Another Black History Month has passed, but the dignity, humanity and contributions of Black communities must be recognized throughout the year. If the country’s drive for change is to succeed, if we believe Black Lives Matter, we need to move beyond celebratory t-shirts, TV ads and social media posts. We must recommit ourselves to our common struggle. To truly address racial injustice in our country, employers must invest in black workers in ways that are meaningful for black workers, not just for a company’s reputation.
While large corporations spend billions of dollars promoting themselves as diverse and inclusive, few are investing the resources needed to address the racial and economic inequalities their employees face every day in the workplace.
Civil rights and labor rights go hand in hand, and there must be tangible ways to expand opportunities and create the conditions that allow all black workers to thrive. It means accepting the fact that being pro-equity and pro-justice means being pro-worker, and that economic justice is racial justice.
The decision by 32BJ SEIU, which primarily represents construction workers, to unionize security guards is a fundamental example of investment in black workers. Although it is no secret that security guards have always been limited to poverty wages in which workers can barely support their families, it is also known that this industry is largely made up of black workers. The 32BJ SEIU organized nearly 10,000 security officers into a union, uniting workers across the country and building power to forge a future where fairness and human dignity trump profits. Here in Boston, the 32BJ SEIU has partnered with community organizations to help security guards secure a fair contract, a “no box” hiring process – which prohibits employers from asking job applicants their criminal history – and workplace safety.
Providing training opportunities and conducting outreach to Black workers for available careers is key to uplifting Black communities. Over the years, building trades unions have invested heavily in creating a more diverse workforce by creating pre-apprenticeship training programs and partnering with academic institutions. Programs like “Build a Bright Future” and “Build a Life MA” give women and people of color the opportunity to learn a trade in state-of-the-art apprenticeship training centers, while earning a family wage at work. These efforts are having a strong and positive impact on the industry, which is now more diverse than it has ever been. Dorchester-based IBEW Local 103 is just one stark example, which last year had a retiring class of 95% white male electricians compared to an incoming apprentice class of nearly 40% women and people of color. Historic progress is underway, but our work remains.
President Biden’s executive order supporting project work agreements on certain federal construction projects will be key to ensuring these jobs can strengthen our communities and are available to a diverse workforce. PLAs don’t just talk about equity and inclusion, they put those ideas in writing and turn them into binding contractual agreements. Like the PLA for Suffolk Downs, which directs funding to a non-standard hour childcare scheme developed by the Care That Works coalition, PLAs ensure workers have access to training, support services and requirements wages. Through PLAs, racial and gender equity would be codified and prioritized in the construction industry.
Unions have won countless gains for workers and provided critical resources to Black families and communities by increasing training opportunities and providing better benefits to help close the racial wage gap. All of these efforts contribute to equity that feeds families, buys homes and reinvests in communities.
When companies say they believe in equity and diversity but don’t put their people first, their words are just a smokescreen, a sleight of hand. When marketplace giants like Amazon and Uber fight to prevent workers from exercising self-determination, we can see through their Black Lives Matter tweets and ads. It is high time to tell it like it is. Investing in black workers is the fastest way to advance equity in communities.
Darlene Lombos is Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Greater Boston Labor Council. U.S. Representative Ayanna Pressley represents Massachusetts’ seventh congressional district.