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Finally, an airport deal that helps the Gary area

Updated: June 20, 2013 6:09AM



Today I am proud to be a Gary resident! The Gary community has scored a first victory in the never-ending struggle for jobs for area residents.

On May 7, the Gary Common Council voted 7-0 and Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson pledged to support a new Community Benefits Agreement, or CBA. The agreement will be brought to the Regional Development Administration for approval, guaranteeing that 30 percent of the hours worked at the Gary-Chicago airport expansion and at future development projects will go to Northwest Indiana residents living in the poorest zones with the highest unemployment rates.

The Community Benefits Agreement includes recruitment, training, pre-apprenticeship programs, a seamless transition to real jobs, as well as compliance monitoring.

The Northwest Indiana Federation of Interfaith Organizations through its Jobs Coalition has been fighting for more than two years to get this agreement recognized.

Speaking before the Common Council, federation Chairman Pastor Dwight Gardner of Trinity Baptist Church in Gary stressed that the CBA “is a legally binding agreement, negotiated between community organizations and developers of major construction projects.”

Even though the Gary, Hammond and East Chicago communities pay $3.5 million each annually to the Regional Development Administration — $10.5 million altogether — from casino revenues, to date only 5 percent of those employed at the airport project live in any of our communities.

“As a lifelong citizen of Gary, Indiana,” Pastor Gardner concluded, “it is a shameful embarrassment … spending $166 million on expansion of the airport and its citizens getting fewer than 5 percent of the construction-related jobs. Something is wrong with this picture.”

The picture has been wrong for a long time. I have lived in the region since 1981, and what I have seen taking place in Gary and the region as a whole reminds me too much of my trips to Third World countries in Africa and Latin America.

Throughout the Third World, big-money interests have sabotaged local sustainable economic development in order to siphon off the money for themselves. Now they do the same in the good old USA. Elite interests have imposed a set of policies that consistently advantage corporations and capital. Regulations have been thrown out, unions attacked and everything put up for sale. Everything public gets privatized, from toll roads to education to water, and work becomes precarious at best.

I have been teaching adult workers for 32 years here in Gary, and I keep getting asked: “If they cut my pay, steal my benefits or eliminate my job, who is going to be able to buy their goods?” “How can we have a political democracy when we have a corporate dictatorship?” Of course, these are fundamental questions and truths.

The Community Benefits Agreement speaks directly to the need for sustainable local development. With the spread of precarious and part-time employment, the economic conditions in our urban centers are fast approaching those in the Third World. Maybe we don’t have more than 800 workers killed at one time in a factory fire, as in Bangladesh, but full-time employment has plummeted, workplace accidents and injuries are on the rise and access to decent jobs and income is rapidly disappearing.

Our unemployment rates are unsustainable. Right now, for example, the number of jobs in Gary — approximately 39,000 — exceeds the active labor force (about 29,000 in 2010). But how many of those jobs have gone to residents? Only 7,800. Just over 25 percent. The airport expansion project has hired 95 percent of its workers from outside our communities. Yet the RDA exempted itself from any community benefit agreement! They thought they could get away with that! The RDA acts like the World Trade Organization, ignoring governments, following the dictates of corporations. Now they must negotiate and accept community involvement.

Looking closer at the data, we find that workers who work in Gary earn more than workers who live in Gary. The majority of workers who work in Gary are white, while the majority of workers who live in Gary are black. This is the segregated labor market and exclusionary hiring practices that I saw firsthand in Nigeria a few years ago. This could be called neo-colonialism, with the trappings of self-rule. It does not produce sustainable economic development; it gives us planned underdevelopment and poverty.

With Gary’s city leadership embracing this CBA, we can hope for some real changes in Gary, of the people, by the people and for the people. Thank you Common Council and Mayor Freeman-Wilson.



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