LA Black Worker Center takes new approach to black jobs crisis

Center also trains black workers to be labor rights advocates and has become a model for other cities

Chaz Grayson, 24, who has struggled finding construction work, also works as an organizer at the Los Angeles Black Worker Center.
Haya El Nasser

LOS ANGELES – In a modest storefront on Crenshaw Boulevard, one of the last neighborhoods in the city to have a majority black population, a quiet revolution is brewing to tackle the challenge of black unemployment.

It is home to the Los Angeles Black Worker Center, the first in the nation to focus not just on job training or resume writing but on teaching black residents the art of power building, rallying, negotiating and civic engagement.

So, when a young black man such as Chaz Grayson, 24, walks in for help finding construction work, he is not just given job listings and sent on his way. He attends seminars, goes to city council meetings to testify in support of a mandate that employers hire black workers and rallies in a Wage Theft March in front of City Hall.

“To me, it’s a necessity,” Grayson said. “It’s not just what we’re doing but what we’re doing for the overall community. It lets me lead by example.”

And, he hopes it will change the dismal employment landscape for black workers in Los Angeles. Nationally, the unemployment rate for African Americans is roughly double that of whites: 9.2 percent, compared to 4.4 percent for whites and 6.4 percent for Latinos. In California, black unemployment is around 14 percent and in Los Angeles, 16 percent.

Grayson has seen the impact of those figures first-hand on construction sites. He has worked off and on in construction for four years, but was recently laid off from a job in Playa Vista, building a wall around the perimeter of a large luxury apartment complex.

“There were hundreds of workers – roofers, carpenters, masons,” he said.

How many blacks?

“Five,” Grayson said. “You kind of lose confidence. You stick out like a sore thumb. The system is messed up.”

The brainchild of Lola Smallwood Cuevas, the Black Worker Center is becoming a model for other cities. The National Black Worker Center Project has helped open a similar center in the San Francisco Bay Area and has plans to launch one in Baltimore.  It is working with Black Worker centers in Boston, Washington, D.C., St. Louis, Chicago, and Raleigh-Rocky Mount, North Carolina.

The center’s approach is so innovative that Cuevas was invited to attend the White House Summit on Worker Voice last week. The White House turned to Cuevas specifically because her work focuses on how to collaborate with employers, unions and community groups to create opportunities for good-paying jobs for black residents.

In the Los Angeles area, more than half of all working-age blacks are either unemployed or under-employed, making less than $13 an hour.

 “And a large number of full-time and part-time workers are low-income,” Cuevas said. “We are in the midst of a bona fide black jobs crisis.”

The crisis runs even deeper in Los Angeles because of the high cost of housing and the inordinate amount of wealth in pockets of the city. More than 14 percent of black men and almost 17 percent of black women working full-time in Los Angeles make low-income wages.

For black workers, it’s a dual crisis. Either you have no work or you have bad work.

Lola Smallwood Cuevas

Director, Los Angeles Black Worker Center

Workers at the Wage Theft March in front of Los Angeles City Hall in January 2015.
Los Angeles Black Worker Center

“There’s an extreme gap between rich and poor,” Cuevas said. The black employment picture worsened after the 1970s, when manufacturing jobs in aerospace, steel and rubber industries disappeared.

The garment industry is running strong but studies have shown that many are sweat shops that pay poor wages.

If you travel down Central Avenues, factories are working but they’re sweat shops and that’s where immigration comes in,” Cuevas said. “Seventy-five percent of job creation in the state has been low-wage work.”

And the institutionalized exclusion of young blacks is “almost at a genocidal level,” she said. “For black workers, it’s a dual crisis. Either you have no work or you have bad work.”

More than half of young black men and women under the age of 25 are unemployed, according to a labor report by the University of California Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education.

Steven Pitts, associate chair of the center, said unemployment numbers tell only part of the story.

“The unemployment rate is a bad measurement because it is only looking at people out of work who are looking for work for a period of time,” said Pitts, on the board of the Black Worker Center. “If they stopped looking, they’re not counted as unemployed.”

The numbers also mask the low-wage crisis. They don’t include people who may be working but are making very low wages.

“The reason why wages are falling is the lack of worker power,” he said. “Instead of seeing people as clients, we see them as being member of the organization. We get them engaged and actually running the organization.”

The focus here has been on getting a piece of the $70 billion the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) will be spending over the next 30 years on new rail lines. The projects will create an estimated 270,000 jobs.

But when construction began in the predominantly black Crenshaw district, 93 percent of the work was done by Latinos and 7 percent by whites. That meant zero for blacks.

Center members met with MTA officials and attended hearings to push for a hiring agreement to employ black workers. It was approved by the MTA and now more than 20 percent of the workers on the project are African American.

Cuevas is also working to update federal hiring regulations by contractors who get federal dollars. Currenty, the program sets goals for “minorities.” She said it has to be broken down by race and ethnicity to reflect the demographic profile of communities where the projects are being built.

Another goal is to get the city of Los Angeles to form an enforcement office to prosecute wage theft and employment exclusion.

The challenge to get employers to hire minorities has become greated since the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996, which basically eliminated affirmative action in public institutitions.

The measure prohibits state governmental institutions from considering race, sex, or ethnicity, specifically in the areas of public employment, public contracting, and public education.

“That’s why we have to create more mandates.

“The way they’re doing the work in Los Angeles is not simply to provide services to workers but to mobilize workers and leadership development,” said Steve Savner, director of public policy at the Center for Community Change, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that works to empower low-income communities, and communities of color in particular, to change public policy.

“They bring a little more power to the table,” he said. “It’s not just about an individual finding a job. It’s collective action to look for more collective solutions.”

Building new leadership is the main goal, Cuevas said.

Sherri Bell, a college graduate with a degree in public administration, said it became clear when she started job hunting that checking the “black box” on online applications locked her out of jobs. She came to the center and is now a community organizer who has helped create a “Do you see me now?” campaign to highlight the invisibility of black workers in good jobs.

“We’re taking the community out of the shadows and helping to change the narrative,” Bell said. “We’re definitely a voice.”

A senior advisor at the center who goes by one name – Akili – said the center’s mission centers on giving workers the power to speak up.

Including them in meetings with employers, such as the MTA, “really changes the dynamics,” he said.

Employers come face to face with the challenges black workers struggle with, which brings a new and real dimension to unemployment statistics.

“We don’t organize workers so that we can speak,” Akili said. “We organize workers so that they can speak.”

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