At one point, African Americans in the Los Angeles area had the kind of jobs–manufacturing, hospitality, etc.–that helped boost many families into the middle class. But by 1985, those jobs–Good Year, General Motors, the rubber, steel, and other plants as well as janitorial and hospitality–that once dotted the region, were gone and Blacks were left underemployed and unemployed. With Blacks nationwide and locally facing chronic employment shortages, understanding the plight of these workers is a pressing need that a new program, based at the UCLA labor center near downtown Los Angeles, is undertaking.
The Black Worker Center (BWC) grew out of efforts by Lola Smallwood Cuevas and others to create a comprehensive organization that would investigate and try to highlight the needs of African Americans in the L.A. labor market. “There are about 19 worker centers in the western region and a dozen that operate in Los Angeles, but they really focus on immigrant communities,” explained Cuevas. “There are also others down South–The Miami Worker Center, Black Workers for Justice in Raleigh, Durham, and the Mississippi Worker Center for Human Rights in the Delta area–but this is the first one to address Black worker’s needs in California. That’s why we’re so excited,” said the BWC project director.
Among the goals of the center are to form collaborations where community stakeholders can work with unions, researchers and others to insure African Americans gain access to quality jobs that will enable them once again to elevate their standard of living. “Everyone has to have equal access to quality jobs, and all parts of the community has to engage, because if they don’t, employers will find another way to get around paying the wages,” Cuevas pointed out. She cites the unionization of hotel workers as an example of how an industry once dominated by African Americans is now taking special steps to ensure that Blacks are able to get some of the jobs coming online.
Cuevas said the center will also address the unique needs of Black workers including: the fact that 30 percent of African Americans in the region make $12 or less per hour; understanding where the jobs are and will be (i.e., green economy and construction); and insuring that Blacks are connected to some of the social networks that often replace the formal outreach for job hunters. The center will also address historic discrimination issues and push to educate unions and employers about some of the distinctive barriers that keep Blacks unemployed.
“We did interviews at a WorkSource center, and 90 percent of the clients had a criminal background, which knocked them out of (consideration for 75 percent of jobs),” said the BWC project director, who in January held a workshop to examine the status of the Black worker. Another key goal of the center is to take facts like these and use them to inform employers, policy makers, and labor about some of the unique barriers African Americans face, and then to develop solutions to eliminate the obstacles.