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Coalition calls for wage guarantees for construction on Roxbury projects

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO

A coalition of labor, housing and economic justice activists is proposing that developers of sites in the Roxbury Strategic Master Plan area commit to new “good jobs standards” that would include higher wages and a higher proportion of full-time permanent jobs in addition to already-established hiring goals for local, minority and female construction workers.

Members of the Boston Jobs Coalition appeared in force at an early October meeting of the Roxbury Strategic Master Plan Oversight Committee to demand that the committee adopt a stronger set of employment standards for developers seeking committee approval for Roxbury projects.

The proposed standards include paying prevailing wage for all construction workers, whether union or non-union; ensuring that 75 percent of the permanent jobs created are full time and start at the city’s living wage of $13.89 per hour, increasing to $16.89 over three years; and adopting hiring goals of 51 percent local residents, 51 percent people of color, and 15 percent women on construction jobs.

The city already has a hiring goals ordinance in place — the Boston Resident Jobs Policy specifies that 50 percent of work hours are to go to Boston residents, 25 percent to minorities and 10 percent to women on city-funded projects — but the RSMPOC has long urged developers to aim for the higher 51-51-15 goals.

What’s different about the standards now being proposed is that they also address wages and that they take into account permanent jobs as well as construction jobs created by new development.

The new standards would not be laws, but rather goals that developers would agree to and be held to by the committee. RSMPOC members voted unanimously to endorse consideration of the proposal. A working subcommittee will review the ideas and draft formalized recommendations to present to the full committee in a future meeting.

“The issue here is, if these developments are going to create wealth, we need them to provide jobs at a fair living wage, and to be consistent across developments,” said RSMPOC co-chair Jorge Martinez in an interview.

“It was a spectacular meeting,” he added. “So many passionate people coming to the table asking for what they need.”

Part of what led the activists to call for new standards was the discovery by the Black Economic Justice Institute, co-directed by Priscilla Flint, that some workers on the new Tropical Foods store construction project near Dudley Square were being paid only $11 per hour. Flint’s group picketed the site in protest over the summer and called on developers Madison Park Development Corporation and Tropical Foods to raise wages.

MPDC Chief Executive Officer Jeanne Pinado said in an interview that the Madison-Tropical developers were equally disturbed to learn of the $11 wage and that the average wage on the project is $35 per hour. They have since set a minimum wage of $15 an hour, Pinado said, and individuals who worked for $11 an hour have received back pay. MPDC also sent a statement that indicated worker hours as of Oct. 14 included 41.7 percent resident, 57.1 percent minority, and 4.9 percent female, and that 35 percent of the total construction has been subcontracted to minority-owned firms.

Still, continued vigilance on both pay and local hiring is necessary, Flint said, or Roxbury residents will be left out of any economic prosperity that comes with the current spate of new construction.

“You have these developments going forth all over Roxbury, but if you’re only paying $11 to $15 an hour, we’re not going to be able to afford to live here, with prices going up,” she said. “There has to be some kind of accountability — not just for developers, but for the Oversight Committee, too.”

The Black Economic Justice Institute spearheaded the push for the proposed jobs standards at the Oct. 6 RSMPOC meeting. The jobs coalition also includes Roxbury/Dorchester Campaign for Good Jobs, Action for Regional Equity, Black Economic Justice Institute, Boston Workers Alliance, City Life/Vida Urbana and the Dorchester/Roxbury Labor Committee.

The coalition’s effort was supported by City Councilor Tito Jackson, an ex-officio member of the RSMPOC, who made sure the group got on the agenda.

“The goals of the Roxbury Strategic Master Plan are economic development and wealth building for people in Roxbury,” Jackson told the Banner. “So these [proposed standards] are at the core of what the plan actually says.”

He added, “I would note that these recommendations come at a time when community members have had to stand up to developers like Tropical Foods who have paid less than acceptable wages. $11 an hour is not acceptable. It is unacceptable to have organizations — businesses and institutions — receive public subsidies and not pay living wages.”

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz was present at the meeting and was impressed with the spirit and passion of the jobs movement.

“It was a robust conversation, really excellent community turnout to represent what I think is a deep and wide appetite in the community for good jobs,” she told the Banner. “It’s not surprising to see that sentiment. A lot of the time we talk about housing policy, and that’s part of the puzzle, but we can’t address gentrification with a housing-only approach. Good jobs have to be part of that.

“The Oversight Committee has always been very dogged in asking about who’s getting hired for contracts and subcontracts,” she added, “[but] it did not occur to the Committee that wages would be as low as $11. So they’re saying maybe we need to ask this upfront and monitor for this.”

Any formalized standards would be submitted to the Boston Redevelopment Authority for approval. Martinez emphasized that while this process is unfolding, a longstanding volunteer committee will continue its monitoring of hiring numbers on Roxbury development projects.

A group of community members and labor advocates has been meeting bi-weekly for several years to scrutinize the hiring numbers on Roxbury construction projects and bring attention to the contractors, developers and the RSMPOC when commitments are not being met.

Dorothea Jones, a longtime Roxbury resident and activist and a leader on the monitoring committee, said the monitoring committee seeks to hold developers accountable. Her goal is to do so in a way that furthers cooperation.

“It’s a community process. We’re not trying to tear the developers apart,” Jones said. “We’re only trying to build a great working relationship with them that will enhance the wealth generation and the good jobs, construction and permanent, provided because of the projects. We just want people to get fair wages for their work.”

Jones said that often the main general contractor works hard to hire local workers, people of color and women, but its subcontractors may fall short. With Tropical Foods, it appears a subcontractor was paying the very low wages that had to be raised.

Shawmut Construction, the general contractors for the new Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building on the Ferdinand site, has shown very good hiring numbers over the course of the project, with recent figures showing 80 percent residents, 51 percent minority, and 16 percent women, Jones said.

“Some of the subcontractors may not have had the numbers we would have liked, but Shawmut was a true partner with us,” she said. “These are the kinds of numbers we feel are meeting the goal of wealth generation in the community.”

Flint, ever watchful, takes a less conciliatory tone than Jones.

“We still have a long way to go in this city,” she said. “We don’t want to keep having to protest these sites. We want developers and contractors to be held accountable. And this goes for permanent jobs, too; Who gets those cleaning contracts? Who works in those buildings?

“So much is happening in Roxbury, so much development. They’re talking about luxury apartments, luxury homes — but who’s the luxury for?”

Jackson echoed Flint’s concern about local residents losing out on economic benefits as neighborhoods experience rapid development.

“My office continues to work aggressively on pushing for fair wages, fair housing, and equitable opportunities,” Jackson said. “We work with a great sense of urgency, because the changes are occurring very quickly and displacing a lot of community members.

“It is critical that as opportunity and development occurs in Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan, the people currently there have the first opportunity to benefit from these really good economic times.”

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