Last week the Seattle City Council unanimously passed an ordinance requiring that 20% percent of labor hours on major public construction projects are from workers in local, economically distressed neighborhoods. While many players were involved, the brains and legs of the proposal came from groups that have a strong emphasis on environmental justice. Why do environmental justice groups see local, priority hire as an environmental and a justice issue?
Connecting Justice, the Economy, and Environment
Environmental justice groups nationwide have begun to broaden their focus from reacting to and resisting pollution in low-income communities and communities of color, to actively advocate for policy. It’s a transition toward what scholar Julian Agyeman might described as “Just Sustainability,” Just Sustainability organizations and projects are forward-looking and proactive, work toward a vision of sustainable communities as an outcome, and recognize the need for new economic systems and policy tools, maintaining equity and justice as the core of their work. California’s climate bills provide a great example. Environmental justice organizations were instrumental in getting a cap on carbon emissions, as well as assuring a meaningful share of revenue from the sale of emissions permits are dedicated to sustainable community building in “disadvantaged” neighborhoods. The Priority Hire fits a similar form of proactive environmental justice work, and it emerged in large part from their community listening, organizing, and advocacy of Got Green!, a grassroots organization based in south Seattle that organizes for an equitable green economy.
On the surface local hire initiatives could be perceived a straightforward jobs standard policy, like paying prevailing wages. But Priority Hire is proactive, rather than reactive to market conditions, and has several co-benefits that strive for deeper change. First, it sets a new precedent for community involvement in public works, expanding questions of ‘what should be build, where,’ to ‘we the community shall build our own community resources.’ A profound message and step towards a locally oriented economy, at least in the public employment sector. Second, it targets “economically distressed” neighborhoods in an effort to build economic justice and community-centered opportunity into public projects. Finally, from an eco-efficiency perspective, the ordinance offers the opportunity to reduce commute distances. Similar policies in Milwaukee, Cleveland, the City of Los Angeles, and San Francisco have been effective in recruiting workers that are available but not fully represented, the ordinance stated. Only around 6% of public construction project workers are Seattle residents according to a study by the UCLA Labor Center cited by the Seattle Times, but the City Council hopes to reach a goal of reaching 40% of labor hours in ten years.