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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Community Groups Push for Milwaukee Jobs Act

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"Willie: Do the Right Thing" read one sign held aloft at a "people's public hearing" convened by the Milwaukee Jobs Act Coalition in the City Hall rotunda last Friday.

The crowd gathered to support the Milwaukee Jobs Act, which apparently had been set to be introduced in the Milwaukee Common Council last week but was held back.

More than 200 coalition members called on Common Council President Willie Hines to call a special session of the council and "draft, introduce and pass" the legislation.

Only two council members—Alderwoman Milele Coggs and Alderman Tony Zielinski—appeared at the event to support the legislation. Members of the community—including labor, community and faith leaders as well as unemployed workers and students—took the place of the 13 absent council members.

"I'm glad that you are holding us accountable," Coggs said.

Those who spoke at the hearing criticized members of the council who were waiting until after the April 3 general election to introduce the bill, saying that Milwaukee's job crisis demands urgent action.

The most recent figures from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Center for Economic Development show that African-American male joblessness is at a record high. A recent Public Policy Forum report concluded that the city lacks a unified economic development strategy. The Milwaukee Jobs Act would help to fix those problems, supporters said.

"We don't have another three weeks [to wait] to pass a Milwaukee Jobs Act," said Jennifer Epps-Addison, the economic justice program director at Citizen Action of Wisconsin, one of 23 groups that make up the pro-jobs coalition. Other members include Voces de la Frontera, Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH) and 9to5.

After the public hearing, Milwaukee Area Labor Council leader Sheila Cochran and attendees delivered petitions to Hines' office asking him to support the Milwaukee Jobs Act.

Hines told the
Shepherd on Tuesday that he does not chair the relevant committee but that he was prepared to move the legislation forward, although that may not be as quickly as some would like.

Using City Tools to Create Jobs

The Milwaukee Jobs Act has been in the works for seven months and the subject of two major community meetings, including one attended by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Hines.

Coalition representatives had been working with Common Council members, most notably Coggs, Alderman Robert Bauman and Alderman Ashanti Hamilton, on developing the legislative package.

The Milwaukee Jobs Act's main provisions would:

  • Increase transparency and accountability by developing job-creation and labor standards for projects that utilize tax breaks or direct public subsidies, and implementing "claw back" provisions that require companies that receive investment or tax breaks to return the money if they fail to meet those standards.
  • Establish standards for responsible banking and require biennial public review of community reinvestment performance.
  • Maintain foreclosed and distressed properties by employing neighborhood residents and creating a consistent and transparent process for awarding contracts to maintain these properties so that wages and standards are not undercut.
  • Give preferential consideration to contractors that allow workers to earn paid sick leave and have access to affordable health care and contractors that are woman- or minority-owned or qualify as a small business.
  • Expand the "Earn and Learn" youth employment program from summer jobs to year-round jobs.

Taken together, coalition members say the Milwaukee Jobs Act would use the tools at the city's disposal to spur the creation of family-supporting jobs that employ city residents.

Biddle: 'What Are We Waiting For?'

The Milwaukee Jobs Act is seen as the first phase of a broader job-creation agenda. Coalition members were told that the act would be introduced in the Common Council last week, Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, told the Shepherd.

When that failed to materialize, the people's public hearing was called.

Zielinski told the crowd that the withheld bill was due to a "communication problem."

"We're going to get this legislation passed," he said.

Lyle Balistreri, president of the Milwaukee Building and Construction Trades Council, spoke in the place of his alderman, Michael Murphy.

He said that there's been double-digit unemployment in construction for two years and his union members want to go back to work.

"But I don't see a whole lot going on in this city in support of jobs," Balistreri said.

Although the hearing wasn't a political event, a few candidates for Milwaukee Common Council attended to support the Milwaukee Jobs Act.

Milwaukee County Supervisor Eyon Biddle, who's running against Hines on the April 3 ballot, was present. He was clearly frustrated with the status quo, saying that the establishment had let down the city's youth, who were turning to crime instead of finding jobs.

"The fact that we don't have a Milwaukee Jobs Act ready to go, right now, with 55% black male joblessness, in the fourth-poorest city—what are we waiting for?" Biddle said. "Why hasn't this been done years ago?"

Pam Fendt, marketing representative for Laborers' Great Lakes Region Organizing Committee, criticized the city's request for bids on projects to rehabilitate foreclosed properties.

She drew a contrast between the wages of a Common Council member, about $35 per hour, with the city's request for bids for construction jobs that pay $9.18 an hour and lack benefits and paid sick days.

The information was greeted with loud boos.