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Unite and Conquer | The Nation

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Unite and Conquer

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Los Angeles organizers may have clinched the city's title as a laboratory for cutting-edge economic justice policy with a deal concluded in late May between grassroots groups and downtown developers, including billionaire Philip Anschutz and media titan Rupert Murdoch. The agreement, which concerns a planned expansion of the mammoth Staples Center, stipulates that 70 percent of the 5,400 permanent jobs created will pay a living wage of $7.72 an hour with benefits, $8.97 without, or be covered by a collective bargaining agreement.

The Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice, an alliance of twenty-nine community organizations and several union locals, was the driving force behind the unusual deal. Ordinarily, living-wage campaigns focus on public expenditures, arguing that a city subsidy or contract should yield jobs that pay enough to sustain a family. But the only potential subsidy for the Staples expansion has been for a hotel planned for the site--and the agreement covers far more than that.

In addition to the broad living wage commitment, the developers pledged $1 million for the creation or upgrading of parks within a mile of the project, encompassing some of the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles and portions of the most densely populated area west of the Mississippi. The Figueroa coalition will be written into city documents as partners in the project.

After coming together in 1998 in support of food service workers fighting subcontracting at the tony University of Southern California, the coalition began meeting regularly about local development issues, says Sandra McNeill, an organizer for the coalition and for Strategic Action for a Just Economy (SAJE), its convening organization. There were plenty of problems to address--such as the expansion of USC into adjacent neighborhoods and the threat to existing housing posed by plans for a light-rail line.

Just before the National Democratic Convention at Staples Center in August 2000, the community became alarmed by reports that there would be a large police presence during the planned protests. That drew hundreds more into the coalition, which soon turned to longer-term issues related to the Staples expansion. Meanwhile, five unions--Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Local 11; Service Employees International Union 1877, which had organized the landmark Justice for Janitors campaign; the Teamsters; the Operating Engineers; and IATSE, the stage workers' union--had agreed to negotiate collectively with the developers instead of allowing themselves to be split apart by separate deals. The unions and community organizations then banded together, swiftly forging a list of demands around housing, environmental issues, a living wage and union jobs. Says Madeline Janis-Aparicio of Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), "Once [the developers] pulled their jaws up from the floor, they started negotiating."

"When things were tough in our negotiations, the union would bring up the issues in theirs; when things were tough for labor, we'd bring it up in our negotiations," says McNeill. "And that was really powerful."

It helped that the coalition had good timing. LA had just elected a new mayor and new council members to six of its fifteen seats, and the developers wanted the deal concluded and approved before July 1, when new top city officials were to take over. Too much community opposition or potential lawsuits could have been a fatal stumbling block.

Negotiations threatened to jump the track numerous times, not only because of differences between the coalition and the developers but intra-alliance tensions as well. Thankfully, the organizations ironed it out. As Janis-Aparicio says, "The choice was to be divided and conquered or have a united front and win."

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