out that they had never drafted legislation before -- and that was why they were pushing the council for more input on a project they all agreed with, to lend the polish with some high speed buffing.
Underneath the politeness emerged a frankness about what the ordinance still needed and how the Common Council despite its statements was not yet in full agreement on how to proceed.
Another question, Where was the business community? Despite efforts on the part of the 27 organizations in the coalition, the problem was transparent. If the council wanted the business community on board, it was the aldermen who had the clout to force that with regulations surrounding the use of tax dollars. The coalition kept pointing out it was not asking for a free ride, but for rules that the community would benefit with local jobs from its own investment, that this was the point of standards involving pay and benefit levels.
There are precedents, both sides agreed, because the business community was also slow to come aboard the MORE ordinance but now embraced those standards because they are both helpful and profitable.
That, coalition leaders insistently pointed out, was why the Milwaukee Jobs Act needs full-throated support from the council. In several areas the coalition agreed when Hamilton and others pointed out flaws in the rough draft. Yet the speakers couldn’t resist gently responding that the aldermen’s approach to the problem, despite supportive rhetoric, was not exactly “hair on fire.”
Here was a case where committed and obviously intelligent aldermen, who are also political creatures, were seeking to explain to the community the dilemmas they face and the community, grateful for the general support, still insisted on higher speed. Nowhere was this clearer than in the provocative questions from MICAH coalition speaker Mandela Barnes, pushing for more commitment to get residents involved in the use of development money.
In a high-spirited afternoon, the aldermen proved sophisticated on regulatory concerns and details while the coalition leaders were also pretty slick and knowledgeable about how to maneuver the rules. When Witkowiak asked just how the Act could legitimately raise wage standards and conditions beyond the living wage minimum, Dana Schultz of 9to5 came right back with suggestions on fine tuning that fit legal concerns and raised participants out of poverty.
When Kovac insisted that the focus should be on businesses committing to hiring more young people in expanding the Earn & Learn – a youth program all parties agreed was important – coalition leaders fired back that this was fine but that the program should also help young people establish their own entrepreneurship and not just provide low-pay bodies for existing enterprises.
There was general agreement with Bethany Sanchez’s presentation on the need for community investment from banks that benefit from taxpayer assistance, and her views brought revelation from the aldermen that this dovetailed with work going on in the treasurer’s office. But again, that was not a sign of speed because the treasurer’s office is now vacant and up for election and new leadership April 3. Still it demonstrated how crucial to both sides was involving the financial sector.
More general if essential was how to hold businesses using taxpayer money directly accountable to the standards being set in the Jobs Act, as aldermen raised the regulatory difficulties and confusing funding environment that now exists in the city.
Davis suggested smartly that the minority employment regulations should focus not just on hours set aside but pay factors to lift workers out of poverty.
But he also startled the crowd with some attitudes about unions, as did Hamilton. Davis, a union veteran, worried aloud if the construction unions were really on board the coalition’s effort to put the long unemployed in the community on center stage, to get them skilled work at better pay.
It was a pragmatic acknowledgement that unions are facing high unemployment of their own and by history work first to protect their own members. Yet it was also naïve in that Davis underestimated how carefully the coalition had laid the ground and had the Milwaukee Area Labor Council as a participant. One of the presenters, Steve Schwartz of Laborers Local 113, was prepared with chapter and verse on how his union had the established training methods to help with foreclosed homes yet had also opened up to neighborhood residents and minorities its successful methods.
Ironically, the room was full of members of other skilled trades union and the Milwaukee Building and Construction Trades Council, AFL-CIO, had publicly committed to the Milwaukee Jobs Act and sought to ease requirements without reducing the standards of construction that validate its efficiency. It has taken on the difficult task of educating all its member unions into understanding, recognizing how many out of work union people there are in the affected ZIP codes. Indeed, the issue with job growth both sides kept returning to was not just make-do work but careers, not treading water but growing out of poverty, and how it required a broad embrace beyond existing participants.
Clearly it was annoying to the audience how union standards and union community dedication were again serving as a red-herring for city government to suggest a barrier rather than an opportunity.
To be fair, the candid back and forth helped address many inbred prejudices and demonstrated how give and take could solve concerns on all sides. If that proves true, this would indeed be a new way for government to move forward on community participation.
So this was an important preliminary step. Frankly, it deserved more media coverage. Growth in employment, details of regulation, must be measured and thought through, but the time is long past to carry the regulations right to the edge of what is possible.
The cautious search for perfection can also be the enemy of progress.