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Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016 12:24 am

Keeping what’s ours

Trump’s not the only one wanting to build walls

 

All that banging and buzzing you might have heard coming from the Springfield city council chambers in September was the council and mayor building a wall along the city’s border with Sangamon County and the world beyond. That’s when alderpersons approved an ordinance requiring that contractors make good-faith efforts to ensure that Springfield residents work at least 50 percent of the hours on large new construction projects in the city.

Such local labor laws, as they are known, function like tariffs imposed to prevent foreigners – in this case, hard-hatted hordes living in our Williamsvilles, Shermans and New Berlins – from freely selling their labor within the capital’s market. The need for them is debatable, but the desire to impose them is widely felt by Donald Trump’s supporters and anyone else who fears that They might be taking something from Us.

In recent decades Springfield’s economy, no less than that of the nation, has undergone its own version of globalization. The metropolitan area is more than ever an interconnected and interdependent economic trading system. Goods have always moved across city and county lines, but now, increasingly, people do too, thanks to cheap cars, cheaper gasoline and eternally indulgent road-building politicians that make it easy for people to live in towns where they don’t work. Local residents understandably resent losing local jobs to these outsiders, and that resentment fuels the nativism that informs (I am being polite here) Trumpian protectionist politics at the municipal level such as local labor laws and residency rules for municipal employees.

As I noted about residency rules a while back in “Draining the pool,” blocking the doors to the suburbs will not make the city thrive. As we learned in the Depression – and as we will have to relearn, if protectionist trade policies are reimposed – places that shut themselves off from trade with the world around them stagnate. However, real complaints can be made about open trade across borders. While undeniably good for economies, such trade often is not good for the people who are, for whatever reason, unable to compete in these wider markets. Low-skill labor especially is vulnerable. Low-skill jobs are already scarce in a Springfield economy that devotes itself more and more to services. Construction work is one of the few opportunities for people who have only muscle to offer an employer.

Prominent among the last are some of the city’s African-American residents. Where the rest of us see hardhats on, say, a road-building site, they see carpetbaggers. The solution is not to shut out firms that employ out of town labor but equip Springfield workers to get hired by those firms. That’s hard, owing to poor schooling, criminal records and a weak work culture. Workforce preparedness is beyond municipal government’s capacity to solve in any event. Easier to levy a duty on construction firms.

If racial bias on the part of some contractors and some unions is the barrier, then racial bias should be addressed. The new local labor ordinance makes a nod in that direction, but only a nod. Under the new guidelines, the city would ask unions that enter into Project Labor Agreements for large construction projects to verify they have an apprenticeship program and that they make some effort to diversify their membership by recruiting people of color. Such programs have been run by the more enlightened trade unions for decades, but with disappointing results.

Local labor rules violate the basic tenet of a political system that promises government of business, by business and for business, and attaching conditions to building contracts raises the cost of doing business in Springfield, which might give some contractors one more reason not to bid for such jobs. Happily, this law’s requirements are not onerous. Contractors on state and federal jobs have had to deal with such restrictions for decades. They do it by augmenting their skilled regulars with local minorities or women to do the unskilled jobs like flaggers. Contractors that don’t meet residency targets could owe the city a fine in effect of 1/25th of a percent of the project cost for every percentage point they fall short, but they can get a waiver if they can show they’ve made a “good faith” effort to comply.

In effect, then, the new local labor law is mostly symbolic. It will have no effect on the city’s unemployment problem. It does solve the city council’s problem, which is constituents clamoring for the city to Do Something about jobs.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.

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