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Targeting the Black Jobs Crisis

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A recent report from the Los Angeles Black Worker Center addresses challenges facing African American workers, while offering strategies for combating unemployment and low wages. Black Worker Congress Blueprint for Addressing the Jobs Crisis  focuses on information gathered from the Black Workers Rising for Justice, Jobs and Dignity congress, a gathering of workers and leaders of community and labor groups, held last September. The event, which occurred alongside the AFL-CIO national convention, gave African Americans a platform to voice concerns about labor and economic issues. Some of the report’s key findings:

  • For African Americans the recession never ends.

The report cites some alarming statistics about the unemployment rates among blacks and whites from Steven Pitts, an economist from the University of California Berkeley Labor Center. Pitts claims that the unemployment rate for whites during the height of the recession remained below the nine percent jobless rate that African Americans faced before the recession even began.

LA Black Worker Center's Jason Hill addresses its congress.

LA Black Worker Center’s Jason Hill addresses its congress.

Furthermore, the Economic Policy Institute finds that the unemployment rate for blacks is double the unemployment rate for whites — a figure that has remained consistent for the past 50 years. African Americans are still unemployed at a rate of 12 percent nationally — and 18 percent in Los Angeles County.

  • Job growth in low wage industries isn’t helping.

Over the last 40 years the economy as a whole has seen a shift toward low wage and part-time jobs. As a result, 30 percent of black workers in Los Angeles County are currently making less than $12 an hour. Nationwide, 40 percent of black workers are in low income occupations, as opposed to 30 percent of their white counterparts. To make matters worse, it is these low paying positions that are projected to grow the most.

“What has happened to black workers in the past 30 years is what is happening to a lot of [other] workers now,” Yelizavetta Kofman, one of the co-authors of the report, elaborated in a phone interview. She sees black workers as being on the “frontlines of the low wage crisis.”

  • Union density among blacks is high.

hardhatsWhile African American workers are more likely to belong to unions than white or Latino workers, outsourcing and privatization have reduced this cornerstone of economic opportunity. Kofman points to the higher wages and stability that unions provide as examples of how union density can positively impact communities. The report emphasizes the need for labor to gain a foothold in the traditionally nonunionized, low wage industries that more workers, especially black workers, will find themselves employed in.

The study also discusses a gap between the concerns of many labor leaders and the specific issues that black workers face. Kofman believes that African Americans could be better represented in union leadership positions.

 

  • Worker centers can bring labor and community groups together to create change.

Kofman’s report, co-authored with Lola Smallwood Cuevas, discusses a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) with the L.A. County Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) which ensures that MTA construction projects, such as the Crenshaw/LAX Transit Corridor project, hire disadvantaged workers and provide union jobs.

According to the report, “This public works campaign is an example of what the worker center model can achieve: bringing together community groups, union and nonunion workers, unions, city officials and business owners to improve the quality of local jobs.”

  • Worker centers can help build good jobs in nonunion industries.

Kofman and Cuevas claim that worker centers, including the L.A. Black Worker Center, can have a major impact, stressing their ability to “organize, advocate for, and provide services to workers who do not currently have access to traditional unions.” Low wage service industry jobs may not be unionized, but they are the primary source of income for many black workers.

“Because black workers are concentrated in these industries, improving conditions for black workers and the future growth of organized labor are fundamentally intertwined,” the report’s authors say.

risingIn addition to providing crucial information about the plight of black workers in a variety of industries, the congress helped facilitate a dialogue between leaders of long-established unions and black workers, both inside and outside the labor movement. A panel of labor leaders from SIEU United Services Workers West, United Food and Commercial Workers, the California Federation of Labor, the American Federation of Teachers and others answered questions from audience members about the reasons labor has been slow to respond to the black jobs crisis. While labor leaders cited a preoccupation with declining membership, audience members emphasized the importance of reaching out to the black community in order to strengthen the labor movement.

The report also points to signs of progress arising from the congress, including the AFL-CIO’s, “decision to build enduring labor-community partnerships.” Other resolutions sought to “address mass incarceration, deepen worker organizing in the South, and increase the number of people of color in union leadership positions.”

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