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Congress highlights challenges Black workers face

Next step: Developing strategies for change

9/12/2013, midnight
Arlene Holt Baker

As evident by the new August unemployment numbers, African Americans continue to suffer significantly higher rates of joblessness, and an event held Friday and Saturday at Holman United Methodist Church and in Leimert Park turned a spotlight on what is being called a crisis in Los Angeles.

The Black Worker Congress and jobs rally is the start of an effort by African Americans to change that. About 300 people turned out for the two-day confab that began with panel discussions and strategy sessions.

“A panel where workers from different industries and different employment status talked about the barriers and conditions Black workers are dealing with in the workplace,” said Lola Smallwood Cuevas, head of the Los Angeles Black Worker Center, one of the event coordinators.

Among the conditions Smallwood Cuevas said Blacks are facing are discrimination, the outsourcing of jobs and the reduction of public sector employment, which is the number one employer of Black workers, said the center executive director.

In addition to listening to people who ranged from an unemployed construction worker to a woman working for the city of Los Angeles who is facing the possibility that her job may be privatized, the congress’ goals were to connect these individuals and other workers with labor leaders, a number of whom were in town for the AFL-CIO convention.

“The overall sentiment of the panel discussions was that labor has not put Black worker organizing at the center of its strategy nor has the Black job crisis been elevated to the status of the worker’s rights issue that it is,” said Smallwood Cuevas, noting that labor has the responsibility of lifting up Black workers and being involved in what happens to them.

The worker panel was followed by break-out group discussions, and among the topics that were addressed were the abundance of low-wage jobs being created in Los Angeles and building a pipeline of workers through quality union jobs.

The next step in this process of developing an overall strategy to address the employment crisis for African American workers is for the Black Worker Center to take and synthesize all the information gathered and produce a report that will be shared with a coordinating committee in October. They will also meet with labor leaders who have pledged to support Black worker’s efforts to devise solutions.

Among the strategies that will be reviewed by the coordinating committee are building pre-apprentice programs that solely target African Americans and the unique barriers that many face to employment; connecting with corporations that are creating the low-wage jobs; and building an alliance with labor that will help solve this and other challenges.

Smallwood Cuevas said there is also a need to look at retail outlets and how to protect workers in these jobs and insure that they are making a decent wage, and working enough hours to support a family. There is also a need to push to insure that African American youth can get hired at fast food restaurants, and will not be exploited.

The center director cautions that this process is an incremental one that requires a new approach yet that, at the same time, understands that they are standing on the shoulders of great labor leaders like A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and one of the organizers of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.