Ridley-Thomas’s new project labor agreement and local hiring policy
Lola Smallwood Cuevas and Leon Jenkins
The scene was hard to believe. At a recent Board of Supervisors meeting, Mark Ridley Thomas’s frustration visibly mounted as he watched his fellow board members vote to stall the $400 million redevelopment of the Martin Luther King Hospital in Watts. The vote occurred after some of Ridley-Thomas’s constituents, mostly African American and poor, had given powerful and painful testimony about their desperate need for quality work, echoing the chilling reality of thousands of black families across greater Los Angeles. Nearly 400 local residents who sat nearby watched their supervisor endure what amounted to a public whipping.
Why did his fellow board members-some of whom call themselves liberal and labor-friendly-vote to stall this redevelopment project? Because Ridley-Thomas’s proposal requested that the King Hospital redevelopment require a Project Labor Agreement. A Project Labor Agreement-also known as a Family Stabilization Agreement-is a contract between the unions, government agencies and construction companies that sets labor standards, ensuring that workers receive living wages, health insurance, pensions and access to the union jobs pipeline. Research shows that Family Stabilization Agreements ensure project efficiency. Even more importantly, Family Stabilization Agreements create a mechanism for the unions to hire residents from communities that have the highest levels of unemployment. This means that residents gain the highest level of apprenticeship skills and will have access to this project as well as future union projects.
Currently, there is very limited governing oversight holding contractors accountable to local hiring practices because most public agencies will not pay for their enforcement. Without enforcement mechanisms in a Family Stabilization Agreement, local hiring policies do little to ease the unemployment crisis.
Ridley-Thomas’s proposal is a local hiring initiative with real accountability. By stalling this proposal, the Board of Supervisors are demonstrating that, despite voicing their sentiment for local hiring practices, they don’t support this Family Stabilization Agreement.
This is unconscionable, especially given these tough economic times. Times are even tougher for black workers, a fact confirmed by the latest statistics showing that black unemployment nationwide has shot up from 46 to 52 percent. In Los Angeles County, unemployment has reached 20 percent in the African-American community. In the City of Los Angeles, Black unemployment has tipped 16.5 percent while 30 percent of the community works in low wage jobs. As members of the Black Worker Center, the first such center in Los Angeles, this concerns us deeply. The Black Worker Center works to develop organized power among black workers and the extended community to reverse the disproportionate levels of unemployment and underemployment. The center seeks social and economic justice for all of Los Angeles by undoing public policies and corporate practices that perpetuate inequality in the labor market and inferior jobs for black workers.
The job crisis that Family Stabilization Agreements seek to improve isn’t limited to black workers. Community leaders like Supervisor Gloria Molina should be aware of recent research that states about 30 percent of Latino families in Los Angeles are living below the poverty level-many who reside in her district. It is simply immoral for Molina to take the lead on the Board to stall Ridley-Thomas’s proposal. She and her colleagues can support the idea of local hiring all they want. With no Family Stabilization Agreement, our workers will work without the highest standards of wages, health and retirement benefits. These are the very things our community needs and deserves; they are what our fathers who fought to integrate the construction trades clearly understood.
Historically, the Building and Construction trades have remained systematically opposed to African American entry. It is clear that black construction workers are not getting their fair share of the work. This Family Stabilization Agreement is a small step toward correcting this wrong because this policy, at the very least, requires union members living in targeted zip codes with the highest levels of unemployment get access to these jobs-when there are no local union members calling for the recruitment of new workers into the union pipeline. So the question for our community is not whether to support a Family Stabilization Agreement and local hiring policy. Rather, the real question is how to demand diversity and long-term black worker representation on public construction sites. Without a Family Stabilization Agreement, our hard working men and women can’t get into the unions and gain long-term job access and apprenticeship skills.
Ridley-Thomas’s proposal is especially important since so many publicly funded projects are on the horizon-from the MTA’s highway construction projects and Mayor Villaraigosa’s 30-10 transit plan, to the LAX expansion and the Hollywood Park redevelopment-estimating to create upwards of 200,000 jobs.
Family Stabilization Agreements for King Hospital and several of these upcoming construction projects will be voted on in the next six months. The City of Los Angeles Board of Public Works recently approved a Family Stabilization Agreement for public works infrastructure projects. Commissioner Valerie Lynne Shaw voted in favor of the agreement and voiced the need for the City to deliver on its promises to ensure that local workers who help fund public works projects have access to good jobs. The same should be true for the Board of Supervisors, who must also be held accountable for passing legislation that will create good union construction jobs that are equitably shared within the communities that fund them.
The Los Angeles Black Worker Center is supported by the UCLA Labor Downtown Labor Center, the Open Society Institute’s Campaign for Black Male Achievement, Liberty Hill Foundation, AFSCME Local 3090 and District Council 36 and Local AFT1521A.
Lola Smallwood Cuevas is Coordinator, Los Angeles Black Worker Center and Leon Jenkins is President of NAACP L.A./Black Worker Center Planning Committee Member.