Lola Smallwood Cuevas

Where is the juice in the US labor movement? To answer that question a lot of people look to Los Angeles, where the AFL-CIO held it's last national convention in 2013, but LA is also the wage theft capital of the United States, where low wage workers are robbed of some 26 million dollars a week. In light of all of that, how can workers build power?

Lola Smallwood Cuevas directs the Los Angeles Black Worker Center, the first in California focused on solving the Black Job Crisis. She's been empowering African American workers and transforming the industries they work in for years now. To that job she brought not just experience as an organizer, but also as a journalist. She worked as a daily beat reporter for the Chicago Tribune, the Long Beach Press Telegram and the Oakland Tribune before coming to her new job.

Lola Smallwood Cuevas: Wow. Thank you so much for having me here Laura. It's wonderful to be with you.


Laura Flanders: Why did we need a Black Workers Center? We have unions. We have workers' centers. What was the motivation and what were the challenges you were founded to address?


Lola Smallwood Cuevas: The motivation for the worker center really grew out of a program that we have at the UCLA Labor Center called the African American Union Leadership School. It's 1 of 5 leadership schools. There's a leadership focused on immigrant workers and Spanish language. There's a school focused on the LGBTQ community. The idea is how do you bring trade unionists together, to learn together, to understand the economy together, to think about their leadership and changing the economy. Not just as union members, but also as community members and looking at the historic struggles of our community through the lens of work and opportunity.

It was in that program that we did several research projects including focus groups talking to black workers about what was happening in their lives and recognizing that, though at the time the California economy had had an enormous expansion, butthat black workers were in a dire situation. We were already ... As the California economy was booming in the early 90's into the early 2000's, our communities were in some of the highest levels of unemployment and underemployment on record.

It was in that moment that we realized we needed to do further study and a power analysis showed that, in our communities, we have a lot of organizations that are fighting the conditions and trying to serve our way out of unemployment, trying to serve our way out of homelessness, trying to serve our way out of mass incarceration but how do we get at the systemic issues. The systemic, at the root of it, is this economy. So we decided to create the Black Worker Center as a space for black workers to develop bottom-up strategies to address the incident.

Laura Flanders: So talk about wage theft. That's part of your agenda, looking up, to get what people are owed from the people who have it. How do you even define it?

Lola Smallwood Cuevas: Wage theft is basically when a worker works and an employer refuses to pay the worker, basically essentially stealing their wages. It's the crime of the century. It's a crime that has gone unaddressed in Los Angeles for many years, making Los Angeles the wage capital of the nation. It was one of the reasons why the Black Worker Center felt really adamant that we needed to be at the table because when workers are not able to collect their wages after giving all that they have and contributing to the economy, it hurts not just the worker and their family, but it hurts our community as well. So we joined the coalition fighting for the minimum wage, obviously, to be raised. But more importantly, it doesn't matter if you raise the wage if workers are not able to collect their wages.

Our effort was to say that the city of Los Angeles must not only pass the wage but provide robust and vigilant enforcement. So we fought for the creation of a Labor Standards and Enforcement Division within the city, which was recently adopted along with the raising of the wage in Los Angeles. We are looking at where are the industries where wage theft is prevalent. How do we outreach to workers, educate workers? How do we make sure this division is funded and well resourced so that workers actually get the support that they need?


For a Black Worker Center it was really important to bring other issues to the table too, which is looking at a wage theft that is more collective. For us, in our community, discrimination, workplace exclusion, prevents many in our community from getting access to wages. So how do we also look at not just the exploitation that's happening in our labor market, but the exclusion that's behind that exploitation.

One of the issues that the Black Worker Center is moving now, our focus, is pushing forward an amendment that would empower the local agency to enforce provisions of civil rights to ensure that workers are protected and that they're not just protected from wage theft in the traditional technical sense, but also protected from exclusion, which prevents many workers in our communities from getting access to jobs.

Laura Flanders:  You've pioneered, it seems to me, a lot of policy work around what could make a difference and I'd love you to talk a little bit more about that. It's not just bringing people to account when they're failing to do something that they've committed to do, but to putting policies in place that would actually change this picture more structurally.

Talk about your Metro Labor Project or, generally, what does policy look like that is disadvantaged worker, black worker, friendly? What do you want?

Lola Smallwood Cuevas: What we want is on the ground enforcement. There are so many policies that deal with equal employment, that deal with anti-discrimination but when you drive through Los Angeles and you look at construction sites, for example, it's as if those laws don't exist. So what are community wants to see is robust enforcement that's on the ground. We need monitoring and that was 1 of the provisions that we felt was so critical to our work. To ensure that opportunities to build rails, to build hospitals, to improve schools-

Laura Flanders: Particularly, if we're talking about public money, when you're talking about public infrastructure projects. Why is it so difficult to get the enforcement? All those public officials are on the record supporting the policy.

Lola Smallwood Cuevas: I think that on the record for supporting the policy and actually moving the policy forward. Certainly we all want to see a diverse workforce but that doesn't happen until you actually the policy and the enforcement implementation for that to happen. So with the Metro PLA, it was about ensuring that the policy had language that ensured these were good jobs because in the past even local statewide construction firms couldn't get access to these jobs. Folks could come in from other parts of the country and do this work and the money, our tax dollars, walked right out of our communities. We wanted to make sure that there was also language in there for targeted hiring. So that we looked at particular zip codes where unemployment and underemployment was most severe and we really looked at building a workforce and pulling workers, 40% of the workers for these projects at the Metro Rail Line, pulling them from those communities onto the project.

Laura Flanders: Because people talk about it, "Well it's just the economy or it's just the way things are." You're saying there are levers in the hands of public power that can be used to make a difference on the ground like the things that you mentioned.

Lola Smallwood Cuevas: Absolutely, there's leverage. There's leverage of disadvantaged worker criteria saying that workers who are formally incarcerated, workers who are emancipated from foster care, that they have an opportunity. So there are tools and then there's also the next step, which is how do we actually make sure that these provisions, disadvantaged workers, targeted hiring, how do we make sure they're actually realized.

One of the things that our members really pushed for was an implementation agreement that would allow workers to be at the oversight table with the agency, working with the unions, working with a contractor and reviewing and pouring over the data. To see, what is the percentage of workers that are from our community and what is the complexion of that workforce? Does it reflect our communities? Does it reflect the communities that are funding. We've also instituted a community monitoring program that works with Metro and we share reports from the community where we're looking at the workforce, how many African Americans are on the project but also what kind of work are they doing? We use that also as a vehicle for talking with the contractors and with Metro to ensure that the numbers are what we want to see.

Laura Flanders:  So it's kind of like an environmental impact statement. Like what would be the inclusion impact of your policy and is it actually being implemented and enforced?

Lola Smallwood Cuevas: That's right.

Laura Flanders: Are any politicians talking about this? We had Larry Hanley from the Transit Workers on the show the other day and he was talking quite warmly about Bernie Sanders, less warmly about Hillary Clinton. Are these issues of how do we change what's going wrong for workers at the bottom of our pay scales - Is anyone talking at the national level about these sorts of policies, adopting what your modeling?

Lola Smallwood Cuevas: I think it's our responsibility to impact the discourse and to make sure that we're putting families first. We're at a state  in our communities where we can no longer just let things move the way they do without us intervening. So for the conversation for 2016, about where we want to see the presidential priorities set, we know that the issue of work, the issues of inclusion and diversity and equity is critical to the life of our families and so it can't be simply waiting for candidates to talk about this issue. How do we actually help to move that discourse forward? Our members participated, for example, in a press conference that was held, the Community and Labor Press Conference, when the Republican Debate was in town just talking about the effects of some of the policies that have moved forward, that have created such hardships in our communities, the lack of good manufacturing jobs, the deregulation, the de-unionization, all of the things that have created impact, not just for families now but for our community, a compounded crisis that we've been experiencing for generations.

Laura Flanders: They're the real human cost and it may be affecting humans that aren't you right now but it'll be coming your way next. Finally, I guess two things. You've mentioned the fight for 15 and the focus on the minimum wage and, as you've been talking, I've been thinking, "That's been an effective strategy. It's been great language. We've seen raises in the minimum wage but there's no discussion of race in the framing of that."

Is that a problem? Would you like to see that change? Because of most of those minimum wage workers we're talking about are workers of color, a lot of them African Americans.

Lola Smallwood Cuevas: Well I think the proof is in what we see. When you look at the marches, when you look at the demonstration, when you hear the conversation, it's black workers, it's Latino workers, it's young workers leading the fight. I think we have, as a movement, to prioritize those voices and part of our mission is to say that leadership is important in all communities. How do we ensure that black worker organizing is at the center of our strategies for systemic change in the economy? Be it a labor table, be it a community organizing table, is to say that black workers have to be at that table and have to be instrumental in leading it and that we have to prioritize the building of the next and new wave of labor movement that includes more of the workers who are impacted by the conditions.

Laura Flanders: Is that your message to the traditional labor movement coming from the worker center, what they can learn from you?

Lola Smallwood Cuevas: Well I think that we are seeing in LA, it's one of those place where it's a message that's been heard and it's a coalition that has been growing and building. Coming from Los Angeles where we had a labor movement that 10, 15 years ago decided that there needed to be a coalitional approach in order to have Los Angeles be a place where workers could live and have an opportunity. That meant reaching south of the 10 freeway to South LA civil rights groups and organizations like SCOPE and Agenda. It meant reaching east to immigrant rights organizations and building coalitions.

I think we're in the next phase of the maturing of that and that's with the creation of the Black Worker Center and the uplift of black worker voices in this recent "Fight for the 15 raise the wage" movement. I see great opportunity for a different kind of labor movement. The Black Worker Center, we're organizing unemployed workers. These aren't union workers. These are unemployed workers or underemployed workers who don't have a union and aren't part of a union organizing campaign. So I think we're already starting to erase those barriers of what is a worker and what is a worker movement.

Increasingly, when you look around the table at worker centers, there's the Black Worker Center, there's the Filipino Worker Center, there's CHIRLA which represents a lot of immigrant groups, there's KIWA, the Korean Immigrant Workers Alliance. We know this is the face of Los Angeles. It's the growing face of American and it's what's going to be the value added in how we're going to change conditions for black workers, for all workers. We're honored to be a part of that movement but at the same time we need to make space for that. We have to be intentional about it. We have to look at the complexity of how this economy is impacting workers. Black workers issue is access. It's the historic exclusion, the historic denial of work, it's the ultimate form of wage theft that our communities have experienced since emancipation. That needs to be recognized. That on top of that we have a broken economy. An economy that doesn't value work, that doesn't give workers protection, that refuses to acknowledge that workers should have right and say over what happens to them most of the hours of their lives while they're in their workplace.

Laura Flanders: Not just on top of that but related to that.

Lola Smallwood Cuevas: That's right.

Laura Flanders: There's a relationship.

Lola Smallwood Cuevas: That's right.

Laura Flanders: Our economy developed this way because of the way it developed.

Lola Smallwood Cuevas: Out of unwaged slave, exploitive, brutal, inhumane experience. That's what American work has grown,It's grown out of the black experience and when you look at what's happening to black community and black work, you can't say, "Oh it's their fault. It's black workers." We have to know that it came out of the whole birth of what this economy is. We have to assault, contest, arrest, resist all of the conditions that create the black jobs crisis because it is the American economic condition.

That's the work that we're doing. I feel that we are creating new alliances that say, "That is not okay. That is wrong and that injustice to black community and black workers is an injustice to all."

Laura Flanders: I haven't asked you about the relationship between your work and Black Lives Matter, let's just end with that. It's implicit but it's explicit. You're involved with both. How do you see the connections?

Lola Smallwood Cuevas: The connections are the inhumanity that allows our children to be killed in parks, that allows our kids to be killed on their block. That dehumanization is a result of compounded poverty. It's an example of the stripping of every ounce of opportunity and resource in our community. We need to address and stop the bleeding. We need to put to stop the hemorrhaging and the loss of life. But what is causing that? We also have to connect the dots and we've been involved in going to Ferguson.

We're looking at creating a Black Worker Center in Ferguson and joining another 4 new worker centers that are coming online across the country. Because we know the links between this police and state violence and the economic violence that's killing our families, tearing the social fabrics of our communities every day. For us Black Lives Matter is Black Work Matters and they're linked. We see this movement evolving in LA and we see it across the country to begin to connect the dots on what's causing this violence and this ongoing pain in our communities.

Laura Flanders: There's a conference, a National Black Worker Centers Conference, happening this fall. It might be happening while people are watching this show. What should they know about it?

Lola Smallwood Cuevas: It is the 2nd national convening of the Black Worker Center network and we will have over a hundred participants this year. We are growing. We're almost doubling our participation.

We are celebrating 3 worker centers. the Los Angeles Black Worker Center, which was the 1st center to open. Now we have the Bay Area Worker Center online. We have the Chicago Worker Center for Racial Justice. There are 4 other planning centers, Boston, St. Louis, Baltimore, DC, that are coming online. We're very excited about that. Really it's about, how do we make a difference in the lives of workers? How do we create new voice and power and activism? Because whether you're coming from prison or whether you're skilled and trained, we get faced the same terrible economy that we have fight through.

We could have all the re-entry programs we want but all workers are going to have to fight for a better opportunity in this country. We are excited about the convening, about the conversation of black freedom dreams, about what the work looks on the ground, what information we can share to advance the work. But more importantly, how do we create real space for our communities to turn trauma into change.

Laura Flanders: We're excited about it too and we want to stay in touch with you. Lola thanks so much for coming in.

Lola Smallwood Cuevas: Thank you so much Laura.

You can find out more about the Los Angeles Black Worker Center and all the work that Lola Smallwood Cuevas is involved in at our website. Thanks for watching.