Another thought on “localism,” via CEOS for Cities post “Gas Prices Force Rethink of the Model”

by Yule Heibel on May 30, 2008

Richard Florida has repeatedly asked “us” (society, policy makers, planners, ordinary citizens) to think of a way to make service industry jobs valuable on the same level as trade union jobs were valuable in the earlier twentieth century. Florida doesn’t put it quite like this, but I’m extrapolating that it means that in days gone by, trade union semi- or fully-skilled labor allowed people to aggregate socially and economically, allowed them to become a social and economic force to be reckoned with. They weren’t casual workers, and they — and their jobs — were not throw-away items. Florida, who recognizes that low-paying (low-value) service jobs are a fast-growing sector in the economy, wants to know how those jobs can be made as valuable for today — because (I would add) we simply can’t afford to have much of throw-away-anything these days, least of all throw away people. Creative economies, at any rate, can’t afford gratuitous waste or open loops, which leak goodness that should be recycled back into society.

As it happened, CEOs for Cities latest blog post, Gas Prices Force Rethink of the Model, really caught my attention specifically for what it could say to Florida’s question. Carol Colletta (of CEOs for Cities), who may be the blog post’s author, isn’t spilling the beans in terms of naming names, but check out the blog entry:

Which grocery store chain has lost 3000 employees in the past five months in one major U.S. city because they can no longer afford the gas to get there?

We’re not naming names, but we do know that said chain has “blown up” its future plans for greenfield expansion and is scrambling to reinvent itself as an urban chain.

We’re not sure exactly what that means yet (and neither are they), but it should be interesting to see if this is the first in a long line of retailers who try to reinvent themselves because their employees can’t afford to get to work. (And their customers will presumably be hard pressed to afford the drive.)

… Don’t know about you, but I see a convergence here. I see value coming from local employees, people who live where they work, and who don’t need to drive half an hour to reach their jobs — who in the best case scenario don’t need a car at all to get to work. I see the rising cost of fuel as forcing a change in the usual service-employee/ employer relationship.

You want to add value to the service worker dependent on lousy public transit to get to her job downtown? Make sure she doesn’t have to live so far away. And make sure she has reliable transit to boot. Want to see your local tourism industry hum along? Be a business that meets your employees needs in more ways than just incremental increases over the minimum wage. And so on. Rinse, and repeat.

If enough of that sort of thing happened, maybe a rethink and realignment of value in service sector jobs would have to fall into place. Because if it doesn’t, and it simply costs employees in service industry jobs too much to commute, the stores, hotels, and cafes will close and the employees will not be able to travel absurd distances to get to jobs they’re not particularly attached to in the first place.

Rising gas prices (and crummy public transit) might push for that rethink of how to add value to service sector jobs. And the answer might be: live, hire, and work as local as you can. But there’s no way anyone can expect service workers to shoulder that alone if housing in desirable and expensive places becomes too unaffordable while the cost of commuting to a low-paying job drives in the final nail.

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