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Community Voices: Do hard hats signify the return of Boston’s economy?


“One of the things that can tell you the economy has gotten better is to look up and see cranes in the sky.”

Tracy Parks, a member of the Boston Workers Alliance and Laborers’ Local 151, told me that recently. And, it is not just cranes in the sky, but also shovels in the ground. On a busy street, you no longer just see suits, you notice more hard hats and lunch boxes.   These are pictures of hope, the belief that soon new enterprises will fill buildings, people will be able to enjoy renewed stability, and the city will have a vibrant economy again.

For years the cranes have not been here. Construction in Boston has been devastated by the economic woes of the past four years. This past September, 22,300 (21percent) fewer men and women worked in construction in the Boston area than in September 2007. In other words, there were more construction workers from 2007 who could not find work in the industry in 2011 than all the people living in Mission Hills and the West End combined.

A recent MassINC study found that, “Middle-class residents in Massachusetts are clinging to the American Dream, but … their grasp is increasingly tenuous.”

Another recent poll by the group, done for WBUR, found that most Massachusetts residents believe that the next generation will be worse off than we are today.

After driving our economy into a ditch, bankers have helped the Boston area weather the economic storm better than most. But the financial services sector does not create enough jobs to help us get back on our feet. For the long-run health of the region, we need large-scale and responsible development projects — new builds and renovations that will add thousands of jobs for construction and improve the infrastructure to promote permanent job creation as our region’s economy strengthens.  

Here’s the good news: It is starting to happen now. Hard hats and lunch boxes have started to return to downtown. You can see them at 6 in the morning, at lunchtime, at night. They are working on the new developments and extensive upgrades that will house the work, play and home lives of Boston for years to come.  

In addition, several prominent hotels are either currently undergoing significant overhauls or planning them within the year. The Boston Marriott — Copley Place is undertaking a considerable renovation. But the Copley Marriott (owned by Host Hotels and Resorts) has hired a contractor that brought in busloads of workers from other states and is paying wages that would not sustain a parent and child in Boston. The hotel is probably saving its money by using a contractor who contributes to — rather than alleviates — the economic uncertainty that Boston’s working people face.

Like other large corporations that make similar decisions, Host Hotels benefits. Like other contractors with bad business practices, the construction company benefits.  

But Boston suffers. Instead of injecting needed capital into our local economy, most of the wages from the Copley Marriott renovation will leave the area. While out-of-state workers may buy food in the area, a substantial amount of the money they make here will go elsewhere to pay for housing, school supplies and car repairs.

Right down the street, the Fairmont Copley is undergoing a $20-million renovation that will create a number of union jobs and strengthen our local economy. UNITE HERE Local 26 has negotiated contractual language with Felcor, the owner of the Fairmont Copley, that ensures that significant construction projects be done in accordance with community standards. Both the company and the union are making it possible for our economy to grow, as Boston workers will buy groceries, know that they can pay their rent or mortgage, and pick up a special treat for their kids at local bakery.    

 As the economy slowly rebounds, Boston area companies will have to create jobs. In order to ensure that the rebound is sustained and robust, however, those jobs must be good jobs for Boston area residents. The Fairmont Copley offers a model of responsible growth, which is good for the community as well as the company. If companies like the Copley Marriott continue to profit at the expense of Boston residents, the shovels we increasingly see will signify little more than a deepening divide between the 1 percent and the rest of us.

Darlene Lombos is the executive director of Community Labor United, a coalition of community-based organizations and labor unions.

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