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Swastikas spray painted on an African American mural in the heart of South Los Angeles is a recent reminder that our city is not immune to the level of racism and terror that we’re all witnessing across the U.S. today.

black workers center

But as we condemn such overt acts of discrimination, we must be equally vigilant in addressing a more hidden yet rampant form of discrimination experienced by workers in this city who are Black, women, disabled, transgendered and immigrants. The economic violence of employment discrimination is a moral crisis that affects us all.

Consider this: African Americans comprise only 6% of the state’s population, yet nearly 70% of workforce discrimination claims are based on race and disability, followed by claims of sexual harassment.

These numbers are troubling, especially given that Black workers earn only three-quarters of what Caucasian workers earn, with the wage gap even more severe for Black women. Almost two in 10 Black workers with higher degrees are still earning lower wages. And twice as many Black workers are unemployed compared to Caucasians, even though African Americans represent just a fraction of the population.

Fighting against workplace discrimination starts with our own cities stepping up to better protect workers from civil rights violations. But to do this, our cities must be given the authority to do so.

Fighting against workplace discrimination starts with our own cities stepping up to better protect workers from civil rights violations. But to do this, our cities must be given the authority to do so.

In California, the Department of Fair Employment and Housing is the state agency that is the first line of defense for individuals to report claims of discrimination in the workplace. Although the Department is understaffed and under-resourced due to compounded state budget cuts, local governments – like the City of Los Angeles – are preempted from stepping in and adopting laws that enforce the state’s anti-discrimination protections.

And let’s be honest. Confronting workplace discrimination in the judicial system is out of reach for many low-wage workers, particularly Black workers who are more than 2.5 times more likely to file an employment discrimination complaint but have half the chance of finding remedies in the court system. Too often this means low-wage workers who are subjected to discrimination have two inadequate options: quit their jobs or continue to suffer unjust treatment until a beleaguered state agency is able to intervene. These workers deserve better, as do the families and communities who depend on them.

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The #LocalEnforcementNow movement, led by the Los Angeles Black Worker Center and championed by a diverse coalition of unions as well as faith-based and community groups, is helping to give a voice to all workers. This new movement is fighting for new legislation that would enable cities to partner with the state to combat discriminatory conduct occurring in their own jurisdiction.

This summer, the City of Los Angeles began considering the adoption of a Civil and Human Rights Ordinance that would establish a commission to investigate and adjudicate discrimination. This would provide a much needed local administrative process that will ultimately give workers access to an efficient means of legal recourse that is currently unavailable to them.

Given racial and economic implications of the current attack on labor and civil rights, Los Angeles cannot wait on these protections. Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Los Angeles City Council must ensure that L.A.’s first Civil and Human Rights Ordinance is realized in this moment. The adoption of this Ordinance will make it clear that Los Angeles believes in a shared fate in which those in our city who are Black, women, disabled, transgendered and immigrants are united in their protections of their civil rights on the job, in their homes and in their communities.

To fully realize equity in the workplace, it is imperative to modernize civil rights protections that address discrimination where individuals work and live. By putting more enforcement boots on the ground, we can enable local authorities to play a role in preventing and responding to instances of discrimination that occur in their own cities. Local governments are better positioned to train, investigate, monitor and resolve initial complaints because they have close ties to the geographical areas where the discriminatory conduct occurred. And our communities know best what our residents and businesses need to thrive at our local worksites. When local agencies can effectively enforce California’s fair employment laws, Black workers and others who experience discrimination can have their claims reviewed in a timely manner, get back to work faster and recover lost wages.

In the next few weeks, the Los Angeles City Council will vote on this historic Civil and Human Rights Ordinance. Los Angeles must lead the way to ensure that we hold the line on civil rights protections. We must not let 2019 begin without the City Council signing off on an Ordinance that takes a real stand against discrimination. Whether discrimination comes in the form of inscriptions on a wall or a violation in the workplace, such acts have no place in our city.

You can join us in our fight to localize the enforcement of workplace discrimination laws by urging L.A. City Councilmembers to vote for this unprecedented Ordinance. With your support, we can move closer to strengthening how we protect and defend the civil rights of all workers in our communities.

regina freer

Regina Freer
Los Angeles Black Worker Center

Regina Freer is a Professor of Politics at Occidental College, and she serves as the Chair of the Politics Department at Occidental College. Ms. Freer also serves as the Board Chair of the Los Angeles Black Worker Center, a nonprofit organization that works to change public policies and corporate practices in Los Angeles to advance economic justice for Black workers, their families and the communities who rely on them.