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Advancing equity and justice for Black workers – a Q&A

Kyra Greene, Center on Policy Initiatives; Lola Smallwood Cuevas, UCLA CARE; Will Scott, Inland Empire Black Worker Center

In this post, leaders from the worker rights movement share insights from their efforts to advance rights and protections for California’s workers. Read more conversations with leaders here.

A recent survey by the UCLA Center for the Advancement of Racial Equity (CARE) at Work of Black workers in Southern California found that nearly 70% of respondents who lost their jobs or were furloughed during the pandemic have not been called back to work — one indicator of the systemic barriers facing Black communities. A post-pandemic recovery where Black workers flourish requires radical rethinking, say the leaders of the Southern California Black Workers Hub for Regional Organizing.

Bwc Es Report Final

We spoke to Lola Smallwood Cuevas of CARE at Work (and co-author of the report), Kyra Greene of the Center on Policy Initiatives in San Diego, and Will Scott of the Inland Empire Black Workers Center about Black worker centers and building an ecosystem of opportunity for Southern California’s 1.2 million Black workers.

The James Irvine Foundation (Irvine): Where do you start in getting member-led Black worker centers off the ground, and what is your goal?

Smallwood Cuevas: A member-led worker center starts with people and shared experience. At the height of the great recession, Black workers and organizers in the field were experiencing a profound invisibility in conversations about California’s new economy. Therefore, the strategies to address the crisis of work in Black communities, the disproportionate unemployment and underemployment, and the traumatic effects of economic violence was also missing. We understood that in order to have a multi-ethnic worker alliance, Black workers would need to be organized. A cross-sector of Black community members and leaders came together to explore how to build power focused on the protection and defense of Black workers in Los Angeles. We became familiar with community-unionism models in the South and with immigrant worker centers, which set helped set a framework for the Black worker center model. We intentionally called our model “Black” worker center to make it really clear: this is a place for you, for bottom-up strategies that make a difference in the lives of Black workers, the families and neighborhoods that rely on them.

Greene: Getting a member-led Black worker center off the ground in San Diego was about finding a leader who is committed to working with Black communities to build power. Our director, Brisa Johnson, understands that we are coming together to do healing and freedom work. Our goal is to build a space where Black working people can educate each other and advocate together for our right to dignified work that provides us with wages and working conditions that mean we, our families, and the broader community can thrive. We also understand that if we want the Center to be member-led, we have to start by creating spaces where we listen to what Black workers want and need and then design our programs to help folks meet those needs.

Scott: Starting a member-led Black worker center [in the Inland Empire] requires a dedicated volunteer advisory committee, a network of leaders from the faith, union, business, government, academia, workforce development, and community-based organizations. Our goal is a Black worker-led movement that successfully organizes Black workers to address the root causes of systemic unemployment and under-employment of Black workers through leadership development, base-building, and advocacy. We help build power for Black workers by developing authentic leadership, so that those most impacted by these conditions are leading the strategies to change them.

Irvine: Can you share any stories that show how Black worker centers combat structural racism?

Greene: Black worker centers combat structural racism by challenging the ingrained notion in this country that work done by Black people is inherently less valuable. Many of the jobs that are lowest paid in this country are the jobs Black people have been required to do since we were enslaved — things like childcare, elder care, janitorial, and domestic work. Black worker centers highlight that these are some of the most important jobs in society and that they are only low-paid because Black people’s labor has been exploited in this country. Black worker centers, in their essence, provide a space for Black workers to organize and change this reality.

Scott: Policy work led by members of the Los Angeles Black Worker Center in 2012 culminated in the successful revision and enforcement of targeted local-hire language in the project labor agreements between the construction trade unions and public agencies in Los Angeles County. These policy revisions helped to combat the abuse of loopholes that facilitated the systematic exclusion of Black worker participation on publicly financed construction projects in the county. Black worker participation rates on Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority construction projects increased from under 2% in 2010 to more than 20% in 2014.

Smallwood Cuevas: One recent win was to ensure equitable investment of state COVID resources — for the Governor not just to target sectors, but to focus on the workers most in crisis, because Black workers represent a majority of frontline workers often represented in low-wage and unregulated sectors. Black workers are also most likely to face retaliation when they raise concerns about workplace safety, while also experiencing disproportionate unemployment rates. We leveraged the state to intentionally invest nearly $1 million in Black working communities. The Black workers hub mobilized outreach to 40,000 Black workers to ensure they knew their rights, had access to PPE, and access to vaccines.

A second win has been fighting for racial justice in President Biden’s Build Back Better and infrastructure legislation. Often in infrastructure projects, like rail projects through Black neighborhoods, Black workers can’t get hired. We’ve been engaging in the fight to ensure federal resources do not skip over our community by setting a floor for hiring Black workers — for disaggregating the goals and to update policy currently based on the 1978 census that still only targets 28% minority hiring. That’s a shameful policy.

Irvine: What do you feel the broader ecosystem needs to understand about Black workers and anti-Black racism in the labor market?

Greene: People need to understand the solution to anti-Black racism is not getting more Black people to go to college or to look, speak, or do their hair in more “respectable” ways. The fact that Black people have to have more education or minimize their cultural distinctiveness to access jobs is racist. We absolutely want to see more Black people in decision-making positions throughout the labor market, but we can only remedy anti-Blackness if we push absolutely everyone, regardless of race, to interrogate and address their biases. We also have to hold institutions responsible for achieving the outcomes of racial equity rather than rewarding organizations that engage in “racial justice” training and initiatives without achieving better outcomes for Black folks.

Scott: Recognizing that structural and institutional racism, dating all the way back to slavery, as the root cause of societal ills in our generationally trauma-impacted Black communities is a good start. The extreme historical disparities in employment robs the Black community of dignity, pride, and economic mobility. The symptoms of the pandemic of the Black Jobs Crises are contagious and spread like a virus through our society and deteriorates the fabric of democracy this country claims to stand for. The broader fair work field has to empathize with these facts and unapologetically champion the work of healing the Black worker by supporting initiatives that promote equity and justice in the workplace.

Smallwood Cuevas:  Black workers are the original story of the American economy. Our economy is rooted, in the words of Rev. James Lawson, in plantation capitalism that completely dehumanized workers. That’s why we have fought so hard for unions — because the system will not protect workers, will keep recreating dehumanizing results in modern terms. Immigrants working in janitorial and agriculture sectors are working the same slave jobs. So I hope we as a field always bring that analysis of anti-Blackness to our work, because it’s America’s original sin, and anything short of reckoning with it will never change it.