By Crystal Shaw
For years, Los Angeles Black Worker Center, a Liberty Hill grantee, has been a national leader in the urgent work of reversing the Black Jobs Crisis. As a result, its staff and advisers, including the Center’s Director, Lola Smallwood Cuevas, were aware of the obstacles for Black workers not only in L.A. but also in communities such as Ferguson, Missouri. In fact, because of the success the LABWC has been having, advocates from the St. Louis suburb—whose population is nearly 70% Black—sought them out for advice and consultation, to begin talks of opening a black workers center there.
After Michael Brown, an unarmed Ferguson teenager, lost his life at the hands of a police officer and a grand jury decided not to indict the officer, the U.S. Department of Justice found the Ferguson Police Department had engaged in “a pattern or practice of unlawful conduct” through discrimination and racial stereotyping. The underserved African American community was not only fighting for economic development but also against an unfair criminal justice system and decades of unfair practices by the hands of its governing systems , the very systems supposedly set up to serve them. While this little known travesty may have been only revealed after Ferguson had been thrust onto the country’s zeitgeist, the Los Angeles Black Workers Center has recognized of the unbalanced and unorganized hiring practices that resulted in high levels of poverty plaguing Ferguson, and the need for an organized system to be set in place before economic justice could advance.
The creation of a Ferguson Black Worker Center is only possible through a true partnership between Black organizations and unions. It’s being anchored by The Organization for Black Struggle (OBS) and the Coalition of Black Trade Unions (CBTU) who have partnered with the national trade union, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), explains Lola. The AFL-CIO is helping to grow workers centers across the country by supporting groups who are doing that work. A lot of the foundational efforts are modeled on the Los Angeles BWC, and conversations were well underway before the November 2014 uprising in Ferguson after the jury verdict. After those turbulent events, naturally a lot of focus was set on St. Louis and resources began to come in so the table has gotten bigger.
“What was clear,” says Lola, is that unions and Black-led community-based organizations have not had conversations.” She says a lot of trust had to be built. “Obviously the conditions of over 50% of Black men in that community unemployed and the assault on Black people by the government, the balancing of the government’s budget on the pain and suffering of Black folks largely has gone unnoticed by the labor movement, by other liberal and progressive forces in St. Louis for a really long time.”
So, Lola says, all parties involved had to decide if it was even possible to have a table in which unions and the Black community could come together and actually create an institution whose mission would be to build power for Black people in the t. Louis area. “When we went to Ferguson after the Mike Brown killing we saw the level of potential for power building: all the mobilization, all of the moves to do leadership development, build capacity, to really make this moment a movement happening. We heard people in the conversation realizing that at the core of it is poverty.”
If opening a worker’s center was to be a reality, the allies gathered knew they had to address key issues: poverty, the Black Jobs Crisis, and how to make this worker’s center and partnership operational.
During another visit In December 2014 the first thing L.A. Black Worker Center facilitated was a two-day workshop in Ferguson, and a strategic planning session with the building trade union Service Employees International Union (SEIU) along with the Coalition of Black Trade Unions and the Organization for Black Struggle. Participants laid out a six month plan to move the center forward. First the partners would need to find resources to have a coordinator in Ferguson that could continue the grassroots conversations on strategic planning, taking into consideration what would be the links among the organizing groups, as well as strategies for identifying the jobs, processes for placement and potential mini campaigns to start. After much work in those strategic meetings, Lola says, a feeling of hope, and a real belief that this could happen is evident and message was born.
“Build a House of Power: Economic justice in the Back community and partnership with the unions. That was the message coming out,” Lola explains.
Since that December visit there’s been great progress. A location for the Ferguson Black Worker Center has been secured, the workforce development program planning is moving forward and the unions have already started doing trainings. Political education sessions are also underway.
After doing the ground work, Lola says, everyone involved believes the Worker Center will be established and will flourish. The partners recognized, she says, it “that this was a very white led, conservative, anti-worker and anti-Black environment. What was needed was the building of a different type of power structure—power for working class folks and for Black folks in particular. And again the framework was “Building a House of Power!” By next December the hope is that the Ferguson Black Worker Center will be well enough established to focus on the Black Jobs Crisis through partnerships with unions while at the same time offering economic and racial justice focused activities, campaigns and worker leadership training. Immediate plans are underway for a leadership institute that will bring all stakeholders together for more planning of what the initial campaign will be.
“But again,” Lola says, “it’s a process to end up with something that’s going to be sustainable and have impact. We want to take our time and make sure that the right partners are at the table and committed.”