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NWI Coalition Fights for Region Workers' Rights

By Patrick Drennan
On March 13, 2013

Northwest Indiana is a region that is home to fourteen communities characterized by high poverty, high rates of unemployment, and a disparaged workforce left behind and neglected from economic progress. Some cities, such as Gary and East Chicago, have some of the highest rates of unemployment in the entire state.  The region is desperate for an economic project that will offer work for members of the Northwest Indiana communities and facilitate major economic development throughout the area. That sort of project is exactly what is happening with the expansionary development of the Gary/Chicago International Airport, a major project that is halfway completed, except that it's not bringing jobs to the disparaged workers of the region or strengthening its economic infrastructure. However, a coalition of organizers, community leaders, and volunteers has made it their mission to make sure these jobs go to the citizens of Northwest Indiana.

Reverend Cheryl Revera is the lead organizer and the executive director of the Federation of Interfaith Organizations, a group that focuses on organizing communities around social, racial, and economic justice. They were instrumental in the creation of the regional transportation authority in Northwest Indiana, as well as initiating various progressive movements in Northwest Indiana to achieve regional equity. Their current objective is to secure a regional community benefits agreement to "improve the quality of life for families hit hard by unemployment and poverty, and to uplift the regional economy of Northwest Indiana." Community benefits agreements are contracts signed by community groups and a real estate developer that requires the developer to provide specific amenities to the local community. In many cases, these amenities take the form of living wage requirements, local hiring goals, and job training programs.

Last week I had the opportunity to speak with Reverend Revera to learn about the issue surrounding the Gary airport expansion project and what they are doing to make sure these jobs go to the right people who need them.

The movement to achieve a community benefits agreement began when the Federation noticed that none of the jobs for the Gary airport expansion project were going to people of the Northwest Indiana communities during the project's genesis in February 2011. They met with Bill Hanna, the executive director of the Regional Development Authority, a group that leverages money from the state and federal government to fund local developments in Northwest Indiana, and learned that 95 percent of the jobs to work on the project weren't going to people in the Northwest Indiana area, and were being outsourced to as far as Ohio. Furthermore, the RDA had exempted itself from all hiring agreements concerning the airport expansion project, prompting the Federation to take it upon themselves to take the progressive actions necessary in order to secure a community benefits agreement for the people of Northwest Indiana. Since February 2011, the Federation has been working with state and local legislators on making this community benefits agreement a reality.

The aim of the regional community benefits agreement is to "provide a coordinated agreement between the Northwest Indiana Federation Regional Jobs Coalition and the Gary/Chicago International Airport and to facilitate job training and employment targeting the region's highest unemployment and poverty zip codes." The agreement would provide orientation, job readiness, job training, and a pre apprenticeship program that will graduate and enroll region citizens in union apprenticeship programs so as to provide a smooth transition into fulltime employment in the construction trades and non-trades labor. The agreement would also guarantee early access to available airport jobs, and provide employers with prompt, cost free referrals of qualified and trained applicants. Possibly the most important item in the agreement is the guarantee of at least 30 percent of all man hours worked on the project will be performed by citizens of disparaged zip codes in the Northwest Indiana region. This means that 30 percent of all work on the project would be guaranteed to be given to members of Gary, Portage, Hammond, East Chicago, and other region communities.

Community benefits agreements have been around since the late 1990's, and some recent examples would be the Los Angeles Airport expansion project, as well as the development of Highway 40 in St. Louis. To date, there have been none in the Chicago-land area or in the state of Indiana at all, which means that reaching such an agreement for the Gary airport expansion project would set a precedent for the entire surrounding area and would symbolize an enormously positive turn of events for the Northwest Indiana economy.

The work Reverend Revera and the Federation are doing is very important because it shows that members of the community can work together to inspire progressive change in the face of institutions whose apathetic or coercive natures work against the interests of everyone in their society. As students of Indiana University Northwest, we are as familiar as anyone with the poor economic conditions of Gary and many other region communities and recognize the dire need for new jobs that pay a living wage that can help rejuvenate our suffering economies. The Federation of Interfaith Organizations is trying to do just that; secure stable work and provide a decent existence for the disparaged workers of Northwest Indiana. Their hard work symbolizes the formidable power that people collectively hold and proves that we can organize our own affairs and make sure they serve our own interests.

If you're interested in learning more about the Federation's ongoing work in Northwest Indiana, they will be holding a town hall meeting Saturday, March 23, at the Trinity United Church of Christ in Gary at 1276 West 20th avenue from 2:00PM - 4:00PM. All are encouraged and welcome to come to attend to help advance this important cause.

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