Radical Visions: Failed Jobs Training Programs Inspire A ‘Black Worker Center’ In DC

A failed jobs training program, paid for with taxpayer dollars, gives rise to a movement in D.C. that’s not just calling for accountability from those leading the program -- they’re taking labor training and empowerment into their own hands.
By @seannevins |
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    ONE DC Black Worker Center listening sessions, 2014.

    ONE DC Black Worker Center listening sessions, 2014.

    WASHINGTON — A Washington, D.C., community organizing group held a press conference last week to call out the District government for a lack of transparency and enforcement mechanisms to protect workers and put the city’s residents, who are often victims of displacement and gentrification, to work.

    “We always hear this rhetoric about public-private partnerships, and giving out public funds to benefit the community. But we never hear the results of those benefits, right?” Dominic Moulden told MintPress News.

    Moulden is the resource organizer at Organizing Neighborhood Equity DC (ONE DC), a community development group which organizes around structural issues of poverty and injustice. The group teamed up with the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor of Georgetown University, to produce the June 19 press conference, where they presented the findings of a report, “‘Trained to Death’ and Still Jobless,” that evaluates the Washington Marriott Marquis hotel’s jobs training program.

    Speaking to MintPress, Moulden discussed the D.C. government’s seeming inability to enforce transparency for its First Source Law for construction of the Marriott Marquis, the largest hotel in the District, which opened in May 2014. The First Source Law requires that Washington residents must make up at least 51 percent of all new hires for government-assisted projects or contracts.

    He was also distressed that only 25 percent of the graduates of a jobs training program, which ONE DC helped to recruit for, were hired. Moulden said, “We’re kind of confused because we know people who have very good skills, who excelled in the training program, and don’t have jobs.”

    The Marriott Marquis Job Training Program, a publically-financed project that used $2 million of taxpayers’ money, graduated 719 qualified candidates for jobs at the hotel, but only 178 were hired. Overall, the project cost $516.2 million, $206 million of which came from public subsidies.

    “I think Marriott should give all the tax money back to the city, and let other hotels hire people,” Holly Goldmann, one of the graduates of the six-week training program, told MintPress.

    Goodwill Industries of Greater Washington and Progressive Partners provided job training and life skills coaching for participants of the program. Goldmann says these organizations shouldn’t be involved in future activities.

    “I don’t think Progressive Partners should be doing another training. I think that this was such a failure, that they should just be taken out of this. All Goodwill and all Progressive Partners did was just take money from the city to put on a program that did absolutely nothing for D.C. residents,” she continued.

    However, some participants of the program did have positive experiences. Cynthia McLean got a housekeeping job at the hotel.

    She’s quoted in ONE DC’s report as saying, “I can’t really complain about anything.”

    She said, ““It worked for me, but maybe because I really, really wanted it, and I was flexible.”


    Addressing structural unemployment

    ONE DC used the press conference to talk about the problems it sees with the Marriott Marquis Jobs Training Program and issues surrounding the First Source Law. But the group also took advantage of the platform to critique the very nature of how workforce development programs function in the United States.

    “You’re not going to deal with structural unemployment through workforce development programs,” Moulden told MintPress.

    ONE DC organizers doing outreach to Barry Farm public housing residents for the Marriott Marquis Jobs Training Program

    ONE DC organizers doing outreach to Barry Farm public housing residents for the Marriott Marquis Jobs Training Program, September 2013.

    Washington, D.C., is divided into eight wards. The official unemployment rate in Wards 1 through 6 averages 6.8 percent. Yet the unemployment rates in Wards 7 and 8 — which are over 90 percent black — stand at 13.3 percent and 16.5 percent, respectively. While high, these figures don’t account for residents who are either underemployed or who have left the workforce altogether — and that’s precisely who ONE DC and other groups like it are attempting to serve.

    Moulden told MintPress the first structural issue regarding workforce development programs is that the people organizing and leading the trainings are not being held accountable by the government or the public for the outcome of their work. This is something the group hoped to achieve with the press conference.

    Secondly, Moulden said, “We believe no training should be conducted unless there is training for a specific job, you know, that there’s an entity that’s supposed to hire the trainee.”

    “So, what we’re saying is that if there’s carpentry jobs, there should be a carpentry company that’s right there for the training process saying, here’s what we need.”

    He also took issue with trainees not learning what skills they’re lacking when they’re not hired for a particular job.

    Yet Eugene Puryear, director of Field Operations for Justice First, which opposes gentrification and displacement in the District and advocates for affordable housing, believes structural unemployment goes much deeper than this.

    “The unemployment rate in D.C. in [Wards] 7 and 8, in particular, and 5, is far too high because you have quite a bit of employment discrimination from people in these communities, and it’s something just about everyone is aware of,” Puryear said, referring to studies which show that having a “black” name, for example, can disqualify candidates from being considered for jobs.

    But these aren’t the only issues, he says.

    “The biggest issue that we have in the economy right now is that private capital is not put to work to create jobs and to create growth,” Puryear told MintPress. He sees the moratorium on private capital as a kind of “strike” being used to lower taxes and alter laws.

    To solve this problem, he proposed a “trillion dollar jobs program” that would boost employment, similar to programs recommended by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and California Congresswoman Maxine Waters.

    He added that the city should consider job procurement that focuses not only on local businesses but also cooperatives and new economic structures. “Those are the sorts of businesses that are more likely to hire D.C. residents,” Puryear said.


    DC’s New Black Worker Center

    “This is about controlling our labor, and that’s what Juneteenth is all about. Wouldn’t it be fundamentally different if directly affected people were doing the trainings and own the companies that were doing the hiring?” Dominic Moulden, of ONE DC, asked.

    The press conference was held on June 19, or “Juneteenth,” the day slaves were emancipated across the American South. This year marked the 150th anniversary of the end of slavery in the U.S.

    Moulden described ONE DC’s plans to build a “Black Worker Center,” which would be used as a space to build community power, organize residents and educate them on their labor rights, and incubate community-controlled businesses.

    ONE DC Black Workers Center listening sessions, 2014.

    ONE DC organizers assisting DC residents in applying for the Marriott Marquis Jobs Training Program at PR Harris, September 2013.

    “What we’re saying is that the jobs training and workforce development isn’t enough,” Moulden said. “If you want to change structural inequity and chronic black unemployment in D.C., we need to create our own community-controlled businesses and control our own labor.”

    ONE DC is in the initial phases of making the Black Worker Center a reality.

    The group has been taking underemployed D.C. residents and others who want to control their own labor and start enterprises on field trips to other cities around the region to see how working cooperatives operate. They visited a construction company owned by its workers in New York one weekend, and they visited Red Emma’s, a bookstore and coffeehouse in Baltimore, another weekend.

    Red Emma’s explains the worker cooperative on its website:

    “Technically speaking, Red Emma’s is organized as a worker cooperative: everybody who is a part of the collective owns an equal share of the business, and has an equal voice in the decisions we make to run it. Worker cooperatives—which are taking off all around the country—are a way to build a world without bosses one workplace at a time, creating real world projects that meet the real needs of individuals and communities while at the same time staying true to the ideals of workplace democracy and an egalitarian division of wealth and labor.”

    ONE DC aims to follow in the footsteps of the Los Angeles Black Worker Center and the Workers Center for Racial Justice in Chicago.

    Moulden said, “What we’re trying to do is what these groups have already done, which is create a physical space where people who are black can bring their issues related to structural unemployment, being a returning citizen and trying to find work, [and] being chronically unemployed and trying to find work.”

    “This is not a service center,” he said. “This is a black space to build power and create a relationship between black people and their labor. That’s where the co-ops come in.”

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