Community and labor groups are calling for local enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, rather than state or federal authorities.
In the shadow of downtown skyscrapers, tucked between city blocks and mostly unseen by passers-by, Biddy Mason Park is the all that’s left of a property once owned by the “richest colored woman west of the Mississippi.” Bridget “Biddy” Mason was born into slavery in Georgia but found her way to California, freedom, and a place Los Angeles history.
The park is the site of her former home from which she ran a small business and civic empire, where LA’s first black church, First African Methodist Episcopal Church, was founded, and where she earned the moniker “Grandma Mason” for her work as a nurse and midwife.
On April 24th, 2018, the park was filled by a coalition of community and labor groups calling for greater local enforcement of state and federal anti-discrimination laws. Citing Mason’s determination and dedication to her community, the group used the park as a stepping-off point for a call to action.
Anchored by the Los Angeles Black Workers Center and Service Employees International Union-United Service Workers West, workers, activists, and supporters met in support of efforts by the state and city governments to create local advisory groups for anti-discrimination claims.
Currently, a worker with a discrimination complaint has only two avenues to pursue action, the state or federal governments. But in the words of one frustrated worker: “The feds are done with it. They don’t want to help you. The state, it’s too far away. It’s very long and it’s not local.”
What the organizers and attendees of the march were calling for was the formation of local enforcement body that can better address claims pertaining to state and federal anti-discrimination laws without having to go through those larger bureaucracies.
“Today was the result of the governor’s directive to allow SB 491 to have an advisory group to continue the analysis and the research around workplace discrimination,” Anton Farmby, Vice-President of SEIU-USWW said. “Even though the bill was vetoed, it created an advisory group to look at how we could reshape the bill in order to make it legislation.”
SB 491, or the Anti-Discrimination Act of 2017, introduced by State Senator Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) stated that “a local government entity is permitted under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act to refer a person alleging discrimination to the department and to provide the person with relevant information and resources.”
Governor Brown vetoed the bill last October, not because he disagreed with its content, but because he felt the bill as written was too broad. “I agree with the author that it is time for the state to reassess whether the state should allow local authorities to enforce [The Fair Employment and Housing Act],” the Governor said in his veto letter. “The bill it too broad and it is not clear that the advisory group would focus solely on employment protections.”
“The idea is for this group to come together and provide a recommendation and a report based on the analysis of what we know around workplace discrimination, and provide that to [the Department of Fair Employment and Housing] and ultimately to the governor on what legislation could look like, next year in 2019,” Farmby said.
From Biddy Mason Park, about a hundred marchers spilled out onto the streets of downtown, drumming, clapping, and chanting, calling for an end to the discrimination that makes such legislation necessary.
Black workers in particular, speakers at the rally argued, are and have been the primary targets of discriminatory practices. “Nearly every industry has a lower rate of African American workers in managerial positions,” Farmby told the crowd at Biddy Mason Park. “Relative to the overall workforce African Americans are still underrepresented and discriminated against in all the major industries in this country,” he said. “It’s important to know it and to hear it. And you can look it up. The information is right at your fingertips.”
On their way to Los Angeles City Hall, the marchers stopped just outside brand-new luxury apartments to point out that this area of downtown was once largely African American, but that over the years black people have been repeatedly pushed out. Or how currently, despite being only 8% of the population of LA County, African Americans are 39% of the homeless population.
On the steps of Parker Center, headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department, representatives from Black Lives Matter Los Angeles rattled off statistics of the disproportionate numbers of black men arrested by the LAPD. “43% of arrests by the Los Angeles Police Department made between 2012 and 2016 were for folks who were unemployed…of those folks, 33% were black,” Managing Director of the Black Workers Center Povi-Tamu Bryant told the crowd as a group of LAPD officers stood looking on. Police discrimination and mass incarceration of young black men were mentioned at every stage of the march.
The march ended on the steps of LA City Hall where members from the Association of Federal, State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) local 3299, who work at the University of California, and the Garment Worker Center spoke about the discrimination they faced in the workplace. (The next day, April 25th, AFSCME Local 3299 voted to approve a UC system-wide strike to begin May 7th.)
Asked how the city of Los Angeles was responding to the effort to establish a local enforcement body, Bryant sounded a hopeful note, saying that city officials were eager to join the fight. “Los Angeles as a city has situated itself, poised itself, to be the city that is fighting back, pushing back, especially in this era that we are all in where we see an administration in the white house that is coming down hard on us, when we see amplified bigotry,” she said.
Though the march was called in response to positive changes, the overall tenor of the march was one of anger and frustration, coupled with hope and determination. The Black Workers Center, “works to build the power of black workers so that we can have access to a fair and just economy, we can have access to jobs, we’re not the last hired and first fired,” Bryant said.
“We’re trying to change the narrative around black work and change access to jobs for black folk here in LA. We’re out here today because one of the ways we see that change happening is for there to be a local enforcement body who deals with issues of discrimination, meaning that here in the city of Los Angeles, black workers and other workers who face discrimination can come to the city to address claims around discrimination rather than having two current options which are having to go to the state or to the federal government.”