If any job is better than no job, is it equally true that any employer is better than no employer?

To the community organizations and labor union members sponsoring the South L.A. mayoral candidate forum last week at Ward A.M.E. Church near USC, the answer was a resounding “no.”

The discussion, which focused on the candidates’ vision for South Los Angeles also included talks about ways to force banks to take care of their neglected foreclosed properties and ways to break the school-to-prison pipeline.

But candidates agreed that the key issue of providing a living wage must take place at the negotiating table with companies who want to do business with the city.

“We have to stop doing business as usual. We need a new mayor who’s a leader for working people. Big box employers like Wal-Mart take taxpayers’ subsidy dollars then don’t pay their employees enough to put food on their tables. Los Angeles is full of talented people, but we require good jobs that lead to the middle class,” said Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary treasurer of Los Angeles County Federation of labor, AFL-CIO. She was among those who spoke prior to the start of the actual forum.

The various candidates’ solutions to improving Los Angeles communities of color included investing more money in job training; guaranteeing local hires on city projects and contracts; awarding contracts to local rather out-of-state contractors; checking that women and minorities entrepreneurs receive their fair share of city business; and closing disparity gaps.

“The decline in construction jobs has been happening over the last four decades and has led to disparities in the industry,” said Jason Hill, a 25-year construction veteran. “Blacks make up 9 percent of L.A.’s population, but less than 4.9 percent of its construction workforce. And women compose even less–only 1 percent. And when a recession hits, we’re the hardest hit.”

“Working on gender and racial equality means pulling everyone along, making sure everyone has a job, and when we accomplish that, no one will care what color a person’s skin is,” said Ninth District Councilwoman Jan Perry. “As for the recession, we have to build our way out of it and insist on local hiring agreements with construction companies. The $27 million in construction projects in and around USC has those agreements in place and will create 8,000 permanent jobs and 4,000 construction jobs,” Perry continued.

“The city owns the largest port in America. Let’s create more job centers in it, in our airport and (other) proprietary departments throughout city government, like the Department of Water and Power. These should be used as pathways to the middle class. And let’s insist on 40 percent local hire,” said District 13 Councilman Eric Garcetti.

“Of course, if you’re well-off you can weather any storm. If you’re in the middle class, you can pick up stakes and move to areas where there are greater opportunities. But if you’re poor, you’re stuck. We need to use what we have to improve racial equity.”

According to Joshua Busch, director of special media at Community Coalition, a public policy organization in South L.A., there are 6,278 businesses in Los Angeles providing almost 100,000 jobs annually. But Los Angeles City Controller Wendy Greuel said the numbers aren’t adding up in their favor.

“City contracts call for minority- and women-owned businesses to be part owners, and I don’t think they’re getting their fair share of the pie. These contracts shouldn’t be going to out-of-state contractors.

That’s an area I want to look under the hood at and make sure it’s running properly,” she said. “The city can guarantee that people who live in the community of a Metropolitan Transportation Authority construction project for example can get that work. We have to make sure people are trained. It’s something we have to spend money on.”

How candidates will avoid steering Angelenos down the same road for another four years will take stepping outside the box and some education, too.

Garcetti said cuts to social services and rising taxes will continue if the discussion doesn’t turn to growing the city’s economy.

Greuel agreed that taxing people at the lowest level wasn’t the way to bring the city back into the black, and generate revenue.

One key, said Perry, is to make sure the kids are educated and can compete for these jobs.

On election day, March 5, an informed electorate will determine which candidates’ vision for South L.A. best meshes with their own. But, until then, honest disagreements among neighbors, friends and family will no doubt continue. All voters whether union members or not can agree that workers deserve employers who pay wages that allow them to support themselves and their families without relying on public assistance to food on their table.

AFL-CIO executive Durazo said that Angelenos cannot watch one part of the city succeed, while the other part fails. “South LA has been overlooked, ignored and pushed aside for too long,” she said.