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Social Text 18.1 (2000) 31-54

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The Urbanization of Labor:
Living-Wage Activism in the American City

Andy Merrifield *

For well over a decade now, practically all U.S. cities have been locked into a mode of urbanization best described as "entrepreneurial." Webster's Dictionary of American English defines entrepreneur as somebody "who organizes and manages an enterprise, especially a business, usually with considerable daring, skill and financial risk." Anybody who knows anything about the fortunes of American cities throughout the 1980s and 1990s knows what "considerable daring, skill and financial risk" really boil down to. For whole cities themselves have assumed the status of enterprises, and they too are now managed with considerable daring, occasionally with skill, but seemingly always with financial risk. Indeed, the contemporary American city hustles inexorably to the tune of the bottom line and has become very adept at enhancing its "good business climate" reputation. Creating and re-creating healthy business climates has apparently been vital not only for the growth and continued financial viability of cities but also for the survival of every city in an age of global insecurity and competitive volatility. 1

In recent years, apologists and gurus of such a line have basically set the tone of the debate about the nature of contemporary urbanism and the trajectory of urban growth and development. 2 For these people there's simply no alternative to the entrepreneurial paradigm. Now, the argument goes, ubiquitous capital deregulation and corporate hypermobility browbeat and cajole cities into capturing a piece of the action. If cities don't capture a piece of the action, then apparently this action--that is, the investment, the jobs, the industries, the well-heeled consumers--will go elsewhere, to another town, maybe close by, where the package is more favorable, more profitable, more capitalistically efficient. Competition here is inevitably cutthroat. But every city cannot win in this zero-sum jamboree. Accordingly, mayors, local councillors, chambers of commerce, and business elites have all gotten together to hash out their very own growth strategy, one in which the public sector lends something of a visible hand to absorb part of the market risk, thus helping locales become more economically attractive, more business oriented, and more attuned to daring and entrepreneurship. And here a lot of heady legal, political, and economic mechanisms have been deployed to push things along. [End Page 31]

A decade ago, Urban Development Action Grants (UDAGs) were all the rage. These interest-free leverage grants, bestowed on intrepid developers, were supposed to help regenerate run-down areas, provide jobs, rekindle local economies, kick start small businesses, and attract investors to spaces and projects that might otherwise be shunned. During the 1980s, New York, Detroit, and Baltimore topped the national UDAG league. But few strict guidelines were set about what these handouts should be used for. So rather than fund low-income housing or other social infrastructure, UDAGs mostly sponsored the construction of convention centers, hotels, marinas, and expensive residential complexes. Soon they were hastening, not ameliorating, social polarization, since few of the goodies seemed to trickle down to needy people. After a while UDAGs became the greatest hotel-building venture in American history. And if that weren't enough, these new hotels barely paid employees minimum wage; large chains, like Marriott and Hyatt, also turned into big-time union busters.

Clinton's "empowerment zones," set up in 1993, merely continued the trend whereby the public sector underwrites corporate interests. Here, specific areas in cities have been gerrymandered into zones that waive property taxes for a while and ensure locating companies receive income tax credits for each new person they hire. Meanwhile, more direct support for companies has come in the shape of Industrial Development Bonds (IDBs), federally sponsored bonds (whose earnings directly accrue to the specific business), and Tax Increment Financing Districts (TIFDs). That all this represents yet another form of corporate welfare is well proven. The Citizens for Tax Justice estimates that lost revenue from the IDB program alone between 1996 and 2000 will weigh in at around $900...


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pp. 31-54
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Archived 2005
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