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December 19, 2011 Viewpoint

How To Boost Jobs In Worcester

Should the city require that local labor be used on major construction projects? This question was raised in a Telegram & Gazette article in October about the new St. Vincent Hospital cancer center and during the debate leading up to last month’s municipal elections, with several candidates pledging to push for jobs for city residents.

A lack of jobs is perhaps the greatest challenge facing the nation and the city. According to the state’s Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, there are around the same number of jobs in Worcester as there were at the beginning of the last decade. Meanwhile, Worcester has 8,000 more residents.

So, it’s understandable that city officials would try to do what they can to secure jobs for their constituents. Indeed, one could even say they’re obliged to do so, because that's what the people expect. The city cannot run a stimulus program because there are limits to what it borrows: If the economy contracts and revenues fall, spending must also fall. But imposing local-hiring requirements is one form of quasi-stimulus officials can provide.

Nevertheless, city leaders should not require, or even push for, the use of local labor, either on projects paid for by the city or public-private projects. It’s a bad idea for four reasons.

First, local labor hiring requirements violate the Constitution’s “privileges and immunities” clause, which prohibits interstate protectionism. For example, Massachusetts cannot impose a tax on widgets imported from Rhode Island to protect the Massachusetts widget industry. Courts have found that this principle applies to city government as well.

Second, there is the potential for patronage. City councilors cannot easily exchange jobs in city government for votes, so it’s tempting for them to look to the city’s leverage with contractors to shore up support. For many local officials, local hiring requirements are not a question of stimulus since they have long backed them, even during boom times.

Third, advocating the use of local labor is usually indistinguishable from requiring union labor. Union membership is, or should be, a choice, not a legal requirement. There are many non-union contractors in the city and state who can undertake major projects but are shut out by various pro-union state and local bidding requirements. City government should focus on hiring the best contractors at the lowest cost, period.

Fourth, do we want growth? Do we want to change Worcester’s reputation as a struggling old mill town to a comeback city? Worcester can only do this with the help of outside investment. Hanover Insurance’s intervention in CitySquare should be seen as the exception, not the rule. How many other businesses have a $1-billion investment portfolio to aid stalled downtown revitalization?

Opposing local labor hiring requirements is not the same thing as opposing jobs for local workers. The requirements will do nothing to attract outside investment and only serve to reinforce the reputation for parochialism Worcester has been afflicted with for far too long. 

Stephen Eide is a senior research associate at the Worcester Regional Research Bureau.

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