Detroit at work: How the city can capitalize on new development to secure stable, well-paying jobs

On July 23 this year, hundreds of people marched downtown to demand higher wages for Detroit area janitors. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1 in Detroit — whose members clean downtown office buildings, Detroit Metropolitan Airport, and other places used by thousands every day — was in negotiations with several large employers. Its 1,700 members had just voted to authorize a strike if their terms weren't met. 

But mere days later, SEIU got what it wanted — a guaranteed three-year contract and $15 an hour pay. Many of its members had been making less than $10 an hour. 

Stephanie Arellano, director of SEIU Local 1, says the demonstration was the culmination of efforts that began a long time ago. "We've been working hard on it since February and thinking about it for three years, drawing what the path to victory would be for a while," she says.

Arellano credits the successful negotiations to the vocal efforts of her members. "Our members were active and out front, speaking at city council, at press and on radio shows," she says. "They were the voice of our campaign and that's why we won."

Members of SEIU Local 1 demonstrate downtown (photo courtesy of SEIU)
Detroit is currently seeing it's highest level of work opportunity in years. Since peaking at a high of 28 percent in 2009, today Detroit's unemployment rate is under 9 percent. Major projects, like Little Caesars Arena and the new Hudson's, offer the prospect of thousands of construction and subsequent long-term jobs. 

SEIU's successful strike demonstrates a possible avenue for how Detroiters can capitalize on all the new development to make sure those jobs are also well-paying and stable. 

Valuing work

In recent years, unions have faced near-constant erosion to their influence and numbers. So-called "Right to Work" laws have further handcuffed unions by restricted their ability to collect dues. 

But unions are still active and important.

Many blue collar union workers in the state are demanding more from employers. SEIU threatened to strike and secured pay raises. This week, UNITE HERE, which represents hospitality workers, have demonstrated amidst negotiations with Marriott. Operating Engineers 324 workers have been laid off because they refuse to negotiate a new road contract with the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association. 

"These are people who were not seen, not heard, and then not paid. It feels like you're also not valued," Arellano says. "In many industries, there's no job security — you can get canned any day. Bosses say this everyday: 'We have a line out the door for your job.' We have to get to a place where we value work."

She adds that this is the not the end of the fight for better pay and benefits for service workers across a variety of sectors. Her union is exploring organizing employees at fast food restaurants, rideshare companies, and more.

The Operating Engineers Local 324 (OE324), which represents heavy equipment operators throughout the state, has been in existence for over 100 years and continues to offer valuable services to its members. 

The primary function of OE324, like all unions, is the ability to collectively bargain. It develops agreements with individual employers for hiring the workers in its ranks. According to the union, most of these agreements provide over $20 and hour, health insurance and other benefits, and guaranteed pay increases for every 1,000 hours of work. 

Construction workers at a project near Grand Circus Park on Washington Boulevard
Lee Graham, executive director for labor management with OE324, says during the approximately 80 career fairs he administers throughout the state, people are surprised at how well a job in construction or stationary engineering could pay. "They never in their life imagined being on such a great career path," he says, "where you continue to get increases and raises and see progress. And also the ability to operate multi-million dollar machines."

What the unions offer employers is access to a skilled workforce, whose numbers have remained stable by preparing for the future with training and investments in new equipment. Currently, OE324 claims over 14,000 members.

OE324 runs three training facilities throughout the state, including one in Detroit, that train 400 apprentices at a time. The union estimates the cost of this training to between $70,000 and $80,000, but provides it for free. Apprentices also receive a per diem pay for work in the field. 

"We're not a come in, pay for some classes, teach, and send you out into world organization," says Dan McKernon, communications director for OE324. "This is a you come in, classes are of no cost, and you have a job, making money right away."

Unlike other workforce development programs, these trainings receive no government grants or subsidies, but is instead subsidized by the membership itself. 

Access for all

But not everyone can participate in the new opportunities because of deficiencies in the education system and other life barriers that prevent prospective workers even get accepted into apprentice programs. 

That's why OE324 participates in Access For All, a free apprenticeship readiness program, administered with support from the city of Detroit and other partners. The nine-week training, which is available to all Detroit residents, is meant to prepare students for an apprenticeship through supervised work at construction sites and applied math instruction. 

So far, Access For All has run seven cohorts with 30 students, 84 percent of whom find a job after completing the course, according to OE324. 

Construction worker at The Boulevard, a project in New Center built by The Platform
There are also organizations like Southwest Solutions, which offers an array of readiness programs for under- and unemployed individuals. 

Hector Hernandez, executive director of Southwest Economic Solutions, says the root cause in many instances for lack of a job is education, which makes it difficult to get hired or accepted into a training program. "We have clients that come to us with sub-fifth grade math and reading," he says. "But with our model, that doesn't mean we're not going to help."

Southwest Solutions runs three learning labs throughout the city that provide reading and math tutoring, and offer a GED track for motivated students. 

But adult education is almost never enough. There are numerous other obstacles Detroiters face in not just getting a job, but also maintaining one, like financial hardships, transportation issues, a criminal background, or lack of soft skills, to name a few. 

So Southwest Solutions offers a program where low-income individuals work with a financial coach to develop a plan to get them on a path to stability. These individuals are also provided a workforce development coach to develop skills, like resume building and interview preparedness, to increase their chances of job placement. It also offers a transit stipend so participants can commute to jobs and training opportunities. 

"It's a coaching not counseling model," says Hernandez. "The client has to drive it and own it. And we help package all the wraparound services they need to achieve their goals."

And now that Hernandez is seeing a great deal of demand for employable Detroiters, this model is more important than ever. "There's willing employers who have incentive to hire locally," he says. "It's just a matter of getting them the right skill set."

This article is part of our Equitable Development series, in partnership with Doing Development Differently in Metro Detroit, where we explore issues and stories on growing Detroit in a way that allows people from all races, classes, and abilities to participate and benefit. Read more articles in the series here

Support for this series is provided by the Knight Foundation, Knight Fund at the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, and W.K. Kellogg Foundation

Photos, except of SEIU, by Nick Hagen
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Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.