Can workers collectively fight against back-to-the-office plans?

Some employers want workers back in the office and at least a few employees do not like that idea:

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After a year of working from home, most workers feel the same way. Vaccinated or not, more than half of employees said that, given the option, they would want to keep working from home even after the Covid crisis subsides, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. Far fewer look forward to returning to the office full time…

And yet, in a survey of more than 350 CEOs and human resources and finance leaders, 70% said they plan to have employees back in the office by the fall of this year — if not sooner — according to a report by staffing firm LaSalle Network…

The majority, or 58%, of employees said they would look for a new position if they weren’t allowed to continue working remotely in their current position, according to a recent report by FlexJobs, which surveyed more than 2,100 people who worked remotely during the pandemic.

Ultimately, however, “nothing will change,” said Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “Employers have virtually unlimited power,” he said.

Both sides can justify changes. Employers want to recreate office culture and conversation plus see people face to face. Employees want flexibility, no commute, and assurances of safety.

The quote at the end above suggests workers do not have much leverage. They can complain about changes. They can say the world has changed significantly. They can say that the prior system did not provide benefits long-term.

But, what if large numbers of workers in significant companies refused to go back to the old office-based systems? Could leading firms afford to have large numbers of workers quit? Could these workers afford to quit and know there is work elsewhere? Not all workers could do this and it might not matter at a lot of companies. If something started in the tech industry where more workers work from home for the long-term, would this spread? Or, if some business saw this as an advantage – get better employees by letting them work from home – this might encourage some others.

A mass labor movement over working from home may not materialize. Yet, COVID-19 could at least change the thinking about offices and doing work from home. Under conditions of a pandemic, at least some work got done. Perhaps such arrangements will continue for some but it could also extend to many more workers.

Will those who won COVID-19 housing bidding wars want to ease the path for others?

Henry Grabar puts forth an interesting idea: the many bidding wars of housing during COVID-19 might help many push for more housing so that others do not have to go through such a process.

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Sadly, those who win these all-out bidding wars will probably, suddenly feel that there is enough housing, and yes, we need affordable housing, but really affordable housing, you know? (And not here!)

But for every winner there will be many losers, and maybe the process can radicalize these would-be buyers, and their friends, and their parents, and the people they talk to. There really aren’t enough places to live. Those people can channel their frustration with bidding wars into political activism aimed at housing suppressants like parking requirements, restrictive zoning, and density limits. If appeals to neither historical wrongs nor economic growth get the job done, a strong dose of self-interest can’t hurt.

Here are three reasons why I would not hold my breath waiting for the successful homeowners to advocate for cheaper housing:

  1. Americans often subscribe to the idea that their individual successes are due to their actions, not necessarily due to systems. The winners of individual bidding wars can talk about the particular factors that led to their success. Those who did not win can adjust their individual strategies. It is a leap for many to think that their individual choices matter less than the conditions that empower or constrain their choices. (Site note: this sounds like explaining the basics of sociology in an individualistic society.)
  2. Suburbanites for decades moved into subdivisions and communities and then limited similar opportunities for others. The postwar suburban boom did not provide opportunities for all in a variety of ways. This could come out this way: people might yearn for and then move into a new development but subsequently complain about similar developments proposed right around them as a potential threat to their way of life. Can suburbs be frozen in time at the point at which people first moved in? Or, are suburbs and all communities in some sort of constant flux? Combine this with #1 and I could imagine some saying, “We bid successfully, we do not necessarily want a lot more of people like us being successful because this would change the community we bought into, and now we will resist future efforts.”
  3. Regarding putting pressure on politicians and others: how many homeowners were in this position and how would they join together in a movement? Housing is very difficult to address at a national level because of local particularities and politics. At the local level, proposals often run into issues with #1 and #2 above. People may be in support of the abstract notion of more housing or cheaper housing but they often prefer it somewhere else. Significant social and/or political change often requires tipping points or catalysts whereby interests come together and action is possible. COVID-19 could be one of those situations for housing but it would require much sustain effort.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and cities

With the start of my Urban Sociology class this week, I spent a little time this weekend reflecting on the connections between Martin Luther King, Jr. and cities. Looking at just a few aspects of King’s life suggests he was shaped by cities and he shaped cities.

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-King was born in Atlanta, his father was a pastor in Atlanta, he did most of his collegiate and graduate work in cities (Atlanta and Boston), and he was a pastor in Montgomery and Atlanta. King was assassinated in Memphis.

-Much of the Civil Rights Movement activity took place in major cities. The names are familiar: Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham, Washington. Other activity in cities may be less known today to the general public, such as the 1966 Chicago Freedom Movement or why King was in Memphis in 1968.

-The issues King addressed are associated by many Americans with cities: race, injustice, inequality, housing, access to public transportation, jobs. Of course, these issues are not exclusive to urban life but the demographic differences in many parts of the United States between cities and suburbs or rural areas and the ways Blacks were often restricted from certain locations (such as in sundown towns) highlighted the different conditions and realities across places.

When protests make it to the wealthier suburbs, this means…

With protests spreading across the United States, including wealthy suburbs like Naperville, Illinois and Dunwoody, Georgia, this could hint at several forces at play:

NapervilleCorner

-Americans dislike or disapprove of blatant injustice. (Whether that extends to making significant changes or sacrifices is another story. The suburbs are built in part on race and exclusion.)

-The population composition of suburbs has changed in recent decades. As William Frey of Brookings Institution details in Diversity Explosion, minority populations have grown across suburbs.

-The image of primarily conservative voters in wealthy suburbs may not be as valid as it was in the past. The outcome of the 2020 election depends in part on suburban voters with suburbanites closer to big cities leaning toward Democrats and suburbanites on the metropolitan edges leaning toward Republicans. And appealing to suburban women are important for candidates.

-Certain upscale suburban locations have become important sites for attracting attention because of their status. For example, Occupy Naperville occurred in 2012 and Naperville attracts other protestors as the largest community in DuPage County, its walkable downtown with lively stores, restaurants, and recreational options, and its status.

 

Suburban movements fight for and against selling marijuana in communities

Chicago area suburbs considering whether to allow marijuana sales within municipal boundaries have encountered efforts from residents on both sides of the issue:

An “Opt Out” movement that began in Naperville has spawned similar efforts in several other communities across the North, Northwest and West suburbs, pleading with city councils and village boards to ban the sales of adult-use marijuana within their boundaries…

An “Opt In” movement, though in some cases less overtly organized or connected, is present in many places, too, and just as passionate about its message that recreational marijuana stores should be allowed…

At the heart of the opt out effort, supporters say, is a desire to protect children from the potential harms of normalized marijuana use..

Supporters promote the value of potential tax revenue for municipal projects and point out marijuana use and possession will be legal no matter where the stores set up.

Three quick thoughts:

1. It sounds like the speed by which these efforts have coalesced across suburbs is partly attributable to social media. Through different platforms, it is relatively easy to promote a particular message and alert supporters about local meetings.

2. Pitting the safety of children versus potential revenue for suburbs pits important suburban values against each other. Arguably, the suburbs are all about kids: the whole structure is set up to help them get ahead, to do better than their parents, to have good educational opportunities within a safe and family-friendly environment. At the same time, budgets are tight in many suburbs and extra revenue could help provide all sorts of civic goods (including reducing the tax burdens of residents). Which argument wins out may depend on how the suburb sees itself.

3. It is hard to know at this point where the dispensaries might be located, with or without decisions made by individual communities. At first, Illinois will award 75 licenses. Given the population of the Chicago region plus the wealth present in numerous suburban communities, where will firms want to open shop? Is it as simple as going for the wealthiest customers within a certain radius of the store or are there other considerations of the best locations for marijuana dispensaries?

Fighting harder against gentrification

Activists in Los Angeles and a few other cities are ramping up their efforts to fend off gentrification:

That’s because it was organized by Defend Boyle Heights, a coalition of scorched-earth young activists from the surrounding neighborhood — the heart of Mexican-American L.A. — who have rejected the old, peaceful forms of resistance (discussion, dialogue, policy proposals) and decided that the only sensible response is to attack and hopefully frighten off the sorts of art galleries, craft breweries and single-origin coffee shops that tend to pave the way for more powerful invaders: the real estate agents, developers and bankers whose arrival typically mark a neighborhood’s point of no return…

By “making s*** crack” — by boycotting, protesting, disrupting, threatening and shouting in the streets — Defend Boyle Heights and its allies have notched a series of surprising victories over the past two and a half years, even as the forces of gentrification continue to make inroads in the neighborhood. A gallery closed its doors after its “staff and artists were routinely trolled online and harassed in person.” An experimental street opera was shut down after members of the Roosevelt High School band — egged on by a group of activists — used saxophones, trombones and trumpets to drown it out. A real estate bike tour promising clients access to a “charming, historic, walkable and bikeable neighborhood” was scrapped after the agent reported threats of violence. “I can’t help but hope that your 60-minute bike ride is a total disaster and that everyone who eats your artisanal treats pukes immediately,” said one message. The national (and international) media descended, with many outlets flocking to Weird Wave Coffee, a hip new shop that was immediately targeted by activists after opening last summer….

These harsh realities aren’t lost on millennials of color — especially young men and women from gentrifying neighborhoods, where such inequities tend to be on vivid, daily display. To that end, a 2016 Harvard Institute of Politics poll found that only 42 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds now support capitalism; a third now identify as socialists. Among those who backed Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy, the number was even higher — a full 54 percent — and minorities and people without a college degree were more likely to support socialism as well…

“We are devoting our time to building a national movement against gentrification,” they wrote in a February blog post titled “Defending Boyle Heights and f***ing s*** up: A 2017 summation and report back from our Hood Solidarity tour.” “Boyle Heights has … become a beacon of hope for other communities facing similar threats. … We are hopeful that in the coming years, with the effort necessary to sustain a movement, poor and working-class people can escalate the class war against gentrification and actually hinder and possibly reverse its effects.”

As the article notes, gentrification is not new but reactions to it have changed over time. Most major cities are beholden to development and have been for decades: development and growth is good, particularly when it is taking place in neighborhoods that have seen better days (think of older urban renewal programs), and politicians and developers can have a symbiotic relationship. Yet, this development often does not help poorer residents who even if they are not pushed out of the neighborhood do benefit in the same ways as developers and politicians.

A few ongoing questions about these efforts:

  1. Do more strident responses to gentrification then allow more negotiation to take place about the future of neighborhoods?
  2. At what point do cities, developers, and business owners push back harder against such protests?
  3. Can protests like these slow or stop gentrification? Can they prompt a larger spirit against gentrification in the community?

Something to keep watching.

Rat balloons – “Scabby” – started in the Chicago area

I have seen at least a few large inflatable rats while driving around in recent years – even in front of my own employer – and these rats have their roots in Chicago area union protests:

The rat balloons, nicknamed “Scabby,” started in the Chicago area in 1990 and have grown into a worldwide symbol for union strikes. But the balloons aren’t without controversy. From the picket line to the courtroom, employers have tried to snuff out Scabby many times…

Ken Lambert, a former organizer with the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, says he was searching for a way to draw more awareness to a 1990 picket in north suburban Chicago…

Lambert says he chose a rat because the animal has long been used as a symbol to call out those who oppose unions. Fellow organizer Don Newton helped secure the funds for the first balloon, Lambert says…

The legality of using Scabby as a form of union protest has been contested, with many of the rulings relying on the interpretation of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. The act ensures rights for striking unions to picket the location of an employer or contractor, while also protecting nearby companies or other organizations employers from being targeted.

The article goes on to say that the unions believe the rats attract attention and informing informing the public about union workers. But, some of the material online suggests the rats serve another purpose: to provoke employers and organizations. I wonder how the mixture of trying to gather public support while poking at your opponent with a giant rat works out. The article suggests at the end that it is not known whether inflatable rats lead to better outcomes for union. Does it cause the two sides to double down or make other organizations think twice?

More broadly, this could be a powerful protest device for other groups. Why don’t more movements have large inflatables that can fit on sidewalks or public easements? The presence of certain symbols or words could draw attention, particularly near busy roads and intersections.

Fighting your own city’s Olympics bid

One of the founders of the grassroots No Boston Olympics group discusses what made their movement successful to scuttle the city’s 2024 bid:

I think the most important talking point we had was around the taxpayer guarantee. The International Olympic Committee requires host cities to sign a contract saying taxpayers will be responsible for cost overruns. And the boosters behind Boston 2024 made all sorts of promises about how the public would be protected. But they weren’t able to produce anything substantive that showed that, and they were still asking for the blank check. So it was hard for the public to trust the boosters and ensure there wouldn’t be costs to pay in the case of overruns, as there have been in all of the recent Olympics. [Editors’ note: According to a study from University of Oxford, no Olympics since 1960 have come in under budget; they average a cost overrun of 156 percent.]

We had a broad coalition of people who came to us for any number of reasons. Some people were concerned about the taxpayer guarantee, others didn’t want disruption to their life for the three weeks, others were concerned about militarization of police and restriction on rights that occurs when hosting mega-events. At our victory party, there were people in socialist alternative t-shirts sharing a beer with people in t-shirts with the Don’t Tread On Me flag representing the Tea Party right. We had been able to form an incredibly broad coalition, and that’s something I think doesn’t happen enough.

One of the great takeaways here is that we are lucky to live in a democracy where we can have a robust Olympics debate. No Boston Olympics was outspent 1,500-to-1 by the boosters; we spent less than $10,000. But we had the facts on our side and a press willing to tell both sides of the story. I think we are lucky that’s the case. The day after the bid was pulled, I received a phone call from the primary backer of the bid [businessman John Fish] and his words to me were, “Democracy worked.” That was a pretty profound and gracious thing for him to say….

There is a misconception that the IOC cares that the transit system works well when they are choosing the city to award the games to. In 1996, they awarded the games to Atlanta over Toronto and Melbourne, both of which have far superior transit systems than Atlanta. Boston 2024 never had a plan for investing new or additional resources in transportation. All that they produced in their two-plus years of existence was a wish list of projects they would like to see happen. But if they happened, they would come at the expense of other projects already in the planning process, because they weren’t advocating for new resources or revenue to grow the pie. I’ve lived in Boston my whole life and never owned a car, so there is no bigger supporter of investment in transit that I am, but this bid was never going to do that.

Residents of few major American cities would want to be on the hook for something so large, the Olympics or something more mundane like a major infrastructure project. At the same time, the Olympics only needs one city willing to host (just like NFL owners only need one city like Las Vegas to make terrible deals for the city) and just a few who agree in order to work out a more favorable deal. Perhaps this gets at a basic question plaguing many cities: why do major projects always seem to have major cost overruns?

Could we reach a point where no major city wants the Olympics? It is interesting to consider what might happen then: move to a permanent site, whether an existing city (and they do exist with all the facilities within a region – see Los Angeles) or a new location created just for this (I imagine some authoritarian leaders or business magnates might be interested)? Downsize their expectations? Scuttle the whole project?

Dutch cycling culture aided by 1970s protests against kids killed in car accidents

The Dutch are known for their bicycling. How exactly this happened includes some interesting tidbits, such as the 1970s protests against cars (as told by Wikipedia):

The trend away from the bicycle and towards motorised transport only began to be slowed in the 1970s when Dutch people took to the streets to protest against the high number of child deaths on the roads: in some cases over 500 children were killed in car accidents in the Netherlands in a single year.[10] This protest movement came to be known as the Stop de Kindermoord (literally “Stop the Child Murder” in Dutch).[10] The success of this movement — along with other factors, such as the oil shortages of 1973–74[11] — turned Dutch government policy around and the country began to restrict motor vehicles in its towns and cities and direct its focus on growth towards other forms of transport, with the bicycle being seen as critical in making Dutch streets safer and towns and cities more people-friendly and liveable.

In the United States, over 32,000 people were killed in car accidents in 2015. The number was over 40,000 less than ten years ago and deaths in accidents peaked at over 50,000 a year in the early 1970s and late 1970s. (See the data going back all the way to 1899 here.) So where are the protests in the United States? A few reasons why the experience of the Dutch may not be replicated here:

  1. Americans love to drive. They have since the car was introduced. We have designed our lives around cars (think single-family homes with garages, highways, fast food, the vast system of gas stations, etc.). Could people protest about something they like?
  2. Mass movements in the United States where people turn out to protest in large numbers are relatively rare.
  3. Americans are willing to take risks in areas that other people in the world are not. Maybe it is due to a love of driving, perhaps it has to do with emphasizing individual freedoms.

It is fun to imagine Americans taking to the streets against cars…what exactly would it take? For some reason, I suspect they might protest more because of really high gas prices rather than high number of deaths by car accident.

No to NIMBY, Yes to YIMBY

The housing issues of the Bay Area and other major cities has led to a new YIMBY movement:

The stubbornness of the NIMBYs has sparked a counter-YIMBY movement (“yes in my backyard”) among activists who believe the way out of the housing crisis is to build.

Trauss, the founder of the San Francisco Bay Area Renters’ Federation (SF BARF), is one of the more visible members of the growing YIMBY movement in the city. She began her activism shortly after moving to the city from Philadelphia…

The severity of the housing crisis is swinging public policy in favor of the YIMBYs. In May, Trauss and housing activists from around the state went to Sacramento to walk the halls and meet with legislators in the capitol to lobby support of Governor Jerry Brown’s latest “as of right” proposal that would streamline the permitting process for new development that meets affordable housing requirements to prevent NIMBYs from stalling proposed residential projects…

The growing organization of the YIMBYs was evidenced at their first national conference in Boulder, Colorado last weekend. The gathering included representatives from Austin, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, Oakland, San Francisco, Seattle, and several other cities, according to The Atlantic CityLab. An international conference is planned for August in Helsinki, Finland.

It will be fascinating to see if this group gets anywhere. How do you convince wealthier residents to voluntarily give up their locational privileges? It will take a lot of sustained political pressure to go against people who have resources and close connections to local officials and people involved in real estate.

If I had to guess, I would think the YIMBY groups are led by middle class people who say that cities should be affordable to college graduates and young families who are trying to start in life. It is a different conversation to push for truly affordable housing; when the average rent in San Francisco for a 1 bedroom is over $3,000, where is there actually room for lower income residents (let alone middle class residents)?