Good Wages Drive Best Economic Development

Published: Austin American Statesman, December 22, 2012


   No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.” — Adam Smith, “Wealth of Nations”

   “Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is needy ...” — Deuteronomy 24:14

   Austin Interfaith and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce agree on several things when it comes to incentive deals. We both want businesses to come to Austin, and we want them to bring good job opportunities, with a career path, for its workers.

   However, Austin Interfaith draws the line at subsidizing poverty employment on the taxpayer dime. If a corporation wants to open shop in Austin and pay poverty wages, they are welcome to do so without economic incentives. All corporations already benefit from public sector police and fire protection, streets and drainage infrastructure, transit, garbage collection and other goods. For more than five years, our position has been that if we, as taxpayers, are going to invest our public dollars in private enterprises, it stands to reason that we, as taxpayers, should establish a threshold and protocol that prevents hardworking people from being poor and miserable.

   The chamber considers a wage threshold to be an unacceptable burden on the blue-chip corporations it recruits — even the federal poverty line for a family of four ($23,000 per year). In contrast, an analysis by the Austin Business Journal noted that the equivalent “$11 an hour floor would not be a big deal to incentive grabbers.” Just last week, Visa voluntarily accepted that same threshold.

   When the city of Austin grappled with the question of how much to pay its own employees and contractors years back, they chose the $23,000-a-year threshold to keep their workers above the poverty line. Last month, the City Council’s special committee on economic incentives bravely concluded that businesses receiving public dollars should be subject to that same standard, and proposed that future incentives only go to those that pay $11 an hour or more. Their proposal last month not only addressed the issue of wages — it would also address the process.

   The city’s current process for tax incentives involves meetings that last late into the night. Professional presentations stress that the deal will be “cash positive” to the city and bring great jobs to Austin. Austin Interfaith and others testify that many workers will be left in poverty and-or consigned to dangerous working conditions. Corporate representatives sit in shock because they thought this was a done deal. After receiving a letter from the city manager describing the offer and indicating that the deal is recommended for approval, they are here to celebrate — not to be dragged through the mud. Sometime after midnight, the deal is approved.

   Austin Interfaith, whose members include more than 30 religious, labor and educational institutions, wants these made-for-TV dramas to end. We developed a set of standards for incentive proposals to meet all stakeholders’ objectives. If tax incentives are to be granted, they should only be for companies willing to pay an hourly wage of no less than $11 an hour, including to contract construction workers. Companies should hire locally, provide benefits and support training opportunities so that people can advance at work.

   Opponents of the wage floor want to make it optional, suggesting that the city offer an extra bonus to businesses in order to “incentivize” paying at least $23,000 a year. This would lead, instead, to poverty wages.

   The chamber incorrectly claims that US Farathane would not have been eligible for incentives if even one job falls below $11 an hour. Under the committee’s proposal, a company that plans to hire ex-offenders, high school dropouts or other hard-to-employ people would certainly be eligible for an exception and could have their request considered favorably.

   A wage floor is not just about preventing physical privation. Adam Smith’s concern with poverty was about public participation in the life of community — he considered a “necessity” that which would allow one to appear, and to act, in public without shame. Our faith traditions likewise call on us to pay our workers fairly so that they can provide for their families and participate in public life with dignity.

   Austin Interfaith and its member organizations, the Worker Defense Project and LiUNA, support the special committee’s proposed wage floor.

   Higher-paid workers are more productive, loyal, creative and collaborative — and will attract the kind of corporations our city deserves.

   De Cortés and Batlan are members of the Austin Interfaith Strategy Team.



AI Leverages Unanimous School Board Vote for In-District Charter School

“Trustees voted unanimously Monday night to approve a full-scale charter partnership for Travis Heights Elementary.  The charter will be managed by a board representing teachers, community members, the district’s labor group Education Austin, and Austin Interfaith.  But unlike IDEA, school leaders agreed not to move forward on the charter unless it had the support of a majority of its teachers and the neighboring community. The school’s leaders will have greater power over their budget and curriculum.”

New Charter Gets School Board Blessing, KXAN

Austin School Trustees Vote to End IDEA Charter Partnership, Austin American Statesman

Additional background here


In-District Charter Proposal Heads for Final Vote

“Travis Heights Innovation School Project ….is a collaborative proposal developed by the neighborhood, the school itself, employee union Education Austin, and local nonprofit Austin Interfaith. It would still be the same students and same staff on the same campus: However, rather than taking edicts from AISD central administration, the campus would have a governing board with parents, teachers, and a seat each for Education Austin and Austin Interfaith….”

Austin School Board Considers…, Austin American Statesman

School Board Discussing Charters, IDEA, KUT News

Community Backed Charter in Travis Heights Goes to the Board, Austin Chronicle

The Future of Travis Heights Elementary School, Fox News 7

Travis Heights Elementary Applies To Become a Charter School, YNN Austin


Austin Interfaith Celebrates Progress on Living Wages

“A diverse mix of Labor Union representatives, city and county elected officials, faith-based organizations and advocates for fair wages and working conditions came to the Workers Defense Project office Tuesday night…to celebrate a move by the county regarding tax incentives, a move many are hoping the city of Austin will follow.

“We really feel a company that’s not willing to pay $11 an hour isn’t a very good candidate for an incentive…” said  Bob Batlan with Austin Interfaith.”

A Celebration of a Change in Tax Incentives in Travis County, KVUE News


Austin Interfaith Leaders Celebrate Living Wage Proposal

Leaders celebrated the 3-1 passage of a living wage proposal by the City of Austin’s special committee on economic incentives.  In partnership with member institutions Workers Defense Project and the Laborers International Union of North America, ”one-hundred construction workers and their allies were at city hall for the meeting, marching for something they’ve asked for time and again—a living wage….Austin Interfaith’s Jim O’Quinn says that’s why [Austin Interfaith] backs a push for standards companies must meet before they can get tax breaks from the city.”  The measure, which will come before the city council in upcoming months, needs four votes to pass.

[Photo Credit: Jay Janner, Austin American Statesman]

Living Wage at Heart of Overhaul to City Incentive ProgramYNN Austin

Travis County to Require $11 Hourly Wage for All Incentive Deals; Austin Weighs Similar RequirementAustin American Statesman


Travis Heights In-District Charter Proposal Moves Forward

“Travis Heights is looking to partner with Education Austin and Austin Interfaith to start an in-district charter model allowing the school to have more autonomy. The school would focus on curriculum with its dual-language program, service learning model and a piloted blended learning program that incorporates digital media, Carstarphen said.  “They’re not asking for more money; they’re asking for more flexibility….”

AISD Board Discusses Potential Academic, Facilities Recommendations, Community Impact Newspaper

New In-District Charter Would Need Teacher, Community OK, Austin American Statesman


AI Northeast Neighborhoods Block Liquor Sales Near Reagan High School

When the owner of a local liquor store petitioned to be allowed to sell alcohol 50 feet near Reagan High School, Our Lady of Guadalupe and Austin Interfaith leader Oralia Garza de Cortes responded quickly.  Within days she contacted members of her congregation and Northeast Austin neighborhood associations to inform them of the proposed variance and mobilized local troops to fight the proposal.  In coordination with eight neighborhood associations of Northeast Austin, grandmothers, teachers, pastors and other concerned citizens quickly rallied and succeeded in getting the proposal pulled before Thursday’s vote. 

Follow the Props and the Money, Austin Chronicle

Protesters Stop Beer Sales Near Reagan High, YNN News

Group Protests Sales of Alcohol at Store Near Reagan High School, FOX News

Neighborhood Protests Sale of Alcohol Near Reagan High, KVUE News


South Cluster Leaders Block Liquor Sales by Travis High School

When leaders from Austin Interfaith’s Southside Cluster Wildflower Church, Kurt Cadena-Mitchell and Edie Clark, learned that Speedy Stop had applied for a variance to sell alcohol at the Exxon Station directly across the street from Travis High School, and next door to Wildflower, they quickly began organizing to oppose the variance, forming a coalition that included Wildflower Church, Travis Heights Elementary, Faith Presbyterian Church, Faith Child Development Center, South River City Citizens, and Texans Standing Tall.

The coalition developed a strategy to block sales that included research, meetings with decisionmakers and preparing to testify at Council. In meetings with Council members and an AISD Trustee, they were able to provide them with accurate information about the issue.  In the end, the attorney for Speedy Stop withdrew the application for the alcohol variance, citing community opposition.  Leaders heard from Council members that unless there is organized opposition, these types of variances are often approved. Southside leaders shared their winning strategy with a Northeast coalition of neighborhood associations organized by Austin Interfaith leader Oralia Garza to aid them in successfully defeating a similar alcohol variance across from Reagan High School.   

Austin Interfaith Increases Voter Turnout in Traditionally Low Voting Precincts by 85% and 131%: East Austin & Dove Springs

As of Saturday evening, Austin Interfaith increased early voter turnout by 65%, and final voter turnout by 85%, in the same precinct in which it hosted the largest event of the election season as well as substantial GOTV efforts by several Austin Interfaith congregations

On April 29th, Austin Interfaith held the largest assembly in the city with 500+ organization members at Mount Olive Baptist Church; the church is located in Precinct 124 in East Austin.  Early voter turnout increased by 65% compared to 2011 council election turnout and by 9:30pm Saturday night had recorded an 85% increase over final election day turnout from 2011.   These increases in raw numbers of voters were the result of coordinated efforts by Austin Interfaith member congregations in East Austin.   Efforts included pulpit announcements to vote in several eastside congregations, GOTV walks held by 24 leaders over two weekends and phone banking involving a team of 9 additional leaders from downtown congregations

Austin Interfaith leaders increased voter turnout in Dove Springs' precinct 450 by 131% compared to 2011 council election turnout. This southeast Austin precinct is known as a low voter turnout neighborhood, but over 100 Austin Interfaith leaders participated in several neighborhood Get Out the Vote walks in 2012, including two during early voting season. On Saturday, May 5th over 25 leaders of Austin Interfaith walked door-to-door in Dove Springs and got signatures from 127 voters who supported the Austin Interfaith agenda, and committed to vote. In addition to door-to-door walks, leaders called over 2,000 voters in south Austin. Leaders continued to block-walk on election day, as well as phone bank and drive voters to the polls.
The voter turnout in these precincts are in addition to the citywide Get Out the Vote Campaign focused on our neighborhoods and institutions. Austin Interfaith is a non-partisan organization of member congregations, schools, workers' associations and non-profits building power through the organization of a voting constituency in support of an array of issues around the interests of families and individuals in Austin.

Austin Interfaith Leverages Commitments on Incentive Deals & Electricity

At an assembly with 504 Austin Interfaith delegates, candidates for City Council and Mayor committed to raising electricity rates no higher than 20% for congregations and to broaden assistance to people with limited incomes.

Candidates were also challenged about publicly funded incentives, as Austin has been the center of high-profile incentive deals in recent years.  Austin Interfaith got all candidates to commit to setting a wage standard for permanent (and construction) workers ranging between $11-20 per hour. Candidates also agreed to a community study and dialogue with Austin Interfaith to determine what constitutes a living wage in Austin.

Candidates for Sheriff and US Congress also committed to working with the organization.

Early Voting Begins in Municipal RacesKXAN