Black Worker Rights Hearing
LOS ANGELES—January 24, 2011—More than 150 community leaders, labor activists, and legal advocates recently united at a special hearing that gave a platform for black workers to share their testimonies about the struggles they’ve faced in their quest to find quality employment. The Black Workers Rights Hearing—themed “In Search of the Mountaintop: Breaking Barriers to Quality Black Employment”—gave a voice to black workers who’ve experienced such career struggles as employment discrimination, wage theft, immigrant exploitation, disproportionate employment, and invisibility. Dozens of attendees pledged to support the LA Black Worker Center and its members in various ways, including volunteering for action teams and know-your-rights trainings.
"I made a promise to my son that he could go to college, and I worked to keep that promise. Now that my youngest is there, I worry every day that after all this life of sacrifice, now he won’t be able to stay there because I lost my job last year and I don’t earn enough to help with the tuition and the housing and the things he needs,” said Los Angeles resident Darlene Young, an unemployed mother of two and pre-apprentice in the building and construction trades.
“What does it mean to be a citizen of the United States? What is the American Dream? We hope, we live, we work for a better life, but that is not real because so many doors are shut, closed in your face."
Coordinated by the Los Angeles Black Worker Center that launched last year, the hearing was the center’s first forum representing its efforts to promote community support and advocacy for racial and economic justice. The hearing was organized by the BWC members who see workers, organized labor, and community leaders as key stakeholders in reversing the alarming statistics of black workers in Los Angeles who are either unemployed or struggle in low-paying jobs. While African Americans comprise only 9 percent of the population in Los Angeles, 30 percent of the black community toils in low-wage jobs, and another 16.5 percent remain unemployed. Though alarming, these statistics represent a compounded job crisis that exists in black Los Angeles in strong economic times and in weak cycles. Increasingly, urban economic policies and practices fail to develop quality jobs and reward practices that strip workers of family-sustaining wages, benefits, and retirements. Regulated industries such as manufacturing, which once dominated the LA landscape and were the top employers or black workers in past generations, have disappeared with globalization or in-sourced, exploitable immigrant labor. As Los Angeles works to rebuild its economic structure, it is clear the festering employment crisis in the LA black community threatens the health of all Los Angeles. Longer-term strategies and action are needed at the grassroots level of the working communities to develop innovative policies to address this crisis and, ultimately, the poverty and community instability it creates.
At the hearing, held at the historic African American Firefighters Museum near downtown Los Angeles, a group of black workers shared about their struggles with employment discrimination, finding stable work, and the impacts of poor jobs and employer exploitation on the Black family. Laborer Todd Morris, a father of five and a union member, talked about being laid off a week before Christmas, despite his exceptional dedication to his job and twenty-year construction experience. Another union member, Keith Edgehill, discussed how he hasn’t held a steady job for a full year since becoming a sheetmetal journeyman more than a decade ago. Destiny Jackson, a mother of two who was fired from her security officer job shortly before Christmas, stated that she believed her firing was due to her union activism last June. Dwayne Wyatt, a veteran city planner who holds a masters degree in regional and urban planning from UCLA, revealed that the City of Los Angeles Planning Department has never promoted him in his entire twenty-four-year career in the department.
These workers represent the growing number who have joined with the Los Angeles Black Worker Center to develop a voice for workers in the black job crisis. The center leveraged the hearing to present solutions and request that event participants support principles of fairness and dignity in the workplace. Event organizers called on participants to volunteer to work with the center to:
- Educate the local community about the challenges that black workers face;
- Work with trade unions to build support to make black working issues a priority on the workers’ rights agenda;
- Train and mentor black workers, helping them to become leaders in their occupations and unions;
- Research and educate the community on policies that create greater diversity on the job;
- Establish “know-your-rights” trainings in the community;
- Insist that local political leaders properly address the black community’s interests; and
- Advocate for transparency, representation, and accountability in public job creation.
During the event, a panel of employment discrimination activists sat at a dais to offer strategic advice and discuss the challenges black workers face in finding justice. A group of lawyers also attended the hearing to help organize a legal advisory community on behalf of the Los Angeles Black Worker Center. More than forty people turned in signed pledges to offer volunteer services to the center and become advocates for black worker rights.
The event was sponsored by the UCLA Labor Center; Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Los Angeles; Legal Aid Foundation, Los Angeles; National Lawyers Guild, L.A. Chapter; Los Angeles Black Labor Construction Council; Black Alliance for Just Immigration; John M. Langston Bar Association; Black Women Lawyers of Los Angeles; American Federation of Teachers Local 1521A; AFSCME Local 3090/DC 36; and The Brotherhood Crusade.