Skip to content

L.A. center featured in White House summit, panel


There is a crisis going on in the African American community that is having a devastating impact on Black families. The crisis is caused by lack of access and opportunity as well as racial discrimination, and according to Lola Smallwood Cuevas of the Los Angeles-based Black Worker Center, these barriers are resulting in a higher unemployment rate for Blacks.

To address the situation, the center participated in a White House Worker Voice Summit yesterday held by President Barack Obama. The purpose of the summit was to raise the voices of workers as they moved to organize in the workplace and the community.

“The Black job crisis is not an individual deficit problem but a systemic problem that requires a collective approach and solution,” said Smallwood Cuevas, the center’s founding director. She participated in a summit panel discussion at the White House entitled the “Community+ Worker= Stronger Voice.”

“No work or bad work is a daily thing for workers in our community. At the center, we deal with the trauma of the Black  job crisis and the strain it puts on our hearts and lives with collective study and action,” says Smallwood Cuevas.

The summit provided a historic opportunity to bring together a diverse group of leaders–including workers, employers, unions, organizers and other advocates and experts—to explore ways to ensure that middle class Americans are sharing in the benefits of the broad-based economic growth that they are helping to create. Both seasoned and emerging leaders from across the country, who are taking action in their communities to lift up workers’ voices, were included to be active participants in the conversation.

Another goal of the summit was to bring workers, employers, unions, organizers and advocates as well as experts together to emphasize the importance of collective bargaining, highlight the challenges facing employees trying to organize in the 21st century and spotlight new, innovative ways that employees are coming together to have a voice in the workplace and in ways that are good for the worker and business.

“We are thrilled that the White House and President Obama have recognized the work we do at the center to raise the voices of workers, especially Black workers,” Smallwood Cuevas said. “Too many families are struggling to get by on wages that can’t sustain them. For Black families, finding decent-paying jobs has reached a crisis level.”

That’s why the center is partnering with unions and other groups on building projects in the Los Angeles region to look for opportunities to hire Black workers. Employees with union jobs make on average $200 more a week than those not in non-union jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, notes the Black Worker Center.

The center has worked to organize workers to increase the city’s and county’s minimum wage to $15 an hour and now is working to create a labor enforcement division in the city and county that protects jobs. The divisions would have the authority to ensure that employers pay the minimum wage and to investigate and penalize those who flout the rules.

The center’s work to create good-paying jobs, end work discrimination and help workers organize caught the attention of President Obama which prompted the invitation to the summit.

The Black Worker Center is organizing workers to address the Black jobs crisis by ensuring they have a vital voice in developing policies and practices that create quality jobs and a more equitable workforce in Los Angeles County, where nearly 50 percent of working-age Black adults are unemployed or working in jobs that pay $13 per hour or less.

The mission of the center is to increase the quality of jobs, reduce employment discrimination and improve industries that employ Black workers through action and unionization.

The center is working to end employment discrimination by focusing on the construction industry where only 2 percent of the workforce is Black. The center is monitoring projects such as the Crenshaw rail line, which cuts through predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. The monitoring increased the number of Black workers from 1 percent to 19 percent.

“This is the kind of real difference organizing and workers can have in their work places,” Cuevas Smallwood said. “The rules of our economy are rigged to keep American families from getting ahead and help the privileged few. We all have our part to do to undo the damage and put families first.”