An Economic Agenda for Black Workers

Adapted from Black Worker Organizing Panel Discussion

My name is Jennifer Bryant and I’m a right to income organizer with ONE DC. I’m going to be talking today about grassroots Black worker organizing in DC and the policy agenda of the DC Black Workers Center. The Black Workers Center is a resident led space whose mission is to create and maintain racial and economic justice through popular education, policy campaigns, direct action and the creation of worker-owned coops and other worker-owned alternatives.

I want to highlight the fact that this is a Black worker-led space. We’re very intentional about centering the leadership of Black Workers, especially Black women who are so often minimized in conversations about Black employment. I think it’s important to make the distinction between organizing Black workers and Black workers shaping and guiding the policies that directly impact our lives.

The DC Black Worker Center’s policy agenda is two-pronged: one, we’re pushing for greater enforcement, accountability and transparency around the city’s First Source law which states that businesses that receive public subsidies from the District must hire at least 51% DC workers. Our second policy campaign centers on the incubation, funding and support of worker-owned cooperatives.

Our first campaign around First Source will create more quality, living wage jobs which will help Black workers avoid displacement and remain in this rapidly gentrifying city. Our coop campaign falls in line with our longer-term vision of communities where Black workers are in control of our own labor. For those that may not know, worker-owned cooperatives are businesses that are owned and operated by their workers. Studies show that compared to other small businesses they tend to pay higher wages and provide better benefits, invest more in workers through leadership and skills development, and encourage democratic, participatory and dignified work places.

For the last few months, DC Black Workers Center leaders, with support from Ria and the Consumer Health Foundation, have been organizing coop learning journey trips to visit worker-owned coops in Baltimore, New York City and in June Philadelphia. Last weekend, 7 Black Workers Center leaders met with worker-owners at a construction coop in Brooklyn, coop funders at the Working World in Manhattan and took part in the cities participatory budgeting process in the South Bronx to learn best practices as we begin implementing these things in DC. In March, we joined with a group of coop owners, lawyers, trainers, and grassroots organizers to form the DC Worker Cooperative Coalition. We created six policy recommendations for the City Council which are:

1) to pass a local definition of “worker co-op” and support public education on the model’s benefits;
2) Equip the D.C. Small Business Development Centers to support worker coop businesses;
3) Provide city-owned land and buildings to worker cooperatives;
4) Provide funding (grants, loans) to worker cooperative businesses and developers;
5) Make worker cooperatives a preferred contractor for city agencies; and
6) Provide tax benefits to worker-owned coops.

Government support has been instrumental in coop development across the country. This year, the Madison, Wisconsin City Council committed $5 million over 5 years to worker cooperative development. In 2014, the New York City Council allotted $1.2 million toward worker cooperative development. The City of Cleveland has also been supportive of local worker coops by providing land for a 3-acre hydroponic greenhouse. So it’s possible – and DC Black Workers Center leaders see coops as an entry point to move toward greater worker autonomy and community control of labor.

Our First Source campaign grew out of worker experiences with the Marriott Marquis Jobs Training Program. In 2009, ONE DC was written into legislation to develop a jobs training program for the Marriott Marquis hotel as outlined in the New Convention Center Hotel Amendments Act of 2009. We launched the ONE City, ONE Search campaign and successfully recruited over 3,000 job-ready DC residents to apply for the Jobs Training Program.

Out of the 719 residents who completed the Program only 178 were originally hired, which is about 26%. The First Source law requires that employers who receive public subsidies from the District hire DC residents for 51% of new jobs created. The Marriott Marquis fell woefully short of that benchmark. That experience was significant because it brought to light the inability of most local workforce development programs to actually produce jobs for people. Many of the people that stand to directly benefit from these programs, if they worked, are Black and Latino workers who, for a myriad of reasons, are systemically locked out of DC’s vibrant labor market.

In their 2010 policy brief titled “Reforming First Source: Strengthening the Link Between Economic Development and Jobs” the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI) found that the First Source program has been largely ineffective. Lack of compliance and oversight have resulted in the estimated loss of hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs for DC residents and the loss of millions of dollars in revenue for the city.

So we held listening sessions with Black workers to hear about their work experiences and partnered with the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University to interview Marriott Marquis Jobs Training Program grads and other stakeholders about their experiences in order to produce a report on the program. We’ve been in conversation with the LA Black Workers Center to learn how they implemented similar reforms in LA, which I believe Sean will touch on later. DC Black Workers Center leaders are now in the process of organizing a press conference to release our Marriott report and planning a direct action at the Department of Employment services to hold the city accountable on First Source. We know we can’t do this alone. We’ve been working with several local coalition partners to help build the base for the DC Black Workers Center including ROC-DC, OUR DC, the DC Employment Justice Center, DC Jobs with Justice and others. We’re also knowledge sharing and building relationships with other Black Workers Centers nationally including the LA Black Workers Center, the Workers Center for Racial Justice in Chicago, the Baltimore Black Workers Center and the National Black Workers Center Project.

To contact Jennifer, you can reach her at jbryant@onedconline.org or 202.957.4987

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