fresh voices from the front lines of change







On the same day that conservatives in the Senate blocked action on a bill that would create 2 million new jobs, progressives and business leaders were in the nearby Russell Senate Office Building discussing what it takes to create good jobs.

The Good Jobs For A Stronger Economy Conference on Tuesday brought together business and organization leaders, along with their ideas for creating better-paying jobs with benefits in the United States and for rebuilding the middle class.

The first portion of the conference was punctuated with sobering facts about the working-class economy.

“In the United States today 20% of adults work in jobs that pay poverty level wages,” said Paul Osterman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Thirty years ago 25-30% of U.S. GDP came from manufacturing and 10% came from financial institutions,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, the conference’s keynote speaker, who talked about how manufacturing jobs seem to be disappearing in the United States. “Now those numbers are reversed, with 25-30% of U.S. GDP coming from financial institutions and 10% coming from manufacturing.”

Brown was followed by four business owners who talked about the practices their companies implemented to hire and retain workers.

Albert Fuller, president and CEO of Integrated Packaging Corporation, based in Detroit, Michigan, said his firm “is the largest intercity packaging company to employ African Americans in the country.” The business is located in a low-income, predominately African-American neighborhood, he said. Fuller said the business gives former prisoners and those who have completed rehab programs the opportunity to work and prove themselves on the work floor.

Paul Diamond, Vice President of Human Resources for Addus Health Center, said that retaining and hiring good paying caretakers is vital for his firm given the aging and retiring of baby boomers. “We need caretakers who are committed and passionate to attend to patients at their homes day in and day out, whether the weather is sunny or stormy,” he said. Addus Health Center needs to offer good wages and health benefits in order to retain current caretakers and attract new ones, he added.

Barbara Dyer, president and CEO of Hitachi Foundation, talked about the need for U.S. government funding for training workers so they would be able to operate the latest technology. “Currently businesses spend $126 billion on getting talent through job training of workers while $2.3 billion is spent by the U.S. government,” Dyer said. More government funds need to go to community colleges to help train students for the jobs of tomorrow, she said.

Leo Hindery, managing partner of InterMedia Parnters, pointed to the widening gap between the lowest-paid employees and the CEOs. “When I started working the difference was 1 to 10 and now the difference is 1 to 20,” he said. Hindery also mentioned a comment attributed to former General Electric CEO Jack Welsh about the top priorities of corporate America: First the shareholders, second the employees, third the customers, and then, with a pause, the good of the country.

A second panel discussed the reforms in policy and practice that can improve job quality.

Annette Bernhardt, policy co-director of National Employment Law Center, talked about recent job creation over the last two years in the United States. “Seventy percent of jobs created over the last two years were low-wage-paying jobs and those wages have dropped 2 percent over that same time period.” Bernhardt said a possible solution would be federal aid to states to help create middle-class jobs.

One proposal offered by Marlene Seltzer, president and CEO of Jobs for the Future, was for “The National Fund for Work Force.” It would have two major goals: “create career advancement for low-wage jobs” and “provide a pipeline for training those workers.” Seltzer said that for every $1 that comes from the National Fund, $4 would be produced at the regional level. Over the last three years the National Fund has given $24 million to individual regions and produced over $124 million at the regional level.

Ernesto Cortes, Jr., co-chair and executive director of West / Southwest Regional Network and Industrial Areas Foundation, said that public movements need to be tougher and stronger than they are now. “Don’t have enough tough hard people to organize movements that can last long enough to impact policy makers,” Cortes said. Constituents need to take on politicians who don’t respond to their demands on policy and if need be vote them out of office to send a message, he added.

Peter Colavito, Director of Government Relations for Service Employees International Union, cited the importance of changing the political climate towards unions in the United States and building up a power base in favor of unions in the future. Unions in the United States have slowly disappeared to the point of being extinct, he said, noting that “7 percent of private sector jobs in the United States today are unionized.”

The issue that got the most attention during the conference concerned tax credits and subsidies. Several panelists took the position that tax credits and subsidies should not go to companies and businesses that pay low wages without any benefits but instead should go to companies and businesses that have good paying jobs with health benefits. Without the incentive to make changes companies and businesses will keep on lowering wages, cutting benefits, and shipping jobs overseas because they still get the tax credits and subsidies anyway.

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