The Not-So-Secret Plan to Improve Transit, Create Jobs and Bring Back the Left – Next City

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The Not-So-Secret Plan to Improve Transit, Create Jobs and Bring Back the Left

Why Aren’t American Workers Building American Trains?

Story by Nona Willis Aronowitz

Photography by Aaron Cassara

Published on Oct 28, 2013

On a Monday afternoon in July, in a modest suite of offices nestled in a brick building just west of downtown Los Angeles, Madeline Janis prepares for an important meeting. As national policy director for the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, known as LAANE, Janis has been working on an ambitious plan to bring tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. The plan has nothing to do with educating consumers about locally made products. Janis is not advocating tax breaks for corporations to build factories here. And she’s not simply touting the benefits of the “Buy America” procurement act, which requires that transit agencies using federal money buy from companies that produce 60 percent of the total value of the vehicle in the country. In fact, Janis doesn’t think the loophole-riddled law goes far enough — not by a long shot.

Instead, she’s about to sell a conference room full of 30 or 40 local activists on the idea that the return of highly skilled, well-paid manufacturing jobs hinges on using public dollars that already exist. Specifically, she has her eye on $40 billion allocated to improve L.A.’s mass transit system with new light rail cars, after Los Angeles County residents voted for Measure R, a half-cent tax increase over 30 years. It’s a huge sum that, if harnessed correctly, could be used to commission companies who promise to hire and train workers in the U.S.

The details are a complicated jumble of legal stipulations, incentives and budget breakdowns. But the sentiment is simple, resonant and oozing with patriotism: Why not use the billions already pledged for transit manufacturing to create jobs for Americans, particularly low-income people of color who typically miss out on these opportunities? “We’re paying for that with our fares, with our tax dollars,” Janis says. “We should have the jobs that go with them.”

Janis’ intuitive idea represents a 180-degree turn away from how government has produced and purchased goods for the last several decades. Typically, when a city wants to invest in a set of Acela trains or a new fleet of buses, the job goes to the lowest bidder, whether that’s the factory in town or one in Japan or Germany. Back in the 1960s, when one in four city jobs were in manufacturing, a region may have had several American companies to choose from. Nowadays, there are virtually no American rail car manufacturers and only one bus manufacturer that’s 100 percent U.S.-owned and -made — Gillig, in Hayward, Calif.

When a city or state puts out a call for new rail cars or buses, only foreign companies typically respond, and they take a large portion of the jobs — particularly the good-paying ones — back to their own countries. While some of the assembly is done in the United States at a few hundred factories, higher-value activities such as design and engineering are mostly performed overseas. As of now, rail car manufacturing and assembly only provide between 10,000 and 14,000 jobs in the United States. Bus manufacturing provides even less than that.

Janis and a loose coalition of advocacy groups in several major cities across the country are seeking to dramatically multiply that number, inspired by L.A.’s sudden “enormous infusion of resources” toward transit. According to Robert Puentes, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, LAANE’s plan represents a “permanent shift in the American economy.” As of now, he says, this kind of advanced manufacturing accounts for about 11 percent of the economy — not big enough to replace the 6 million manufacturing jobs lost between 2000 and 2009, but “still important.”

”It’s an awful lot of what we export overseas,” Puentes says. His hope is that this “manufacturing renaissance” won’t only make products for use in the U.S., but in other countries as well.

Janis sees this plan as putting “meat on the bones” of President Obama’s constant calls for a new era of American manufacturing. In 2008, he talked of cracking down on China’s trade cheating. During the 2012 election, he pledged to add one million new manufacturing jobs to the U.S. economy (only about 12,000 have been created so far). Just a few days before this Monday meeting, Obama stood in an Amazon warehouse in Chattanooga, Tenn. and spoke of “high-tech manufacturing hubs” and incentivizing “new investment” in stirring yet vague terms.

Madeline Janis directs the Jobs to Move America campaign. She believes in a new labor movement wherein governments play a more proactive role in creating local jobs.

LAANE’s idea is a promising answer to the president, an antidote to inadequate policies and squishy, patriotic calls to buy American. Although the 1982 “Buy America” Act requires that 60 percent of mass transit procurements be U.S.-made, there are myriad loopholes and almost no government enforcement. Local communities, meanwhile, aren’t yet organized enough to hold giant global companies accountable. Janis calls the law “completely insufficient.” She estimates that since component parts represent 80 percent of the cost of the vehicle, and since subcomponents can fly under the radar, only about 28 percent of parts are truly made locally. Based on studies LAANE has conducted on transit companies’ compliance, “the level of follow-through… is paltry,” Janis says.

Instead LAANE, with help from the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at the University of Southern California, has drafted what it calls a “U.S. Employment Plan,” or USEP. These voluntary commitments would supplement a legal contract — with strong enforcement language — that’s part of a company’s RFP, promising to manufacture buses or rail cars in the States. At the heart of the USEP are “price adjustments” that encourage companies (since demanding anything is illegal) to hire and train locally. There are price credits everywhere. Hiring disabled workers? That’s a price credit. Veterans? That’s another one. If a company gets enough price credits, it wins the bid.

Of course, these credits don’t actually reduce the price paid by the city or the state. They just help drum up competition and allow USEP-friendly companies to take the high road. LAANE’s kind of public procurement isn’t concerned with pure cost so much as the “triple bottom line” — the social cost, the environmental cost and the dollar amount. “Cheap has a cost,” is one of Janis’s favorite lines. Bargain hunting, she says, reinforces “inequities of the past” and allows valuable taxpayer dollars and jobs to leave local boundaries. Her hope is that “these companies see the high road as the most profitable road.”

But try explaining that to a cash-strapped government. Some states, such as Illinois, outright require that a contract be rewarded to the lowest bidder, hence why the Chicago Transit Authority declined the price credit system on a recent rail car bid. But the needle is starting to move: On October 17, the CTA announced that it will request (but not require) companies competing for a $2 billion contract for 846 rail cars to disclose an “American Jobs Plan.” Nebulous and without teeth, the American Jobs request is hardly a substitute for the price credits — it’d just be a voluntary questionnaire folded into the bidding materials — but it could encourage manufacturers to create U.S. jobs, or weed out the companies who have no interest in doing so.

There are other early signs that transit authorities may be coming around to the idea of using public procurement as a tool to create local manufacturing jobs. Back in January, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority awarded a $305 million contract for 550 clean-fuel buses to the Canadian company New Flyer Industries. Instead of taking jobs back to Canada, the deal will create work in the States: New Flyer will add 150 employees to its factory in St. Cloud, Minn., and create another 50 jobs in Los Angeles. The contract was a win-win: New Flyer not only offered the best USEP, but the cheapest as well.

LAANE’s idea is a promising answer to the president, an antidote to inadequate policies and squishy, patriotic calls to buy American.

Paul Soubry, president and CEO of New Flyer Industries, doesn’t see his choice to manufacture buses in the U.S. as anything more than pragmatic. “New Flyer sold buses to LA Metro in the past,” he writes in an email, “and set out to win again.” The lease for the New Flyer Service Center has been signed and the company is currently in the process of hiring. Soubry expects the center to be operational by January 1, 2014. He describes this particular deal as achieving “stability of operations and job retention” rather than “true job creation.” As of now, New Flyer employs around 2,000 people in the U.S.

LAANE points to the New Flyer deal as a model for leveraging tens of billions of already-promised transit dollars across the country. The Chicago Transit Authority’s $2 billion could create 20,000 jobs, LAANE says, even without the price credit system. New York City, which accounts for half of the country’s rolling stock purchases, has between $1.5 and $2 billion for the next generation of subway cars. Maryland plans to spend $400 million. In total, LAANE estimates, some $5.4 billion is spent annually on U.S. transit projects.

Reconnecting America, an Oakland-based think tank, identifies 721 transit development plans and proposals in the U.S. right now, estimating that 497 of these projects would cost a total of $250 billion. To Janis, the dollar signs represent a huge opportunity not only for high-skilled, well-paying jobs, but also for positive community development and green technologies.

Rail car manufacturing companies are currently competing for a Chicago Transit Authority contract that would pay $2 billion to produce 846 cars.

Janis, of course, is not the first person to take on public procurement policies. One of Richard Nixon’s lesser-known actions in the White House was to create a federal Office of Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) dedicated to supporting and strengthening businesses owned by African Americans, Latinos and other minority populations. Two years after establishing the federal office, Nixon mandated that all federal agencies must take action to promote minority business enterprises, which included creating specific, regulated programs designed to increase the number of minority contractors used by public agencies. By 1975, federal agencies such as the Federal Highway Administration had issued regulations requiring states to use a certain number of MBE contractors on all federally supported construction projects. In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton issued his own executive orders to ensure that environmental concerns were addressed within procurement standards, requiring agencies to incorporate recycling into their daily operations and all federal procurement officials to give preference to green products and services. Many local governments across the country followed suit through the Bush years.

But procurement reform has never before taken such square aim at creating new jobs, mostly because of federal regulations that limit what government can make private businesses do.

“You want any company to have as free a hand as possible,” says Cliff Waldman, senior economist for the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation. This kind of “Buy America attitude,” he says, “comes back to haunt you.” Waldman believes in making sure companies pay fair wages, but draws a line at intervening in the free market. “If you restrict decisions that way, ultimately you restrict growth,” he says. “North America and the U.S. need to maximize its place in the global manufacturing supply chain network.” The biggest concern he has is that American policymakers will not “realize the full potential of this moment.”

There’s also the question of execution: How do you make sure you don’t break free trade laws? How do you talk about “public procurement” to a layperson without sounding like a nerdy economics teacher? Perhaps most essentially, how do you enforce lofty plans to create U.S. jobs once a company has inked a deal?

Not to mention the issue of who gets these jobs. In 2012, 76 percent of rail car manufacturing workers in the U.S. were men, and 93 percent of them were white, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — a shocking lack of diversity that Buy America doesn’t even address. Most of these companies don’t have any experience hiring domestically. Can we really expect them to not only find but also train workers in minority, low-income areas like East L.A.?

As of that Monday, Janis didn’t have all the answers. “That’s what this meeting is for,” she says.

Getting Around the Table

It’s 4pm, and guests have begun to filter into LAANE’s cozy conference room. Janis greets representatives from a cross-section of groups: local unions, labor organization Green for All, the Los Angeles Black Worker Center, Move L.A. She gives a warm hello to Maria Elena Durazo, who co-founded LAANE along with her husband, Miguel Contreras. A portrait of Cesar Chavez hangs on the wall, and an inviting fruit and cheese plate sits on the table.

After introductions, Janis launches into her most pressing concern. In the shadow of the New Flyer victory, there has been another, bigger deal underway in Los Angeles: An $890 million contract with Kinkisharyo, a Japanese railroad car manufacturer. LAANE is worried that the company is not holding up its end of the bargain on the USEP it drafted while negotiating with L.A. Metro last year.

Kinkisharyo is preparing a northern Los Angeles County facility for modernizations needed to build new rail cars. Janis has printed out its U.S. Employment plan, a 14-page document detailing how the company will produce 348 American jobs. But as of that meeting, Kinkisharyo hadn’t met with anyone to discuss specifics. It hadn’t returned phone calls from LAANE, who wanted progress updates. Janis didn’t yet have a strategy for how to make sure the company adhered to promises outlined in the contract. “Any ideas?” she asks the crowd.

Community leaders are open to the procurement reform ideas Janis lays out, but they’re concerned about Kinkisharyo’s silence. One organizer asks if they can call the mayor of Palmdale, where the factory is, or draft a letter requesting a meeting. Others in the room were a little more jaded: When it comes down to it, can we really make Kinkisharyo do anything?

The company had signed a legal document including the same job promises as its proposal. Though L.A. Metro hadn’t tracked its implementation process, LAANE had. The group knew Kinkisharyo was in the process of hiring because of a news release from the City of Palmdale, presented in partnership with a company called Goodwill Southern California. The job advertisement required candidates to have a “clean background” — pretty standard in most hiring processes, but a stance that wasn’t sensitive to the opportunities in hiring and training for disadvantaged people. “In L.A., huge numbers of African Americans have some history in the criminal justice system,” Janis tells me later. “We want to create a pipeline so that people can get over those disadvantages.”

Kinkisharyo, meanwhile, insists that it’s not delaying anything or ignoring anyone. “We’re following the normal procedure,” says program manager Donald Boss. “Our past performance for delivering highly reliable cars on time and on budget is unmatched in the industry.” Boss says that the company has barely started its recruitment process, but rather is on the last phase of design and on track to deliver two test cars by next fall. After that, the two cars have to go through “an exhaustive amount of testing.” Boss also says that Palmdale’s press release had nothing to do with Kinkisharyo — “everyone wants to make the best effort moving forward, but we didn’t ask them to take the lead on anything.” He characterizes the U.S. Employment plan as simply “an extension of what we typically do.”

“We’ve made a huge commitment to U.S. employment,” Boss says. “It’s something we believe in.”

Janis, meanwhile, remains skeptical. “I have my doubts about whether they’re telling the truth,” she says, referring to Kinkisharyo’s claims about the press release. “How would the City of Palmdale know that they need Engineer #2 or a welder?… They do not seem to be sincerely making an effort to build a program to recruit and hire disadvantaged workers.”

Even if the company were doing this, it could be difficult to recruit workers from disadvantaged communities. People have to “have enough confidence to put themselves out there as a welder,” Janis says. “And if you’re not trained as a welder… think about us as women, right? You know, we’ll go be a waitress, but if we saw an advertisement [for] 25 bucks an hour to do wiring on a huge piece of equipment, would we feel confident enough to sign up?” Companies often don’t want to put in all this effort, so they’ll use temp workers. White, male temp workers.

A month after the meeting, the nascent coalition wrote Hideki Hatai, president of Kinkisharyo, and Art Leahy, CEO of L.A. Metro, similar letters requesting a meeting to address the company’s non-compliance. The return letter from Boss, who wrote on behalf of Hatai, was somewhat prickly. “We are surprised with the tone of your letter,” he wrote. They agreed to set a meeting after LAANE submitted a proposed agenda and attendees. To Janis, it felt like “we had to have an application” in order to meet with the company.

“Not great,” she says. “But it’s something.”

A 21st-Century Labor Movement

LAANE’s vision for job creation is part of a larger move away from unions and toward a localized, coalition-based approach that places government in the role of both contractor and labor activist. Not that the plan is an affront to unions altogether — the national campaign includes support from a number of unions, including the AFL-CIO. (LAANE even rents downtown L.A. office space from UNITE-HERE.) But the goals reach beyond negotiating salary and benefits, and the efforts involve leveraging the power of community groups more directly. Puentes, the Brookings Institution senior fellow, sees LAANE’s project as an example of this emerging “federalist partnership.”

“This is not the federal government sitting on top of this pyramid, directing cities and metropolitan areas what they should do,” he says. “It’s the result of more of a bottom-up approach with metropolitan leaders starting to take much more responsibility for moving the national economy in the right direction.”

That means tailoring campaigns to the needs of each city. Transit procurement reform will work best in big, bustling metro areas with money to spare on public transit. But there are similar grassroots movements to get City Hall to consider the triple bottom line when choosing bidders for a service or product.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley just signed an executive order that allows state agencies to give price credits to contractors that participate in apprenticeship programs and encourage hiring in priority areas. In Philadelphia, Story Bellows was recently appointed to run the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, where she pilots tech-based solutions to civic challenges, including public procurement. Oakland-based Revolution Foods offers a locally sourced alternative to corporate behemoths, like Sodhexo Marriot, that have dominated public school contracting for decades. Revolution has already moved beyond California, serving school districts in Colorado, Louisiana, New York, New Jersey, Texas and Washington, D.C.

“These things are all connected,” says Kate Gordon, a fellow at the Center for American Progress and vice president of Next Generation, a California non-profit. “Good [local] procurement policies can absolutely inspire best practices in national procurement policy.”

Revolution Foods, with its green approach to school lunch, is emblematic of the environmental benefit that often comes with a more intentional approach to procurement. Says Gordon, “The only way we are going to have a robust and sustainable manufacturing sector for any of those green technologies is if we have consistent policies to create demand for them.”

Transit manufacturing is a multibillion-dollar industry that generates a broad spectrum of jobs.

In Chicago, Naomi Davis is trying to create that demand. After several days of phone tag, Davis agrees to meet me outside her apartment in the West Woodlawn neighborhood. The attorney-cum-community organizer is decked out in a deep blue linen outfit with an exaggerated collar. She introduces me to Duane, the gardener; her friend Monica, who’s growing her own chickens; and Monica’s dog, Count Basie (Naomi’s dog is named Lena Horne). Then she gives us a tour of the little garden across the street, a community farm project spearheaded by the trade association and advocacy group she founded, called Blacks in Green.

“It’s not going to create the 17,000 jobs that the railroad project is claiming they’re going to create by 2025,” she says, speaking of the neighborhood’s urban gardening initiative. “But they can create 50, 75, 100 small businesses and enterprises.”

The garden is filled with mounds of fresh mulch, scattered baby pines, and clusters of wild strawberries and catmint. But a few items on the periphery — broken green glass, a stray Cheeto, an empty dime bag adorned with black Nike swooshes — reveal that this isn’t a posh location. Around the corner, the greenery gives way to a blighted few blocks rife with trash, shuttered storefronts and fading signage.

It wasn’t always this way, says Davis, who calls West Woodlawn “Chicago’s first black middle-class neighborhood.” It enjoyed a boon from railroad jobs made better by the efforts of Civil Rights leader A. Philip Randolph, who organized Pullman porters into the country’s first predominantly black union. Nowadays it’s a poor community, hit hard by the foreclosure crisis. It’s also the site of a huge expanse of new rail construction, a blocks-long tangle of dirt and tractors and barbed-wire fences. The project, called CREATE, is a collaboration between 14 companies, has been 10 years in the making, and comes with a $1.14 billion price tag. That’s in addition to the $2 billion currently on the table for the CTA.

“That’s the kind of multibillion, multi-decade project that has the power to transform this neighborhood,” Davis says. But “if we’re not going to experience any of the economic benefit of it, it’s almost like, ‘Well, why do we care?’”

Davis grew up in St. Albans, N.Y., a black working-class neighborhood in Queens. Her mother, Juliet Siggers, was the daughter of Mississippi sharecroppers and a woman-about-town who was “always pushing for our dignity.” Siggers was a public school teacher as well as president of the PTA, her church circle and the alumni association of her alma mater, Lemoyne Owen College, a historically black school in Memphis. She tirelessly fundraised for the United Negro College Fund, soliciting local shops for money on the phone and sending Davis to pick up the checks.

“That made me understand what it was to have a self-sustaining black community with neighbor-owned businesses,” Davis says.

Davis followed her college sweetheart to Chicago and eventually enrolled in law school there. She held down two jobs, one as a patent law clerk and another as a “gaslight girl,” a “Playboy bunny-type gig” at the Palmer House, a famous hotel in the city’s downtown Loop. A decade later, she found herself abandoning law and moving to a tiny town in South Carolina to start a stationary business with her brother. There, she would “hit the back roads with my dog and get lost in the woods.” Ever a child of the ’60s, she realized there was “something healing about the physical planet,” and credits those moments with inspiring her environmental work many years later.

She eventually returned to Chicago and became consumed with the idea of how to bring black neighborhoods back from the brink. She spent six years researching the systems counteracting malnutrition, addiction, illiteracy, mass incarceration and chronic unemployment. In 2007, Blacks in Green was born. Although she thinks of the organization as a general “watchdogging” force, her focus lately is on the intersection of jobs and the environment.

LAANE’s vision for job creation is part of a larger move away from unions and toward a localized, coalition-based approach that places government in the role of both contractor and labor activist.

In July, Davis wrote an op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times urging the CTA to create local manufacturing jobs when it buys the expected 845 new rapid transit cars in the next decade. “This is our big chance to use an innovative solution to tackle some of our country’s most pressing problems: joblessness, poverty, and pollution,” she wrote.

All of those problems are on display as we drive through swaths of brick housing projects with cream-colored balconies, not 50 feet from the billion-dollar rail expansion. A playground sits directly to the left of the projects. An elementary school is a few hundred feet away.

“This is what asthma impact looks like,” Davis says. Apparently, what local residents lack in job opportunities, they make up for in respiratory problems. It doesn’t need to be this way, and Davis rattles off ways to reduce toxicity: add filters, upgrade equipment. “Norfolk Southern could certainly afford” to make these improvements, she says, “but they choose not to because no one is making them.”

Davis plans to be part of the force that does make companies clean up and create jobs. A few weeks before her Sun-Times op-ed ran, she signed an impassioned open letter to CTA President Forrest Claypool, putting her name next to the Chicago Federation of Labor, Chicago Jobs with Justice, Citizen Action/Illinois and other local groups. The letter criticized the fact that American workers have not benefited from the ongoing manufacturing of more than 700 rail cars by Montreal-based Bombardier Transportation — the same project underway in Davis’s neighborhood. It called for the CTA to consider soliciting a USEP of its own, and cited L.A. Metro’s recent deal with New Flyer Industries.

The “American Jobs Plan” questionnaire hardly meets the demands outlined in the letter, but Janis calls it a “big breakthrough.” Jorge Ramirez, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, who told me in August that the negotiations with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the CTA were “very positive,” publicly praised them after the October 17 announcement. The Federation had been waiting for an opportunity like this since 2005, when it helped form the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council, a group comprising leaders from government, labor and business, all focused on reviving and retaining high-skilled manufacturing in the Chicagoland area. Ramirez admits that the lower-skilled jobs are gone, displaced permanently to places like Mexico and China. “But the high-skilled stuff? It’s still here,” he says. “It’s here in abundance.”

Jorge Ramirez, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, is hopeful about the prospect of creating more U.S. jobs through public procurement.

The U.S. still excels in the advanced manufacturing of products like precision instruments and airplanes. Many of those workers are retiring soon, and the number of new jobs in the industry is nowhere as near as robust as it could be. President Obama likes to cite a study claiming that 80 percent of manufacturers have trouble filling vacant jobs due to a lack of highly trained candidates. The National Association of Manufacturers estimates that about 600,000 jobs are available for whoever has the advanced skills to do them.

Of course, the problem partly hinges on sinking wages. Why would a highly skilled worker take a $10-an-hour job, like those offered at many of today’s plants? The U.S. Employment Plan generally supports high wages, but as LAANE learned during the Kinkisharyo rail car procurement, there are no guarantees that new contracts will involve organized labor or decent pay. Back in early 2012, while L.A. Metro negotiated the contract, LAANE pushed for a proposal from Siemens, which offered to build a factory in East L.A. and allow employees to unionize. The MTA rejected Siemens as too expensive, citing Kinkisharyo’s punctual record as a major reason why it won. Among community groups, Kinkisharyo was widely regarded as less friendly to unions and workers.

“Will my members benefit [from reform]? That’s unknown,” says Joe Pijanowski of the International Association of Machinists Local 126 in Chicago. He calls it a long shot. Still, he fully supports the procurement strategy because “it’s very important the workers… are in a position of economic sustainability. Bringing these rail car jobs back to the area is part of that.”

Fertile Ground

In some ways, LAANE’s public procurement initiatives are extensions of the labor movement’s relative success in California during the last two decades, partly due to a mobilized immigrant population. And Chicago’s history as the epicenter of the freight industry makes it a natural symbol for this kind of manufacturing renaissance. But the real proving grounds will be in New York City, by far the largest transit customer in the country. Efforts to replicate the New Flyer victory and the Kinkisharyo “partial victory,” as Janis calls it, are already underway.

“Our imprint on transit manufacturing is massive,” says Matt Ryan, executive director of the Alliance for a Greater New York (ALIGN). There are a number of transit manufacturers in New York State — more, in fact, than anywhere else, since they are legally allowed to separate state money from federal funding. But the Metropolitan Transit Authority has no clear plan to make sure their money creates jobs locally, so ALIGN is trying to drum up support for a LAANE-like campaign as the MTA prepares to outline its 2015-2019 capital plan. Ryan hopes these efforts will deflect focus from shortsighted tax break initiatives, which he sees as having a limited scope that doesn’t make up for the lost revenue.

“That’s the kind of multibillion, multi-decade project that has the power to transform this neighborhood. But if we’re not going to experience any of the economic benefit of it, it’s almost like, ‘Well, why do we care?’”

This dovetails nicely with ALIGN’s work on harnessing public development dollars for job creation, an effort that has ramped up since the city announced a nearly $20 billion post-Hurricane Sandy investment plan. ALIGN hopes the next mayor, likely to be Democratic primary winner Bill de Blasio, will be amenable to a community workforce agreement for the city.

“That really says, ‘We’re going to do as much as we possibly can to make sure these dollars are spent in a way that creates local jobs for New Yorkers,’” Ryan says.

Unlike in Chicago, New York mayors have no say over the city’s transit authority, deferring instead to the state legislature. Still, some believe de Blasio will usher in a progressive sea change, one that will put pressure on legislators to lessen the blows of inequality and joblessness. Across the country, procurement reform is just beginning to take root. In New York, it’s on unusually fertile ground.

Janis sees New York less as a special case and more as a bellwether. If this city, which has “more money than God when it comes to transit,” harnesses that funding to create jobs, it will set a huge national precedent. A dozen other markets could follow suit, sparking a genuine movement. As of this summer, that movement has a new name: Jobs to Move America. Janis knows they have to work out the kinks — “the right framing and branding and messaging and outreach.” But once she catches a big fish like New York, Janis says, “I’m hoping we’ll find lots of fertile ground.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

Nona Willis Aronowitz is a journalist, Pipeline Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and cofounder of Tomorrow Magazine. She’s working on a book called The Crash Generation, about how the recession has affected Millennials’ class consciousness. She tweets at @nona.