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The Rise of the Progressive City | The Nation

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The Rise of the Progressive City

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Bill de Blasio, Kasim Reed, David Axlerod

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio center, speaks during a panel discussion about the issues facing the nation's big cities while Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed right, and former Obama advisor and moderator of the discussion David Axlerod look on in Chicago, Thursday, March, 6, 2014 (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

Yet even as San Francisco exemplifies the social stratification of the postindustrial economy, it is also, more quietly, pioneering a new social safety net. Since 1996, the city has enacted some of the country’s most comprehensive laws on wages, benefits, paid sick leave and healthcare access. Michael Reich, the director of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California, Berkeley, and Ken Jacobs, chair of the UC Berkeley Labor Center, write that these measures, taken together, “represent a new social compact among businesses, workers, and government.”

Along with Miranda Dietz, Reich and Jacobs are the editors of the new book When Mandates Work: Raising Labor Standards at the Local Level, a careful, scholarly look at San Francisco’s largely unheralded policy experiment, which picked up steam a decade ago. In 2003, a ballot initiative made San Francisco the country’s first major city to enact its own minimum wage law, initially set at $8.50 an hour. (Tied to the Bay Area Consumer Price Index, it climbed to $10.55 by 2013.) Two years later, San Francisco instituted a Working Families Credit to supplement the Earned Income Tax Credit. The year after that, it became the first US city to require employers to provide paid sick leave. And it passed the groundbreaking San Francisco Health Care Security Ordinance, which mandated minimum health spending requirements for businesses with twenty or more workers and created Healthy San Francisco, which provides comprehensive healthcare to uninsured city residents. “Although this public option is not formally considered insurance,” Reich and Jacobs note in their book, “it is tantamount to a generous public insurance policy, with the significant caveat that it is restricted to a network of providers located only within San Francisco.”

Although such policies will not be enough to reverse the dynamics that threaten to transform San Francisco into a playground for privileged high-tech workers, they have proved amazingly successful at improving the lives of people struggling to get by in a terribly unequal environment. As Reich and Jacobs write: “Remarkably, and despite many warnings about dire negative effects, these new policies raised living standards significantly for tens of thousands of people, and without creating any negative effects on employment. While modest by most European and Canadian standards, San Francisco’s policies represent a bold experiment in American labor market policies that provides important lessons for the rest of the United States.”

Elements of that experiment will likely soon be replicated in other cities. The push for local minimum wage laws, says Alan Berube, deputy director of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, has “serious legs” in the wake of last year’s progressive mayoral victories. “You can trace it back to the Occupy movement and [Mitt Romney’s] ‘47 percent’ and what was a broader kind of national growing awareness of inequality and its effects,” he says.

Berube especially credits the Service Employees International Union, which led last year’s successful campaign for a $15-an-hour minimum wage in SeaTac, the city around the Seattle–Tacoma International Airport, which has grown increasingly poor as airport wages declined. “It got attention because it was audacious, and I think that that’s proven helpful to the cause of folks who are looking to do this in other places,” he says. In March, for example, Chicago voters overwhelmingly passed a nonbinding referendum calling for a $15 minimum wage for companies that do business in the city and gross more than $50 million a year.

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Just as reactionary ideas tend to spread from one state legislature to another—witness the recent tide of state-level anti-abortion laws—good ideas spread among the cities. “Mayors are incredibly competitive and constantly bragging on their own cities,” says Cieslewicz, who founded the Mayors Innovation Project (originally called the New Cities Project) in 2005 as an alternative to the more mainstream US Conference of Mayors. “One result of that is the sharing of best practices. Mayors always want to tell you what it is they accomplished—and when they get challenged and hear that someone did it better, they want to steal that idea.”

One idea that Cieslewicz wants to steal comes out of Cleveland, where a group of worker-owned green cooperatives in low-income neighborhoods have been serving the city’s hospitals and college campuses since 2008. “Universities and hospitals in Cleveland are literally spending billions of dollars a year on all kinds of services: food for the cafeteria, laundry—hospitals go through an incredible amount of laundry,” Cieslewicz says. “What they did was set up three cooperatives, one dealing with laundry—it’s the greenest laundry service in Ohio—another producing local food, and a third one dealing with solar energy. Because every dollar that’s not being spent on fossil fuel—not being exported—can be kept in the community.”

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The cooperatives, which receive both government and foundation support and bring in about $6 million a year, hire people from the surrounding neighborhoods and give them an ownership share, which is paid for through a payroll deduction and allows the workers to build up thousands of dollars in equity. All of this creates “a symbiotic relationship between these powerful big institutions and the neighborhoods that surrounded them,” Cieslewicz says. He’s now promoting a similar idea through his consulting business: “Of all the ideas I’ve gotten from the Mayors Innovation Project, that’s the one I love the most.”

For now, Cieslewicz believes that local initiatives—some modest and discreet, others sweeping and ambitious—represent the only way to make progress against poverty and inequality. “I’m a liberal Democrat,” he says. “I believe in the War on Poverty, and I wish the federal government would concentrate its resources on these issues. The truth is, it’s just not going to happen anytime soon. But it can happen at the local level.”

Read Next: D.D. Guttenplan on what New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio can learn from the late, great Mayor Fiorello La Guardia

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