February 26, 2015


By Amen Oyiboke 

LAWT Contributing Writer




Los Angeles’ African American labor work centers and unions can proudly say that pioneers such as Ophelia McFadden paved the way for many local African American workers. In 1968, McFadden joined the SEIU Local 434 as a staff representative and later became the first African American woman to take on the General Manager position of SEIU Local 434 in 1978 and Vice President in 1984.


She was also the first African American woman to serve on the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor Executive Council. For over 30 years, McFadden opened the mindsets for Black Angelenos to enter labor organizations.  However, prior to African American labor pioneers like McFadden a vast majority of African Americans were not highly populated in labor unions.


The spirit of labor unions derives from the advanced activism of social equality and independent citizenship. Unions consist of organized workers seeking to ensure equal pay, workers’ benefits, job security and guided supervision of workers’ rights. Many people think of the typical union member as a white blue-collar worker, which in a historical sense is deemed as true.


The early 1900s marked the start of many U.S. unions and nearly all of them discriminated against African Americans by refusing to let them join. Workforce unions were dominated and started by white industrial workers protesting wage reduction in industrial settings.


Plenty of African American workers were skeptical about the functionalities attributed to unions because of their discriminative ways. However, during the turn of the 20th century, unions embarked a racial turn that changed the dynamics of labor and craft unions.


The Congress of Industrial Organizations and the American Federation of Labor experienced a steady competition between the two organizations to recruit more members. During this time, many African Americans wanted to escape the agricultural work located in the South and came to the industrial Northeast and Midwest for factory jobs. This is where African Americans became involved in union organizing. Strategically, union jobs were limited havens from discriminatory practices that would normally occur in nonunion workplaces. When WWII ended, stability in employment, benefit packages and workers’ wages sharpened the involvement of African American workers in labor unions.


In Los Angeles, labor unions such as AFL-CIO, SEIU Local 721, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UCFW), Local 300 and countless others are vastly diverse due to the participation of African American, Asian and Latino workers. In research conducted by the Los Angeles Times in 2013, workers in private unions make about 25% more than nonunion workers.


Dwaine Lamothe a Los Angeles Black Worker Center member and former president of UAW Local 509 focuses on the results unions provides him for his necessary job survival. “I got involved in the union after needing protection on my job. Historically the only thing that moved Black workers into the middle class was their involvement with unions. We [union members] understand the power and need of organizing for better working conditions,” said Lamothe. 


Los Angeles does not solely have an African American based Union, but organizations like the L.A. Black Worker Center helps gather the interested workers in one center.


Lanita Morris, project manager for the L.A. Black Worker Center, believes an organized power helps many African American workers know their rights. “We are looking at a situation where 50% of Black workers are unemployed or underemployed. We train workers, whether they are union or nonunion, to know their rights at work and learn how to organize together Black workers to make a great power to bare this economy,” said Morris. 


The L.A. Black Worker Center is a grassroots resource center for African American workers who want to learn about labor education and developmental skills to move forward in the job crisis. The center recently cut out a project labor agreement with the new Crenshaw Line construction. The agreement made a requirement for 40 percent of construction work hours to be done by workers from zip codes with low employment rates.


“Black workers for a long time have been supportive of organized unions. They have always fought for respect in the workplace for a long time. It is very popular among our folks to be apart of some type of work organization.  There is really a value that shows a great importance of African Americans being involved in what being a part of a union is,” said Morris.


Essentially, African American involvement in union organizations broaden the possibilities of being informed about economic availability, opportunities to rise in working wages and provide knowledge of the law of workers protection.

Category: News