Another Black History Month has passed, but the dignity, humanity, and contributions of Black communities must be recognized year-round. If the country’s resolve for change is to succeed, if we believe that Black Lives Matter, we must go beyond celebratory T-shirts, TV ads, and social media posts. We must recommit to our shared struggle. To truly address racial injustice in our country, employers must invest in Black workers in ways that are meaningful to Black workers, not just to a company’s reputation.
While big corporations spend billions of dollars to market themselves as diverse and inclusive, few invest the resources necessary to tackle the racial and economic inequities their employees face every day within the workplace.
Civil rights and worker rights go hand-in-hand, and there must be tangible ways to expand opportunity and create the conditions that allow all Black workers to thrive. That means embracing 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 building workers, to unionize security officers is a fundamental example of investing in Black workers. While it’s no secret that security officers have historically been limited to poverty-wages in which workers can barely meet family-sustaining incomes, it’s also known that this industry is largely made up of Black workers. The 32BJ SEIU organized nearly 10,000 security officers into a union by banding workers together across the country and building power to forge a future where equity and human dignity take precedence over profits. Here in Boston, 32BJ SEIU joined forces with community organizations to help security officers win a fair contract, a “ban-the-box” hiring process — which prohibits employers from asking job applicants about their criminal histories — and safety on the job.
Providing training opportunities and conducting outreach to Black workers for available careers is critical to elevating Black communities. Over the years, building trades unions have invested heavily in creating a more diverse workforce by creating pre-apprentice 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 at state-of-the-art apprenticeship training centers, while earning family-sustaining wages on the job. These efforts are having a strong, positive impact on the industry, which is now more diverse than it has ever been. Dorchester-based IBEW Local 103 is just one powerful example, which in the last year had a retiring class of 95 percent white male electricians compared with an incoming apprenticeship class that is nearly 40 percent women and people of color. Historic progress is being made, yet our work remains.
President Biden’s executive order supporting Project Labor Agreements on certain federal construction projects will be critical 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 these ideas in writing and turn them into binding contractual agreements. Like the PLA for Suffolk Downs, which directs funding toward a nonstandard-hour child care program developed by the Care That Works coalition, PLAs guarantee workers have access to training, support services, and wage requirements. Through PLAs, racial and gender equity would be codified and prioritized in the construction industry.
Unions have won countless gains for workers and have provided critical resources for 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 corporations say they believe in equity and diversity, but do not prioritize their workers, then their words are just a smoke screen, a sleight of hand. When market giants like Amazon and Uber fight to keep workers from exercising self-determination, we can see right through their Black Lives Matter tweets and ads. It’s past time to tell it like it is. Investing in Black workers is the fastest path to advancing equity in communities.
Darlene Lombos is executive secretary-treasurer of the Greater Boston Labor Council. US Representative Ayanna Pressley represents the Seventh Congressional District of Massachusetts.