It was the sound of people who are miles beyond frustrated. You’ve seen this kind of lively town meeting before, if not in real life then in movies or on television—one of those nail-biters in which officials and select community members sit at institutional tables in a public gathering space, in this particular case the Dudley Branch Library, and do their best to avoid choking on the rhetorical tomatoes that residents toss at their heads.
The multilateral showdown between builders, City Hall, employers, and residents of Roxbury has packed especially high drama of late, and on Monday a routine meeting of the Roxbury Strategic Master Plan Oversight Committee (RSMPOC) erupted shortly into proceedings. The history foreshadowing the verbal melee is complicated, and has been documented thoroughly by the Bay State Banner. At its very core, however, this latest tension seems to mostly stem from a tug-of-war over job access and hiring practices. With Roxbury finally seeing major development dollars after decades of neglect, those who braved the storm want in on the action, particularly in the way of employment.
Over the past decade of sluggish progress on multiple fronts in Dudley, there have been some significant wins for the RSMPOC, a group of 15 volunteers from the community appointed by the mayor (plus elected pols from the area who are excluded from voting), and who ultimately report to City Hall and the Boston Redevelopment Authority. But while the RSMPOC helped to collect critical input during projects like the Crosstown Center on Melnea Cass Blvd, since last year coalitions of outspoken locals have been calling for more proactive involvement in boosting job opportunities at levels beyond Boston’s boilerplate standards.
The fight continues, and at public meetings earlier this year the RSMPOC’s Good Jobs Standards Working Group put employment front and center in discussions about the future of Dudley—not just as far as construction is concerned, but also in the way of long-term hospitality and retail positions. With upcoming projects running in the hundreds of millions of dollars—some including hotels, storefronts, and even a museum—labor organizers, working with the RSMPOC, have aimed to secure equitable agreements with employers. Just this week, the Local 26 hospitality union announced an agreement with the developers of Tremont Crossing, a $370 million-plus mixed-use behemoth, providing that workers who wish to organize at food and hotel jobs in the complex will not be harassed, intimidated, or fired. Members of the very vocal Good Jobs Standards Working Group want similar protections clean across the board, and therein lies the conflict …
Monday’s meeting started civil before turning into Russia. Representatives from the Madison Park Development Corporation made an announcement about hires in their development at the impressive new Tropical Foods facility, and while some people appeared to still be sore over hiring disagreements during the Tropical buildout last year, this time a working dialogue prevailed between activists and presenters from Madison Park, the latter of whom promised to follow up at next month’s meeting with details on diversity and salaries of new employees at the grocery store.
By a half-hour into the meeting, the room was packed with more than 200 people. Some unfolded metal chairs to sit in the back, but most in overflow just stood attentively, impugning every word and movement of committee members. Things began to unwind during a presentation about Bartlett Place, an ambitious project slated for the southern side of Dudley Square off Washington Street. After a woman representing Bartlett mentioned plans for a charter school that was not part of her company’s initial proposal, Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson stepped in amid a sea of groans to say that many community members dislike the charter concept. Such an institution would serve a number of students from outside of Roxbury, where public schools of all grade levels are underfunded and at risk of failing. Shaking his head in disapproval, Jackson turned up the heat: “Is your organization listening to the folks in these meetings?”
Image via Boston Redevelopment Authority
Leading up to this point, the RSMPOC had been considering—many activists would say delaying—a vote on jobs standards for months, and on Monday it appeared that action would finally be taken. Initial prospects appeared hopeful as one committee member read aloud the previously agreed upon recommendations on hiring percentages for residents of Roxbury and people of color. Missing from the list of clauses to be voted on, however, was a provision guaranteeing “card check” neutrality, which if included would restrict employers and developers in Dudley from antagonizing union organizing efforts (much like the aforementioned Local 26 agreement for prospective Tremont Crossing workers).
As it turns out, the RSMPOC executive board met privately, after a public meeting in March at which standards for jobs were discussed, and changed the written recommendations. Outraged that the terms were drawn in a transparent process but then subsequently stripped in private, Councilor Jackson, along with State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz inquired about written procedure, but were told by RSMPOC co-chair Norm Stembridge that no bylaws exist, therefore allowing his executive action. Oblivious to criticism from officials and the shouts of community members, some of whom started calling for his resignation on the spot, a stone-faced Stembridge then proceeded anyway with a vote on the abridged standards, which passed despite three members abstaining in protest.
Urged by Jackson and Chang-Diaz, two RSMPOC members who were sympathetic to demands of the crowd motioned to add the contested “card check” clause. In the end their opposition proved ineffective, but only after Stembridge refused to acknowledge what appeared to be an initial vote in their favor. What happened next is anybody’s guess; things broke down entirely as one woman began yelling, “You lied! In the name of community transparency, YOU LIED!” Another turned to the crowd and asked if folks realized how badly they got duped. “I know now that we did,” one man shouted in response.
It’s unclear what will come of the ordeal on Monday, or even if the apparently compromised vote will count toward anything; the last meeting minutes available on the RSMPOC website are from 2013, and the committee lacks any demonstrably official process. It also may take months for watchdogs to figure out exactly who Stembridge is shilling for and why. In any case, what’s certain is that development in Roxbury is booming. While the media and monied interests guiding Boston’s master narrative say opposition will deter business, interest in Dudley continues to grow. Advocates for good jobs are attentive, they see the greener pastures too; and from the look of things this week, it will take more than just another disappointing meeting to dissuade them.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.