LAANE and the Progressive Template for Urban Job Growth

Discover how the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) has become the nation’s most innovative and effective force for raising the incomes of low-wage private-sector workers.

| Summer 2014

  • “It’s not enough to build power in the workplace. We have to build power for working families in their community. Working people should have a voice in how their taxes are used, in how their city is economically developed.”
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  • Founded and led until 2012 by attorney Madeline Janis, the organization first came to public notice in 1997 when it spearheaded a living-wage ordinance for employees of companies with city contracts. The legislation became the model for ordinances in more than 100 other cities.
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  • At the core of LAANE’s strategic vision is the conviction that cities—not states or the national government—are the arenas where progressive initiatives have the best prospects for enduring success.
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Take a left as you exit the Long Beach Airport, and you’ll pass three acres of greenery named “Rosie the Riveter Park.” The park stands at the southeast corner of what had once been the mammoth Douglas Aircraft factory, where DC-3s, -4s, -5s, all the way up to -10s, were once manufactured, and where, during World War II, 43,000 workers, half of them women, built the B-17 bombers and C-47 transports that flew missions over Europe and the Pacific.

World War II and then the Cold War remade Long Beach. Federal dollars funded the Douglas factory, a new naval shipyard, and numerous defense firms. Military spending, though, began to decline after the Vietnam War, and when the Cold War ended, Long Beach and the broader Los Angeles economy took a hit from which neither has recovered. The naval shipyard closed in 1997. Douglas, Lockheed, and North American Aviation—the aircraft manufacturers that had been the region’s largest private-sector employers—downsized and eventually shuttered almost all their Southern California plants.

Long Beach and Los Angeles did not become Detroit and Cleveland—hollowed-out urban hulks. LA still had the entertainment and tourism industries. The rise of Asian imports created a boom at the ports. Millions of new immigrants, chiefly from Mexico, Central America, Asia, and the Pacific, came to Los Angeles and found work. But good blue-collar jobs—the factory jobs that had paid enough to make LA the epicenter of America’s post–World War II boom—were largely gone. By the mid-1990s, Los Angeles had become the nation’s capital of low-wage labor and remains so to this day: 28 percent of full-time workers in LA County make less than $25,000 a year. In Chicago, only 19 percent of workers earn so little.

Long Beach was especially hurt. A 2006 study found that the average wage of local manufacturing workers was $63,182—but few manufacturing workers remained. It also found that the average wage of hospitality employees—primarily hotel and restaurant workers—was $19,000. Like its defense establishments in earlier years, Long Beach’s downtown hotels had received considerable governmental assistance. The aid for the hotels came from the city, which, seeking to boost its economy by making Long Beach a tourist destination, discounted leases of municipally owned land to the hotels, subsidized their construction, and forgave the hotels’ debts. The funding added up to $114 million between 1981 and 2008. But unlike their Rosie the Riveter predecessors, the women who cleaned the rooms in Long Beach’s premier hotels brought home a pittance—roughly $9.50 an hour.

Long Beach is not famed for its liberalism. Until 15 years ago, its elected officials fell into two categories; they were either Chamber of Commerce Republicans or defense-oriented Democrats. But in November 2012, Long Beach voters went to the polls and, by a margin of 64 percent to 36 percent, gave the 2,000 employees at the city’s largest hotels a raise to $13 an hour and five paid sick days. In any American city, such a measure would have been groundbreaking. In Long Beach, it would have been inexplicable but for one all-important particular: The campaign behind the measure was the handiwork of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, commonly known by its acronym, LAANE.

Established in 1993, LAANE is the think tank, policy arm, and, on occasion, political organizer for the Los Angeles labor movement. Over the past 20 years, it has become the nation’s most innovative and effective force for raising the incomes of low-wage private-sector workers. No other think tank has come up with more ways to leverage the powers of municipal government to create higher pay for America’s working class. No other community-organizing group has built more effective labor-environmental-neighborhood alliances. No other lobbyist has a better record of persuading elected officials to enact not just progressive legislation but the kind of progressive legislation that no one has ever before enacted.

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