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Los Angeles Black Worker Center Pushes for Inclusion

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In early February of this year, approximately 300 workers waited to to learn about pre-apprenticeship training, union building, construction trades apprenticeship programs, and career opportunities. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Black Worker Center (LABWC).

LeDaya Epps grew up in foster care until adolescence. When she finished high school, bouncing from job to job with no real career path, she struggled to land steady employment. By 2010, she had three children to care for as well and prospects looked tough. Then in 2013, the Los Angeles Black Workers Center along with a coalition of partners including LA County Federation of Labor and LA/OC Building and Construction Trades and LAANE, successfully negotiated an employment agreement with the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA,) her life changed. 

LeDaya Epps, member of the LABWC, worked on the Crenshaw/LAX Transit project. Photo courtesy of LABWC.

For years, the city had been expanding its subway and light rail systems; the Crenshaw/LAX Light Rail Train that runs through several traditionally black neighborhoods in South L.A. to the Los Angeles International Airport was next in line and the LABWC sought to ensure that the city’s African American workforce benefitted from its construction. Their agreement with Metro mandated that 40 percent of the work hours go to “disadvantaged workers.” On average, pay for individuals completing apprenticeship programs starts around 50,000; 87 percent of apprentices get hired on full time.[1] 

With the help of the LABWC, Epps found employment building the new line. Nineteen more black workers would join Epps laboring on the Crenshaw/LAX LRT line and the agreement stands as one of the organization’s signature accomplishments. After completing an apprenticeship, she was soon hired by Walsh/Shea Corridor Constructors and secured a place in the Laborers Local 300 union.

When President Obama invited her as a guest at the 2015 State of the Union address, Epp’s attendance symbolized her own triumphs and that of the LABWC. Though the agreement with Metro expires next year, the LABWC believes through negotiations it will be able to expand and renew it over the next five years. With the promise of a new football stadium in Inglewood and other large infrastructure projects in the near future, the LABWC hopes to establish similar arrangements in the private sector.[2]

Nearly 20 years after the same community had been caught up in the unrest of the tragic 1992 Rodney King Riots in 2011, the LABWC opened its doors “in the heart of South Central L.A.” As the LABWC director, Lola Smallwood Cuevas told researchers in 2014, the center started with only a dozen people but they were 12 of the most dedicated workers one could find: “[W]e held workshops, a worker’s rights hearing, began to build partnerships with community based organizations and we touched over three hundred people in some way.”[3]

Watch Lola Smallwood Cuevas speak about her work in "City Rising: The Informal Economy."

Within three years, the center had expanded ten fold with a list of 3,000 supporters while engaging over 600 people annually through training, organizing, and advocacy efforts. Today non-profit groups like the LABWC are trying to gain African American workers footholds in industries long closed to them.

Historically, unemployment rates in the African American community have been double that of whites. During the Great Recession, black unemployment peaked at 16.6 percent in April 2010. A recent report from the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Great Cities Institute found that during 2014 in L.A. and New York, roughly 30 percent of black men between the ages of 20 and 24 were without work.[4] In addition, UC Berkley’s Labor Center reported in 2015 that of those black men and women fully employed in Los Angeles County, 14.3 of the former and 16.7 of the latter worked in low-income positions.[5]

In many ways, Epps epitomizes the work of the LABWC as the efforts of the organization have resulted in an increase in the number of black laborers on the construction of the light rail line by 20 percent.[6] Prior to the LABWC’s intervention, the project included no black workers. “It’s a question of the social networks around the work,” Smallwood Cuevas told the Los Angeles Times.[7] “How do you crack what has historically been a difficult industry for women, and for black workers in particular.” Construction in particular serves as a prime example; despite making up nine percent of L.A. county’s population, African Americans account for less than two percent of the industry.[8] LeDaya Epps stands as a living “example of the work that women and mothers can do in all industries,” and in particular that black women can do in industries traditionally closed to them, Smallwood Cuevas added recently.[9]

Historically the inability to build connections and social networks into various industries in and around Los Angeles, largely due to the effects of discrimination and structural economic change, have defined black labor in L.A. County.

Historically the inability to build connections and social networks into various industries in and around Los Angeles, largely due to the effects of discrimination and structural economic change, have defined black labor in L.A. County. Brief moments of promise such as WWII when government intervention, the work of civil rights organizations and the needs of a mobilizing nation created new employment opportunities previously denied them or during the late 1960s and 70s when unionization finally grew more open to African American workers, would soon be followed by disappointment. While black men and women experienced the ebb and flow of employment differently, each witnessed the door opening slightly only to be closed soon after.

Since the founding of the city of Los Angeles, there’s been a “deep engagement of African Americans, black people in L.A. to deliver a city free segregation” while also providing economic and educational opportunities equally, Smallwood Cuevas pointed out in a recent interview.[10] For example, the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC), established in 1965, has worked for over five decades to create opportunities for Watts residents. The rise of the LABWC represents an extension of these efforts, but also demonstrates how “different generations challenge conditions and [activate] their moral responsibility, so all communities have a chance to live with dignity and respect,” Smallwood-Cuevas asserted.[11] An examination of this history helps to put the work of the LABWC in perspective and hopefully point to future achievements.

A Brief Historyof Black Labor in L.A.

From the early decades of the twentieth century, Los Angeles seemed filled with possibility for black workers. Black porters employed on the nation’s burgeoning railroad lines earned livable wages and publicized L.A.’s quality of life, while the lines themselves helped deliver new arrivals. By 1910, 36 percent of black Los Angeles owned their homes, compared to only 2.4 percent in NYC, 29.5 percent in Oakland, 11 percent in New Orleans, and 16.5 percent in Birmingham, AL.[12] Leaders like NAACP founder W.E.B DuBois celebrated the city. "Los Angeles is wonderful," he exclaimed. "Nowhere in the United States is the Negro so well and beautifully housed ... Out here in this matchless Southern California there would seem to be no limit to your opportunities or your possibilities."[13] Between 1900 and 1930, the black population climbed from 2,131 to 38,898.[14]

Located on Central Avenue and Florence, the closure of the Goodyear plant in 1980 left many Black workers in the area without jobs. Photo by Kelly Howard, 1957. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

However, as the city’s manufacturing industries grew– notably automobiles and aerospace – employers resisted hiring African Americans. Detroit carmakers hired African Americans in significant numbers but in Los Angeles, by the mid-1920s most auto plants refused to employ them and when they did it was most often as janitors and porters.  Those lucky few to secure work in large plants on crews labored under segregated conditions. Though usually open to African Americans in southern and Gulf ports, dock work in San Pedro and elsewhere in Southern California remained, with some exceptions, off limits to blacks as unions and employers alike shunned them.[15]

The outbreak of WWII would result in new opportunities. The wartime labor shortage, the efforts of civil rights organizations like the Urban League and NAACP, federal agencies like the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) and President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802, which at least paid lip service to ending discrimination in defense industry hiring practices led to a dramatic increase in black employment in aerospace and elsewhere. As of February 1943, Douglass employed 2,200 African American workers, North American 2,500, Lockheed Vega 1,700, Vultee 300, and Consolidated 500.   The Burbank located Lockheed Vega plant emerged as black newspapers described it, “the bright spot of local aircraft employment.”  Lockheed representatives openly touted equality: “We expect Negroes … to work in any division for which they are able to qualify.”[16]

Yet as soon as the war ended and reconversion commenced, due to their lack of seniority, which resulted from racially discriminatory hiring practices in previous decades, many African American laborers soon lost their jobs.  Four years after the war’s conclusion, the proportion of black workers at North American declined four points from seven percent to three; at Douglass, it declined from eight percent to one.[17]  By the time black workers had begun to establish themselves in the industry during the 1960s, technological innovation had begun to eliminate jobs across the nation and California.[18] 

Aerospace represented some of the best employment of its day as the industry featured higher salaries and professionalized work. By 1957, Southern California’s aircraft industry provided work for more than 220,000 workers and accounted for nearly 1/3 of the entire region’s manufacturing workforce. African Americans would never experience the levels of employment in aerospace they experienced during WWII. In the early 1960s, blacks accounted for only 4.5 percent of the industry’s workforce as many manufacturers relocated to suburban locations, most in San Fernando Valley and Orange County, which made black employment nearly impossible due to housing segregation. The NAACP and other organizations lamented that such developments left black workers outside of one of the best paying and fastest expanding industries in SoCal. However, the Inglewood North American Aviation plant represented an exception to the rule due its relative location to nearby black communities.[19]  .

Decades of discrimination... prevented African American workers from developing the necessary skills and education needed for employment in the aerospace and electronics industries.

Even new opportunities for African American workers like new openings in the rubber industry occurred largely because white laborers preferred aerospace.  By the 1960s African Americans made up 13 percent of the industry’s workforce; the U.S. rubber plant in Commerce employed 2,000 workers, 20 percent of which were black. [20]

Federal legislation and the efforts of black workers, pried open some doors to employment. However, it would be the exact moment U.S. manufacturing industries would decline or relocate abroad.  Plant closures washed over the industrial corridor in various areas of manufacturing: Commerce’s Chrysler, B.F. Goodrich, Uniroyal, and U.S. Steel plants all shuttered their doors between 1971 and 1979.  In South Gate from 1979 to 1982, Norris Industries, Firestone and General Motors all closed. Goodyear shutdown its South Central plant in 1980.  During this period, some estimates suggest that 70,000 jobs evaporated.[21] These jobs would be replaced by new low wage garment and manufacturing industries, but this work lacked the benefits and pay of union employment.

Admittedly, some blacks were able to move to suburbs in the San Fernando Valley and Orange County; 12 percent of the county’s African American population by 1970, which in  theory made employment in aerospace and electronics more likely. Electronics and aerospace industries, however, simply spread further into the Orange County suburbs making them geographically difficult to reach. Though the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (1965) reduced barriers to employment, decades of discrimination had prevented African American workers from developing the necessary skills and education needed for employment in the two industries.[22]

Black Women in the Workforce

For black women, the intersection of sexism and racism made securing quality employment even more difficult.  Many worked in domestic service before the war.  In the two decades that followed WWII, African American women in Los Angeles, more so than counterparts in other cities, would make “dramatic occupational and economic gains.” Though consisting of low wages and long hours, African American women made large advances in the garment industry.  Between 1940 and 1960, their percentage of the industry’s labor force went from one percent to 22 percent.[23] The numbers of black women laboring as domestics would continue to decline every decade after the war.

Black women found entre into better employment as well. Though struggling with the same barriers as men, aerospace and electronics offered a bit more in the way of opportunity for African American women such that though their numbers remained limited, they did outnumber black men. The expansion of California state government resulted in new opportunities as thousands of clerical jobs opened up.  In comparison to other cities, black women in Los Angeles greatly benefitted; whereas in most metropolises eight percent of working black women labored in the clerical sector in Los Angeles, by 1960, 16 percent worked in the same occupation. Within ten years this number doubled. Unfortunately, outside the public sector black women encountered great difficulties finding clerical work.[24]

Working for Work

During the 1970s and 1980s, Tom Bradley’s rise to mayor proved beneficial to black workers. Between 1973 and 1990, African American’s share of municipal employment increased from 21.9 percent to 26.7 percent; their share of top administrative positions increased as well from 6.3 percent to over 22 percent. However, the middle class benefitted most and though poverty rates declined for blacks and whites alike, African Americans living under the poverty line remained three times as numerous when compared to whites.[25]

LABWC also represents the fusion of efforts between immigrant rights movements of Los Angeles and faith and civil rights efforts in the South; both dedicated to protecting workers rights.

 “A decade ago, worker centers were still an ‘emergent institution,’ helping low-wage workers—particularly undocumented immigrants—through a combination of service, advocacy, and organizing,” noted the 2015 #BlackWorkersMatter report.[26] As evidenced by the LABWC, in those ten years progress has been made. However, while “worker centers” might be new, organizing for low wage-workers to advocate for better jobs and pay is not.

In 1965 just prior to the Watts Riots, Watts resident, Ford plant worker and United Auto Workers representative, Ted Watkins along with fellow union members, seven international unions and staff members at UCLA’s Institute of Industrial Relations established the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC).  With the help of AFL-CIO unions and grants from the Department of Labor, the WLCAC created several employment and training programs for local workers. It established the Community Conservation Corps in 1966 aimed at proving job training and placement for 1,700 black young people ranging in age from seven to 21. It leased and ran a Mobil station on 103rd and Central, where black workers and union members would volunteer time to train young people in mechanics.

Though WCLAC might be the most notable and earliest organization dedicated to black workers, during the 1990s, a number of other South L.A. organizations arose to focus on increasing black employment. AGENDA, led by former Black Panther Anthony Thingpenn formed the Metro Alliance and successfully negotiated an initiative to train animators as part of a subsidy that Los Angeles was giving to the Dreamworks studio. When business leaders looked to build high-speed rail transit for the shipping of goods from regional ports to downtown warehouses it met opposition, but an opposition with a jobs plan. The Alameda Corridor Jobs Coalition, “a ragtag group of churches and activists”, negotiated the “largest local hiring program in history,” writes USC sociologist Manuel Pastor.[27]

Founded in 1965, the Watts Labor Community Action Committee provided job training and negotiated the largest local hiring program in history. Photo by Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

In a continuation of this trend, Smallwood Cuevas points out that the LABWC also represents the fusion of efforts between immigrant rights movements of Los Angeles and faith and civil rights efforts in the South; both dedicated to protecting workers rights. The movement of large numbers of Latinos to Southeastern Los Angeles to labor in the very garment industries that replaced car, tire, and steel manufacturing sparked new efforts by activists in the region to protect immigrants from exploitation.[28] At the same time, hostility to unionization in the South bred activism by civil rights organizations and faith communities in L.A. Each grew out “of structural changes in the economy” Smallwood Cuevas argued. Conversations with organizations like the Korean Immigrant Workers Alliance sparked LABWC efforts “to create space for workers to come together.”[29] 

The intersection of Southern California diversity and job discrimination has traditionally put the region’s ethnic and racial groups in competition. Yet as Smallwood Cuevas and LABWC co-director Loretta Stevens emphasize the communities – Latino and Asian immigrants and African Americans – are intimately connected through discrimination. “Exploitation of immigrants and exclusion of blacks go hand in hand,” noted Stevens.[30]

Amidst structural economic change, solutions don’t simply revolve around finding new footholds in traditionally closed industries but also securing better wages, working conditions, and benefits for those fields experiencing expansion, like home health aides. Many of the new jobs being created in Los Angeles in the coming years, reports argue, will be in the low wage sector which currently employ large numbers of black and Latino workers, many of them women. “We will always need people to take care of our parents,” Smallwood Cuevas noted. “The reality is these are the jobs that are created, but we need to make them better.”[31] The LABWC works closely with the Homecare Workers Union and the National Domestic Workers Alliance to improve work conditions and advocate for a higher minimum wage.

In this way and others, government plays a role also, argued Stevens. In cities like Portland and Seattle, the municipal government has made “a commitment to eliminate racism in their city” using policies and tools to see folks are impacted, she noted. “Each department in city of Los Angeles should come together to come up with policies” and best practices: “How can we move things at a faster pace and . . .  in a more efficient way.”  If two cities with larger white and smaller black populations can address these issue in meaningful ways so too should L.A.[32]

Workers learn about apprenticeship, training and job opportunities. The LABWC addresses the black job crisis by actively working to increase access to quality jobs, reduce employment discrimination, and improve industries that employ Black workers through action and unionization. Photo courtesy of the LABWC.

To this end, the LAWBC holds monthly meetings off the Black Labor Construction Council (BLCC) and Black Leaders in Green Construction Institute (BLING) along with trainings and information sessions where they educate workers on the trades and how to secure apprenticeships. Known as its “Ready to Work” program, the LABWC connects mentors to individuals new to various industries so that workers can train for, secure, and maintain employment. At one recent event, Stevens pointed out, over 300 black workers showed up.  Organizers had to turn away hopeful participants due to limited space and resources.[33].

When the AFL-CIO convention came to Los Angeles the LABWC capitalized on the event by holding its first Workers Congress. It was a two-day affair and included appearances by leading labor activists such as AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt-Baker, Los Angeles County Federation of Labor Executive Secretary-Treasurer Maria Elena Durazo, and Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.  The “Ready to Work” resource fair offered health and employment information including booths representing the MTA and local construction union. The LABWC also partnered with St. John’s Well Child and Family Center, which provided free health assessments and enrolled workers into health care plans under the Affordable Care Act and other local and state programs.  The LABWC encouraged workers to sign up for the Black Construction Worker Registry which aggregates the list of workers for circulation among city agencies, job programs and major contractors doing business regionally.  The organization hopes to conduct more Worker Congresses in the future.  

Ultimately, a great deal of work remains to be done, but the LABWC’s relatively rapid ascent has sparked other black worker movements in Oakland, Boston, and D.C. Moreover, it represents a tradition of activism by the L.A. African American community that builds on the multiracial coalitions of the 1990s and now connects immigrants and black workers toward the same ends. It’s definitely a start.

[1] Chris Kirkham, “A new effort to help black workers find higher paying jobs”, January 20, 2015, Los Angeles Times

[2] Lola Smallwood Cuevas, interview, February 29, 2016.

[3] Sean Thomas Breitfield, “Working While Black: the State of Black Worker Organizing in the U.S.” in Black Workers Matter, (Los Angeles: Discount Foundation/Neighborhood Funders Group, May 2015), 10

[4] Editorial, “The Crisis of Minority Employment”, New York Times, February 20, 2016

[5] Chris Kirkham, “A new effort to help black workers find higher paying jobs”, January 20, 2015, Los Angeles Times

[6] Breitfield, “Working While Black”, 10.

[7] Chris Kirkham, “A new effort to help black workers find higher paying jobs”, January 20, 2015, Los Angeles Times,

[8] Chris Kirkham, “A new effort to help black workers find higher paying jobs,” Los Angeles Times, January 20, 2015,

[9] Lola Smallwood Cuevas, interview, February 29, 2016.

[10] Lola Smallwood Cuevas, interview with author, February 11, 2016.

[11] Lola Smallwood-Cuevas, interview with author, February 11, 2016.

[12] Kim Hernandez, "'The Bungalow Boom': The Working Class Housing Industry and the Development and Promotion of Early Twentieth Century Los Angeles", Southern California Quarterly 92.4 (Winter 2010-2011), 359.

[13] Hernandez, "'The Bungalow Boom'”, 359.

[14] Josh Sides, L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003), 15.

[15] Sides, L.A. City Limits, 65.

[16] Sides, L.A. City Limits, 83.

[17] Sides, L.A. City Limits, 83.

[18] Sides, L.A. City Limits, 74.

[19] Sides, L.A. City Limits, 86.

[20] Sides, L.A. City Limits, 80.

[21] Sides, L.A. City Limits, 180-181

[22] Sides, L.A. City Limits, 184.

[23] Sides, L.A. City Limits, 90.

[24] Sides, L.A. City Limits, 91.

[25] Manuel Pastor, “Contemporary Voice: Contradictions, Coalitions, and Common Ground,” in A Companion to Los Angeles, Eds. William Deverall and Greg Hise (Los Angeles: Wiley-Blackwell: 2010), 255

[26] Sean Thomas Breitfield, “Working While Black: the State of Black Worker Organizing in the U.S.” in Black Workers Matter, (Los Angeles: Discount Foundation/Neighborhood Funders Group, May 2015), 18.

[27] Pastor, “Contemporary Voice: Contradictions, Coalitions, and Common Ground,” 259.

[28] Manuel Pastor, “Maywood, Not Mayberry: Latinos and Suburbia in Los Angeles County,” in Social Justice in Diverse Suburbs:  History, Politics, and Prospects, Ed. Christopher Niedt, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013).

[29] Lola Smallwood Cuevas, interview with author, February 11, 2016.

[30] Lola Smallwood Cuevas, interview with author, February 11, 2016; Loretta Stevens, interview with author, February 11, 2016.

[31] Lola Smallwood Cuevas, interview with author, February 11, 2016

[32] Loretta Stevens, interview with author, February 11, 2016.

[33] Loretta Stevens, interview with author, February 11, 2016.

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