On La­bor Day, a reimag­ined De­pres­sion-era jobs plan re­minds us how and why to value work­ers

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION -

On a La­bor Day that falls amid painful job losses, our thoughts turn to the De­pres­sion-era Civil­ian Con­ser­va­tion Corps.

The most pop­u­lar of the New Deal’s pro­grams, the CCC gave young men not only a job, but also a sense of pur­pose as they built in­spir­ing fa­cil­i­ties in for­est pre­serves and na­tional and state parks across the coun­try, many of which re­main in use nearly a cen­tury later. The CCC long has been lauded as rec­og­niz­ing that jobs give peo­ple a sense of dig­nity and be­long­ing — some­thing that we cel­e­brate on La­bor Day.

This La­bor Day is a ter­rific time to re­mem­ber that work­ers are not dis­pos­able, as too many em­ploy­ers and elected of­fi­cials still seem to be­lieve, or are sim­ply data points on some busi­ness spread­sheet. With un­em­ploy­ment at 8.4%, it’s a time to re­flect on how jobs mean much more than a pay­check.

“Work re­ally de­fines our com­mu­ni­ties and how we think of our­selves,” said Robert Bruno, pro­fes­sor of la­bor and em­ploy­ment re­la­tions at the Univer­sity of Illi­nois at Ur­bana-Cham­paign. “Dur­ing bad eco­nomic times, [cre­at­ing jobs] has long-term div­i­dends. It keeps fam­i­lies whole, it avoids mortgage fore­clo­sures and evic­tions, and it helps to stim­u­late the econ­omy.”

That’s why we are in­trigued by an idea that grew from a sug­ges­tion by a Cook County For­est Pre­serve Dis­trict em­ployee and was nur­tured into a green in­fra­struc­ture plan with na­tion­wide sup­port by the Open­lands en­vi­ron­men­tal group. It would cre­ate a reimag­ined CCC which not only would pro­vide job train­ing and work ex­pe­ri­ence but also un­der­take main­te­nance and restora­tion of parks, trails and nat­u­ral ar­eas.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., whose of­fice worked with Open­lands on this from the start, plans to in­tro­duce leg­is­la­tion this week to cre­ate a RE­NEW Con­ser­va­tion Corps, based on the CCC, that would do just that.

The time is ripe for a new CCC that would be more in­clu­sive than its pre­de­ces­sor, said Neil M. Ma­her, a Rutgers Univer­sity pro­fes­sor who is au­thor of “Na­ture’s New Deal: The Civil­ian Con­ser­va­tion Corps and the Roots of the Amer­i­can En­vi­ron­men­tal Move­ment.”

“Young peo­ple com­ing from dif­fer­ent back­grounds need to feel a shared sense of civic pur­pose,” Ma­her told us. “They are look­ing for that. They are long­ing for that. A pro­gram that pro­motes en­vi­ron­men­tal stew­ard­ship could give them that sense.”

The RE­NEW Con­ser­va­tion Corps would spend $55.8 bil­lion over five years to hire a di­verse group of a mil­lion peo­ple over age 16 to work on new and de­ferred con­ser­va­tion projects on fed­eral, state, lo­cal and tribal lands. It could help the Cook County For­est Pre­serve Dis­trict move for­ward on its am­bi­tious but un­der­funded and un­der­staffed Next Cen­tury Con­ser­va­tion Plan.

Work­ers, paid a min­i­mum of $15 an hour for jobs last­ing from 12 weeks to a year, would plant trees; con­trol in­va­sive species; re­store ecosys­tems; con­struct or main­tain pic­nic shel­ters, camp­grounds, trails and bridges; de­velop ur­ban gar­dens; and un­der­take other con­ser­va­tion projects.

The hand­i­work of the orig­i­nal CCC is still with us in Cook County and Illi­nois. The CCC built the strik­ing lodge at Starved Rock State Park. It built the Skokie La­goons. It built lime­stone stair­ways and aque­ducts in Dan Ryan Woods. It built hik­ing and bik­ing trails and pic­nic shel­ters along the by-then-aban­doned Illi­nois and Michi­gan Canal. It also built pic­nic shel­ters, trails, wa­ter­ways and foot­bridges through­out the Cook County for­est pre­serves.

“It is un­be­liev­able how much of their stuff per­sists to­day,” said Ben­jamin Cox, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Friends of the For­est Pre­serves.

The RE­NEW Con­ser­va­tion Corps, which would com­ple­ment the newly en­acted Great Amer­i­can Out­doors Act, ap­pears un­likely to pass as a stand-alone bill, but it could be in­cor­po­rated into other leg­is­la­tion, such as an in­fra­struc­ture bill or other ini­tia­tives.

“It’s a pro­gram that has been fleshed out,” said Jerry W. Adel­mann, Open­lands pres­i­dent and CEO. “We have thought through the al­lo­ca­tion of funds and the struc­ture. We have talked to many peo­ple in Illi­nois and around the coun­try, so it has been vet­ted with many groups. We wanted to make sure what we came up with would work around the coun­try and in our ter­ri­to­ries.”

“Seg­ments of pop­u­la­tions that are es­pe­cially hit by un­em­ploy­ment in­clude di­verse groups,” Adel­mann said. “What a great op­por­tu­nity to not only em­ploy them but also in­tro­duce them to new ca­reers in the green in­dus­try.”

On La­bor Day, we should sup­port work­ers. Plenty of young peo­ple are search­ing for work, and the na­tion has plenty of work for them to do on public lands. The RE­NEW Con­ser­va­tion Corps could help those work­ers, the out­doors and our planet. It’s a great idea worth pur­su­ing.

THOMAS FRISBIE/SUN-TIMES

The pic­nic shel­ter at the Cook County For­est Pre­serve’s Al­li­son Woods, which was built dur­ing the De­pres­sion through a public works project, prob­a­bly the Civil­ian Con­ser­va­tion Corps or the WPA. A new ver­sion of the Civil­ian Con­ser­va­tion Corps could do ad­di­tional en­vi­ron­men­tal work in the for­est pre­serves.

COOK COUNTY FOR­EST PRE­SERVE DIS­TRICT

The Civil­ian Con­ser­va­tion Corps built lime­stone aque­ducts in Dan Ryan Woods in the 1930s.

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