Unions and Smart Growth


Urban Density: Good for Union Density

Unions are urban institutions. So as America’s central cities and inner-ring suburbs have suffered due to sprawl, so have union members.

In the first-ever investigation of this problem, Good Jobs First created the “Smart Growth, Good Jobs” curriculum for the leaders of the Chicago Federation of Labor in 2000. We mapped the geography of the CFL’s major unions and compared the locations of union jobs to the whole six-county Chicago metro economy.

The results were striking. Across the board, as jobs thinned out geographically, they also de-unionized. It wasn’t just Wal-Mart invading the United Food and Commercial Workers’ base. The same pattern held in hotels, health care, manufacturing, transit, and public sector (and anecdotally in construction, which we could not map). Only janitorial coverage was strong in most suburbs, thanks to a big organizing campaign.

We also found that sprawl harmed union families as homeowners. That is, due to sprawl, older neighborhoods where most union members live are hit with far higher property tax rates. (Factory shutdowns and job flight undermine their tax base.) That also means union families suffer poorer public services and more pressure for privatization.

Finally, we mapped the AFL-CIO ratings on the voting records of state representatives, state senators, and Members of Congress. As a group, elected officials from newly-developing sprawl areas have very anti-working families voting records. And, of course, such areas gain more political clout every ten years after the census is taken and districts are re-drawn.

The next year, at the 2001 national AFL-CIO convention, the Chicago Federation of Labor, the Cleveland Federation of Labor and the Contra Costa County Labor Council submitted a successful


denouncing sprawl and urging all unions to weigh in for smart growth.

In 2004, we performed the same analysis in the five-county Philadelphia metro area for the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO. The findings were very similar to Chicago: across the board, sprawling growth and tax-base thinning undermined union density and harmed working families. And areas with few union jobs or households also had very anti-working families elected officials.

Our publication

Talking to Union Leaders About Smart Growth

is a concise “Cliff’s Notes” summary of how sprawl harms union members in all the major sectors of the economy.

Building Trades: Critical Players on Growth Issues

The Building Trades are often active on growth issues. Many years ago, some believed that “any construction is good for the Trades,” even opposing smart growth ballot initiatives (sometimes told by developers that “smart growth is no growth in sheep’s clothing”).

Now, we all know better. As Good Jobs First documented in

The Jobs Are Back In Town: Urban Smart Growth and Construction Employment

, the Trades get far more work from smart growth than they do from sprawl.

Indeed, as Building Trades leaders have recounted to us from their first-hand experiences in Atlanta, Portland, Ore. and Denver, the way a metro area grows has a profound effect on their members. In

one of the most popular articles in Shelterforce magazine in 2015

, a plumber, an electrician and a sheet metal worker told their stories in remarkably honest terms.

The Atlanta plumber recounts is painful detail how his membership participated in “white flight,” diluting their political clout and setting the stage for non-union contractors to work their way in. The Portland electrician explains how Oregon’s Urban Growth Boundaries forced development back downtown where the Trades has strength. The Denver sheet metal worker tells how the Trades there reversed themselves and helped win a ballot initiative to fund a massive new light rail system; he only wishes the Trades there had figured out the value of transit and transit-oriented development sooner.

Another benefit we found in two more studies is that transit-oriented development creates work for nearly


of the Trades, not just the three crafts that dominate road-building. This was especially important during the Great Recession, when members of every craft were suffering high unemployment. In

Work for All the Crafts: Restoring the Union Depot in St. Paul

, we documented how members of 13 crafts benefited directly from a project that was funded in part by the federal stimulus (a so-called TIGER grant). It also exceeded aggressive targets for minority and female hiring and work-hours, and the new light rail Green Line that terminates at the Depot has already stimulated billions of dollars in additional, new private construction. We also found broadly-shared benefits for the Trades in

Work for All the Crafts: Building Normal’s Multimodal Transit Hub into Illinois’ Second Busiest Amtrak Station


What the three leaders in our


article went through, and what those in St. Paul and Normal also experienced, is consistent with our factual findings in

The Jobs Are Back in Town

: By every credible measure we could find—everything from construction estimating data to long-term regional building permit data—when construction is more compact, when it involves rehab, when it uses less land, when it is more vertical and more complicated, it requires more work hours and is more likely to be done union.

The same is true for highway construction. We found Federal Highway Administration data that broke down work hours by the type of project. We separated them into “fix it first” projects (which is a smart growth basic) and sprawling projects (such as brand-new rights of way). The “fix it first” projects created more work hours per million dollars spent because the projects don’t require any new land purchases, and they often involve partial demolition and rebuilding, making them even more labor-intensive.

We also found long-term national data showing that having a regional policy to manage growth (such as Oregon’s Urban Growth Boundaries) makes a big positive difference in construction job growth.

Finally, not all infrastructure is created equal. Consider two kinds of road-building projects: a new highway on the fringe of a metro area (or in a rural area) versus a road-rebuilding and improvement project in an inner-ring suburb. Both projects will stimulate private-sector construction activity, but will it be union? The fringe/rural road will encourage new building like Wal-Mart big boxes and other sprawling, big-footprint projects. But the urban road will stimulate redevelopment that is far more likely to be dense, mixed-use, and/or transit-oriented—and union built.

Of course, the same difference would be true in spades between a rural road and an urban light rail or subway construction project. Transit works like “urban Rogaine;” it is great for thickening urban areas where all unions are strongest, including the Trades.

Union Leaders Get It, Even If They Don’t Use Smart Growth Lingo

In our study

Labor Leaders as Smart Growth Advocates: How Unions See Suburban Sprawl and Work for Smart Growth Solutions

we surveyed 50 labor federation leaders, mostly central labor council presidents (metro labor federations). We asked them two sets of questions: about their regional economies and about their legislative advocacy.

By both measures, labor leaders are big-time smart growth champions (even if they don’t call themselves that). For example, three-fourths or more said they believe: there is a mismatch between where most new jobs are being created and where most affordable housing is located; air pollution is a growing public health problem;

some suburbs in their metro area use exclusionary zoning to keep low- or middle-income families out


their regional infrastructure systems – like roads and sewers – do not treat older areas fairly compared to newer areas; and the property tax system is not fair to all cities in the region.

They clearly see sprawl harming union members: three-fourths or more believe that: the dispersion of jobs into the suburbs is undermining union density; the growing political power of the suburbs is bad for their state’s working families political agenda; and that cities in their metro area pushing for privatization of public services are doing so because they have lost a lot of their tax base.

Their legislative advocacy is also extremely pro-urban. Two-thirds or more have: lobbied state or local legislatures for more funding to repair and rehabilitate existing schools; supported a campaign to stop a factory shutdown in an older area; or opposed a “big box” retail project such as a Wal-Mart. Almost as many have lobbied for school funding formulas that would improve funding for schools in older areas.

They are also staunchly pro-public transportation: more than two thirds have lobbied to preserve or expand mass transit operating budgets. Three fourths believe that regional transportation authorities should have more flexibility in how they allocate transportation dollars between highways and transit. Asked a hypothetical question, more than half said they believe that one out of three workers who drives to work in their area would switch to transit if the transit system gave them a choice.

We also found that about two-thirds have worked in coalition with environmental groups on environmental issues and that the federation leaders personally belong to environmental organizations at a far higher rate than U.S. adults generally.