Ensuring the Green Jobs are Good Jobs
March 21, 2023|Erica Iheme, Co-Executive Director, Jobs to Move America
I am a daughter of Alabama, born and raised, and before I joined Jobs to Move America in 2020, I spent 17 years as an union organizer, working on campaigns all over the country. I have been thinking my whole life about what it would take to make Alabama a better place for its citizens. I have been thinking about it, dreaming about it, writing about it, and yet many have written off the South.
Throughout my lifetime I witnessed a hesitation to invest in the South because of the perceived challenges that stand in the way of change. There is a stigma associated with empowering workers in the South. We cannot forget that slavery was a labor issue, and its legacy has continued to oppress workers and communities across time. Workers are put second in this structure and when they ask for more, there is nothing holding corporations back from blocking those opportunities.
With the influx of corporations setting up shop in the South over the last 20 to 30 years, Alabama, Mississippi and the greater Southern region is now the new Rust Belt. Therefore, the issue is not a lack of jobs or employment opportunities—in fact, Alabama has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. The issue is that despite this booming industrial development, communities in the South continue to be chronically impoverished. Corporations take advantage of a system that includes some of the lowest wages in the nation, along with a relative lack of safe working conditions and training opportunities.
But people in the South know how to organize. We know how to survive and we know how to stand up for what is right. With this in mind, JMA developed partnerships with organizations such as the Greater Birmingham Ministries which has provided direct care services in the community since before I was a little girl. We also work with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) which has been advocating for people since the civil rights movement; as well as Alabama Arise which is working to crush harmful policies, advocating for healthcare, advocating for food access. The Alabama Coalition for Community Benefits, which JMA is a part, drives much of the work that is happening with a great deal of knowledge and a simple purpose of improving the quality of jobs for ALL workers in Alabama.
Historically in Alabama and in other parts of the South, manufacturing, industrial, and logistical companies come to the region and often set up in rural, low-income, predominantly Black areas. They put the undesirable businesses in our communities and what we seek to do is turn the negative into a positive by organizing people, empowering them through worker rights training, building a base of people who are interested in improving the working conditions and civil rights, and then building the base out. We can impact the entire region by organizing these communities.
Too often, workers and community members see companies in their neighborhoods as external and unreachable instead of as an employer that should be working with them to overcome some of the challenges faced when it comes to access to good jobs, job retention, discrimination and sexual oppression.
Our goal at JMA is for communities to negotiate with employers, particularly the corporations who are benefiting from public investment in the South. We want communities to organize and fight together and then work with the employers to figure out how to overcome the challenges with a binding contract, known as a community benefits agreement (CBA). For example, many new electric buses being deployed around the country were made in Anniston, Alabama by New Flyer of America. New Flyer entered into a CBA with JMA and Greater Birmingham Ministries to create pipelines into the work for marginalized groups including women and Black workers, creating a complaint system with community partners that enable workers to express concerns in a safe space, increasing knowledge of safety standards, and many more systems that create conditions for access and benefits of a good job. For this, New Flyer is considered a model employer.
There are many ways we can get to good jobs. Federal policies that put conditions on funds flowing to the states and municipalities for infrastructure updates and improvements, updating federal rules and guideline that limit government’s ability to demand local hire for federal contracts, local governments asking bidders for large contracts to complete U.S. employment plans, and creating pathways for workers to form unions free from employer intimidation and retaliation. Ultimately, we have to focus on the South, center Black workers and women, and build community knowledge to make sure that they are enforced on the ground.
Erica Iheme is the Co-Executive Director for Jobs to Move America, a strategic policy center that works to transform public spending and corporate behavior using a comprehensive approach that is rooted in racial and economic justice and community organizing.