CBAs: Public Power, Shared Prosperity

With last week's New York Times/CBS poll revealing wide-spread public distrust of Washington politicians, progressives appear to be facing a dilemma.

On the one hand, many agree that record-level alienation from Washington is driven by record-level economic inequality -- how can a government that has permitted such shocking inequities be legitimate, particularly when your voice in politics is largely dependent on your class status?

But while redistributive policies are clearly the right response to this inequity, how do you mobilize support for more government intervention in the economy when faith in the public sector has hit rock bottom?

One approach to this dilemma is to sidestep it altogether and scale up strategies for shared prosperity that don't require heavy lifting by government. 

Take, for example, the new accountable development movement. As I've written before, this movement -- largely led by communuity organizing groups and labor unions -- aims to combat urban inequality and promote fair local economic development. While this movement has deployed a range of tactics and strategies, one in particuar -- the negotiation of Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs) -- has succeeded in extracting serious amounts of cash from corporations and developers to support living wage jobs, affordable housing, and worker training in over 15 major cities in the United States.

It's done all this, moreover, without requiring new legislation or a leading role for government officials. How is this possible?  

A typical CBA works like this: If an urban developer wants to build a major project like a stadium or a convention center, he will typically need re-zoning approval from some municipal authority (usually the city council). Since these projects have a record of poor employment practices and frequently result in cost of living increases that displace nearby residents, community organizers and labor unions demand that, in exchange for their support for the project, the developer sign a contract pledging a certain amount of funds for affordable housing and pay their workers wages adjusted to local cost of living.  

Corporate developers are often willing to enter into these contracts in order to avoid the PR nightmares that can result from community backlash against a major project -- and if the developer violates the terms of an agreement, the coalition of community and labor groups can sue in court for breach of contract. To be sure, the record for CBAs is not perfect: the conditions set out by the CBA for the Atlantic Yards Project in Brooklyn, NY have remained unmet largely because the community organizations that were signatories to the agreement have benefited financially from the developer and have declined to pursue legal action.  

Moreover, its important to recognize that in order for CBAs to have real teeth, municipal authorities and local elected officials must to some extent be responsive to the interests of the community -- when fears of bad PR are not enough, developers will only sign on to a CBA if they have reason to believe that community organizations can influence the local government to block the needed zoning approval.

Urban developers are not the only possible targets. Community groups in small towns across the U.S. have had amazing success in extracting contributions from Wal-Mart through similar forms of organizing.

The logic guiding the new accountable development movement -- the "belief that economic decision-making should be inclusive and open," as the Partnership for Working Families puts it -- can also inspire other significant progressive reforms: starting this fall, several New York City Council members will hand over authority to their constituents to decide how to allocate a certain chunk of their discretionary capital funds (a practice known as "participatory budgeting"). 

The lesson here is not that traditional redistributive policies don't matter. It is that there are other ways to achieve economic equity, as well -- strategies that empower people and communities in the process.