Cities, and Unions, Are Bargaining Away Other People's Futures

Boeing employees strike in September, 2008, photo from the Seattle Times.

Reflecting on the recent contract negotiations between Boeing and the Machinists union in my hometown of Everett, Washington, I couldn't help but draw a parallel between the state of labor negotiations and the way we approach urban growth, particularly in big, dense cities. In both cases, it's the current stakeholders who make the decisions—current employees at Boeing, current residents of cities—and for each, concessions are being made on behalf of future stakeholders in order to preserve the privileges of the negotiating parties.

For a while now, many negotiations between labor and business have been characterized by the adoption of tiered employment, a system in which new employees are hired at lower wages (and/or worse benefits) than current employees; General Motors did this several years ago.

Boeing went the route of eliminating pensions for its new engineers, and hoped to do one better with the much larger Machinists union this week, no longer offering pensions for new machinists, and ending pension contributions for current ones. Just last week Boeing employees voted overwhelmingly to reject the contract, but the fight isn't over until a deal is signed. If Boeing gives in and allows current employees to keep their pensions, those workers will have a decision to make: sacrifice the benefits of future employees to preserve their own, or risk their jobs to fight for the rights and privileges of people they've never met.

Residents protest development in West New York,photo from Hudson Reporter.

When I look at how we approach the growth of our cities, I see similar divisions in place. As with concessions to two-tiered employment systems, much of the urban development discourse is framed purely from a perspective of what current residents will lose, or perceive themselves as losing: new developments and new residents will take my parking, take my views, take the space at my favorite restaurant or bar. They'll change the character of my neighborhood, raise my rent, introduce "sketchy" people, increase traffic congestion. These aren't all unreasonable concerns, but they're undeniably one-sided.

What's missing entirely from this discussion is any consideration for the needs of future residents: people who would like to live in a city but can't afford to because of the limited supply of housing, or parking regulations that drive up rents. People who are forced to live on the outskirts, dependent on a car even if they would prefer not to be, and whose career prospects may be limited by their distance from the most productive job centers. It's a missing perspective that, in some ways, makes this even worse than the Boeing situation, where the structure of labor contracts forces employees to at least consider the harm done to future workers. In cities, not only are future residents unheard and unrepresented, most people fail to even consider how they might be impacted. This, despite the fact that many of us were newcomers ourselves in the not too distant past.