December 6, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Students, Stand in Solidarity with Ithaca’s Building Trades Workers

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As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unevenly impact working-class and marginalized communities, it has become clear that no crisis can be separated from the influences of rampant economic inequality. The U.S. climate crises, which are reportedly increasing in frequency and magnitude each year, are no different. For this reason, the promise of the Green New Deal as a policy platform that can address climate change, environmental racism and economic injustice has inspired the imagination of millions across the country. But workers and union leaders nationwide are warning that a transition to clean energy that does not include strong worker protections can create dire consequences, further exacerbating the massive wealth gap by weakening organized labor and pushing workers into temporary, unstable, or unsafe work. 

In the aftermath of Ithaca’s 2019 Green New Deal resolution, the local conversation has paralleled the national, with our community’s workers fighting for more worker-friendly policies to be prioritized in Tompkins county’s green jobs agenda. Currently, there is no worker representation on the county’s Industrial Development Agency, which is the department that provides tax abatements to developers seeking to build in the county and incentivizes many green development projects. Consequently, workers’ voices have been continually excluded from conversations that affect their work and their livelihoods. For example, members of the Building Trades Council have been advocating for a local hire policy for years, which would require developers who receive abatements — funded by taxes gathered from workers and other community members — to hire local workers. Without worker representation, important labor issues go unprioritized, and workers are left out of their community’s vision for a greener future.

When construction projects do not hire locally, not only are they often underpaying imported workers for their labor, but they are also forcing local workers in the county to travel far away from home to find work, leaving behind loved ones with the added insult of driving past active job sites in their home community on their way out. Cornell University itself has been complicit in forcing local workers to leave behind spouses and children to turn a larger profit on its construction projects, with 2018’s Maplewood project being just the most recent example. 

We, as students and as temporary residents of Tompkins county, must look locally to begin creating the kind of world we want to see on a broader scale. We must understand ourselves as a part of the Ithaca community, rather than a separate group. The reality is that Ithaca’s workers and Cornell students are inextricably linked as neighbors who live off of the same land and participate in a shared economy. We all benefit from increased cashflow created within the county when green jobs stay local, and we all share the need to preserve our planet through green infrastructure. And though the University seldom acknowledges it, this institution can only function because of student tuition and worker labor alike. When we stand in solidarity with each other, we can leverage this power together. 

At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that Cornell’s presence often creates difficulty for working-class members of the county. Our plot on the hill drives up housing costs and the University has been complacent in not hiring local workers in the past. It should be our role as students to hold the University accountable to the broader Ithaca community when these issues arise.

While we are only here for four years, local workers are permanent members of this community. Lowering emissions is a goal that benefits all of us, assuaging student climate-anxiety and bettering the quality of life for long-term residents. However, we have to make sure that the county (including our own University) is taking into account worker voices and creating family-sustaining jobs in the process. 

To stand with local workers in their fight for labor representation on the Industrial Development Agency, which can help them advocate for more fair and just development policies in the future, use this link to send an automated email to Tompkins County’s legislature urging them to create a labor seat on the IDA. There will be a preliminary committee vote on this proposal this Tuesday, 12/8. If the resolution passes the committee, the full Legislature will vote on 12/15. 

For more ways to build student-worker solidarity on campus and beyond, join The People’s Organizing Collective for our general body meetings on Fridays at 3:30 p.m. 

Yana Kalmyka is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Comments can be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester.