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Black Workers Center offers hope for workers locked out of construction

Its mandate is to increase access to quality jobs

Lena Coleman | 7/25/2013, midnight
Jason Hill has been in the construction industry for 26 years. “I saw the condition of South Los Angeles deteriorate ...

Jason Hill has been in the construction industry for 26 years. “I saw the condition of South Los Angeles deteriorate because of the lack of good jobs. I was looking for a place to do something about it, so I came to the Black Workers Center,” he says. He became a member in 2011.

“I feel like we’re back in 1963 where our civil rights are being ignored,” said Hill. “The Black Workers Center is trying to create awareness by education, so we can stand against this economic violence against Black people. We work hard daily just to get people on jobs so they can take care of their families, which is a basic necessity. It’s not that Black workers aren’t trained or aren’t trying. We’re just being excluded,” he says.

Andre Hollins, who has been a member of the Black Workers Center for only a few months, says he has already seen changes in the number of Black workers being included on construction sites. He says he had viewed a PLA report with zero Black workers on a 10-man crew prior to him becoming a member of the Black Workers Center. He says now four of those workers are Black.

Hollins completed an apprenticeship program in 2008, but says he has only worked a total of three months since then. He says after completing the programs he would get up at three o’clock every morning to visit construction sites to look for work, but would get the cold shoulder.

“You buy boots and stuff. Get into the class, show up everyday from eight o’clock and be there until three o’clock, finish and get the certificate. But being a father and investing time and money into that and getting nothing in return is really discouraging,” he says.

Hollins says he believes the exclusion happens because of myths surrounding Black workers, such as laziness, tardiness and not being trained properly for the jobs. But Hill says that is just an excuse. “I’ve worked with all different types of people and you can find lazy workers from all races. Those stereotypes are just excuses to exclude Black workers,” he says.

The Black Workers Center is a policy advocacy center dedicated to addressing issues and presenting solutions to increasing access to quality jobs and reducing employment discrimination. The center educates workers about what’s happening in the economy and develops creative ways to improve it. It’s funded through private foundations and local unions, and is known mostly for its activism to ensure Black construction workers are included in federally funded projects.

The Center is playing a role in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) Project Labor Agreement (PLA), which is an arrangement between the MTA and the unions establishing work site conditions and protocols. The Center monitors these work sites to ensure that the agreement supports diversity and equal opportunity. The PLA report lists the diversity of workers and the site coordinator’s name and phone number for construction workers who are looking for work. Go to the website at metro.net to view the report.

The Center also wants to ensure that African American workers are included fairly in Crenshaw/LAX Transit Corridor project, as well other construction projects around the city.

Lola Smallwood Cuevas, director, says when the Center began its construction campaign, she thought the major function would be reaching out to 19 to 35-year-old construction workers and educating them on how to get into the union. But after speaking to the workers, she realized the real issue was finding work and being included in projects.

“We had a woman worker who was on a job where she was suppose to get training, but they had her sweeping because she was a woman. When she complained about that, she was suddenly let go,” says Cuevas.

Cuevas says the Center is building a network of legal advocates and attorneys who not only educate workers on how to document discrimination, harassment or other unjust treatment, but also litigate the cases.

“The work at the Black Workers Center is about lifting up collectively a process for us to understand what is happening in this industry, who is making the decisions that are creating these conditions, who has the power to really change that and to build our power sufficiently enough to be able to address it.”

The Black Workers Center will be holding its first L.A. Workers Congress on Sept. 6 and 7. For more information about the Black Worker Center and how to become a member, call (323) 752-7287.