8 Cities Have New Co-op-Style Black Worker Centers
Above Photo: D.C. Black Workers Center member Tanasha Williams signing in at a BWC intake session with LiUNA. Photo courtesy of Dominic Moulden.
And They’re Tackling Unemployment
A member-led cooperative structure empowers Black workers as they navigate challenges like discriminatory hiring practices and high incarceration rates.
Delonte Wilkins was looking for a fresh start when he was released from Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill Federal Correctional Institution in February. He polished his resume and applied to several jobs in his hometown of Washington, D.C. But when he was turned down for three job offers once those employers learned of his criminal background, Wilkins soon realized he couldn’t easily leave his felony behind.
“I already know that I’m not going to pass the background check.”
“I’m discouraged from applying to a lot of different jobs because I already know that I’m not going to pass the background check,” says Wilkins, a certified electric systems technician. He doubted there was a space for African American workers with histories like his to thrive, particularly in Washington, D.C., where the Black unemployment rate is the highest in the country, according to a 2015 Economic Policy Council report. Seven months ago, while seeking information about black worker-owned cooperatives, he joined a labor center to learn about workers’ rights and civic engagement.
The D.C. Black Workers Center, established two years ago, is where Wilkins found employment possibilities, and a place that helps to build economic empowerment for African Americans in the city. Located in the United Black Fund building, which houses Black nonprofits, the D.C. Center takes a unique approach to its job-training services by addressing the twofold crises of high unemployment among Black workers and the low wages they’re paid when they do find work. It is one of eight African American worker centers nationwide. The other centers are located in Los Angeles, Chicago, Oakland, Calif., Greenville, Miss., Boston, and Raleigh-Rocky Mount, N.C. A center in Baltimore is opening soon.
“You build the most power when people are actively participating in shaping their own lives.”
The National Black Workers Center Project, a national network that supports all of the centers, is working to shift the narrative on African American unemployment, which is 8.1 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics—nearly double that of Whites. Steven Pitts, a board member at The Project, says that Black workers need to organize because they lack the power to influence public policy and attain economic freedom. He says it’s the fundamental reason for high unemployment and low-wage positions, what he calls the Black job crisis.
“A closely related concern is the public narrative about [its] causes and solutions,” says Pitts, who’s also a labor economist at U.C. Berkeley. This is why one of the Project’s first initiatives, Working While Black, will feature multimedia stories on their website about African American workers and local campaigns to improve access to high-quality jobs. The storytelling initiative will launch in mid-November.
The National Black Workers Center Project drew inspiration from immigrant centers that cropped up in the 1990s to offer legal services and advocacy for the influx of Latin American and Asian immigrants. In a similar fashion, the Black Workers centers use a member-led structure to address the unique challenges facing African American workers—namely racial prejudice, discriminatory hiring practices, and the disproportionately high incarceration rate. “You build the most power when people are actively participating in shaping their own lives,” says Pitts.
To do this, the organizers conduct surveys and hold listening sessions to adapt to the needs of the area. After noticing that Black construction workers were not being hired to work on new rail lines, the LA Center hosted a campaign to successfully employ more African Americans in the county’s transportation projects. In Oakland, the Bay Area Black Workers Center was part of a coalition that convinced the county’s board of supervisors to vote in favor of hiring 1,400 formerly incarcerated residents for various positions with the county in June. A coordinating committee in Baltimore is also in the beginning stages of creating a labor center to address the predominantly African American city’s vast income inequality.
Cooperatives allow communities to determine where they work and how much they’ll be paid.
In D.C., the Center focuses on reducing the unemployment gap. In addition to job training, organizers partner with labor unions and offer construction skills training to increase access to higher-wage positions. Some desired jobs include railroad maintenance work, demolition and asbestos removal, and construction on federal government projects, which pay up to $30 an hour. So far, 25 members have received general construction skills training, and 10 of them were offered jobs with construction companies.
They also teach members cooperative organizing. Last year, members received training in workplace democracies, in which they learned how to recruit other workers and create their own cooperatives. Lawyers explained the legal steps of developing a cooperative, and some members shared their observations from a visit to a child care cooperative in West Philadelphia. The visit has inspired some women at the D.C. Center to start a child care co-op.
Wilkins says the Center emphasizes co-ops because they have a democratic approach that allows all of the workers to have equal footing. To him, cooperatives allow communities to determine where they work and how much they’ll be paid. Housing, food, and jobs are “a human right,” he says, “not a commodity.”