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Put Baltimore to Work Through Community Benefit Agreements

January 27, 2016

More than police officers are on trial in Baltimore. The policies of the city and other municipalities across the country are due for judgment as well.

Year after year, and in many cases, generation after generation, mostly young African-American men are forced into sub-economies so desperate and so disadvantaged they might as well be living in foreign countries.

The statistics where Freddie Gray lived and died, and where the streets convulsed with violence in response, have been recited so often they are thread-worn. The unemployment rate among young black men is nearly 40 percent, 61 percent of children grow up in poverty, and the life expectancy in West Baltimore neighborhoods is 20 years less than surrounding areas. If you lived in West Baltimore, you would be 15 times more likely to die from homicide and 20 times more likely to die of AIDS. The fact is, too many have little or nothing to lose.

To be sure there is more wrong than economics, and even the best and most progressive economic policies won't wipe out racism or stop potentially rogue law enforcement officers. But the lack of good job opportunities and the permanent economic depression that engulfs many communities is the fire and fuse to the periodic explosions of anger in Baltimore and cities beyond.

Despite the frustration and cynicism, it simply does not have to be this way.

From the city's universities to the Inner Harbor, billions of dollars are being injected into the Baltimore economy, often with incentives paid for by taxpayers and always dependent on taxpayer funded infrastructure. Yet there is no systematic policy in place to ensure that a sizable share of the good construction jobs created by these investments create opportunities for those who need them the most.

Few would argue that there is an easy or quick fix. But there are tools that can help now and which over time can transform the West Baltimores of the nation. And the simplest one carries no cost: tried and true community benefits agreements that are too infrequently embraced by elected officials.

The agreements are simple. Project owners agree that in return for the opportunity to invest in a community and reap profits, they will hire from that community. They agree to ensure that their workforce receives apprenticeship training, which creates safer job sites, higher quality workmanship and opens the doors to further opportunities for workers. They can be customized to include minority hiring requirements or any other provision that benefits a community. These agreements have stood the test of time from the Hoover Dam to the new Twin Towers.

Despite their success, there is too often no pressure from elected officials to insist on community benefits agreements. It's not that officials dispute the goals — in fact, politicians sometimes see the benefit of them and are willing to pay contractors to institute similar provisions.

A case in point is just down the road from Baltimore in Prince Georges County, another area struggling with a widening opportunity chasm. The county's recently announced $100 million stormwater upgrade project includes a provision to hire an average of just 32 percent of construction employees from the local workforce over three years — with a reward of $1 million to the construction manager for meeting the goal. The goal is laudable, but taxpayers shouldn't have to pay $1 million for what contractors should be required to do for nothing. In addition the county is spending untold dollars on training programs for workers that would be free if a community benefits agreement were in place.

There's nothing wrong with government saying if you're going to do business in our community and take our money, your projects must improve our lives. People who work in good jobs with fair pay and benefits develop a stake in their neighborhoods and in a future for their families. They no longer have nothing to lose.

As it stands, too many youths in West Baltimore and in neighborhoods blanketing the nation see the masses of construction cranes, glimmering new towers and bustling job sites, and it's like they're peering through impenetrable glass. Year after year — generation after generation — they hear no answer to the question, "Why can't I work there?" In fact they could, if elected officials embraced policies such as community benefit agreements. We should demand that from our representatives for the sake of neighborhoods like the one where Freddie Gray lived and died and for our cities as a whole.

Dennis Martire (Dmartire@smartneighborhood.net) is vice president and Mid-Atlantic regional manager of the Laborers' International Union of North America, representing more than 40,000 workers in the region, predominantly in the construction industry.

Read Baltimore Sun op-ed here.

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