Labor unions deliver Easter cheer to at-risk children in South LA

Union leaders and volunteers from the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor gave Easter baskets to more than 200 children in need at the Children’s Institute in South Los Angeles on Friday.

An MTA bus carrying Easter baskets and, of course, life-size Mr. and Mrs. Easter Bunny, arrived at the Children’s Institute early Friday morning. All of the volunteers were wearing matching lavender shirts, some sporting stylish bunny ears and a cottontail.

Elated children, some wearing glittery paper bunny ears, gathered around Mr. And Mrs. Bunny as they sang songs and did the bunny hop. The Easter bunnies gave each child a basket filled with goodies–Barbie’s, my little ponies, racecars, motorcycles, crayons, sidewalk chalk, handballs and candy.

For the past 14 years, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO’s Community Services Program and the United Way of Greater Los Angeles have distributed Easter baskets to homeless and abused children at more than 30 locations in the greater Los Angeles area. This is their ninth year at the Children’s Institute. Union leaders and workers come together to donate their time and resources to organize, fund and carry out the Easter event. More than $20,000 was raised to fund this year’s Easter events.

The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO is the second largest labor council in the country, representing more than 800,000 workers in over 350 unions. The Federation’s mission is to fight for good jobs that rebuild the middle class in Los Angeles.

Armando Olivas, the Western Regional Director for the Department of Labor Participation and the United Way of America, started the program in 1995 when he realized the only time of year the community came together to help children was Christmas.

“I thought that it would be a good idea to have another project for children because we don’t want them thinking that we forgot about them,” Olivas said. “So we came up with the spring project. We were naive in the beginning because we thought we would get a couple hundred baskets and drop them off but it just grew.”

Now the program donates more than 2,500 baskets to more than 30 locations across Los Angeles.

“Every year it’s renewed and you have a feeling of giving to somebody and it touches your heart,” Olivas said. “The first time we came out here the Easter bunny was in tears at how appreciative the children were.”

Olivas’ 8-year-old son, Matthew, described the event as “heartwarming.” He has been attending the annual Easter celebration for many years, but this year he joined the festivities as a volunteer, helping to bring joy to less fortunate children on Easter.

“Homeless children get what they want and they now have a good thought in their hearts,” Matthew said.

Glen Rosales, a Metro Mechanic Union Representative, said in his six years participating in the program, the best part is seeing the children smile.

“We did Miller Children’s hospital [Long Beach] and there was a little girl maybe 18 months old with cancer…and she ran down the hall so fast to hug the bunny,” Rosales said. “You think you’re having a bad day then you see something like that and it’s all worth it.”

According to Director of Communications for the CII, Lizanne Flemming, the Children’s Institute was founded in 1906 when the first female probation officer in Los Angeles, Minnie Barton, started taking women who were jailed or on the streets into her home. The program evolved over the years into an organization that makes sure vulnerable adults and children are taken care of. Their main emphasis, she said, is on children who have experienced some form of trauma.

“As the employees, it’s magical for us. We drop what we’re doing and greet the volunteers and you see the kids and the joy is just contagious,” Flemming said. “You can’t help it and the excitement when two big bunnies come into your play yard, it doesn’t get better than that.”

LAUSD sustainability plan survives budget cuts

Plans to make Los Angeles Unified School District the most sustainable in the country continue to grow despite budget cuts across the district.

In February the district announced plans to move forward with a $350 million plan to install solar panels on eight district buildings.  The goal was to produce 50 megawatts of solar energy, the equivalent of removing 23million pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Since the solar project is funded entirely through local bond Measure Q, a 10-year bond totaling $7.2 billion, it is not affected by the statewide budget cuts.

Randy Britt, Director of Sustainability for LAUSD, said the project would ultimately provide thousands of green jobs without taking money away from the general fund.

“The completion of our projects will actually provide significant returns to the General Fund, which will ultimately relieve future pressure on the budget,” Britt said.

Recent graduates of one of LAUSD’s adult schools, the East Los Angeles Skills Center, will be the first offered jobs installing solar panels on district buildings.

Robert Salceo, a student at the skills center, said the new green jobs give him the job security he didn’t have when he worked in construction.

“We’re actually going to get a ‘We Build Green’ card when we finish the program. In order to get hired working for LAUSD working on those solar jobs, you have to have that card,” Salceo said. “Without that card you won’t be able to work so it’s a big step for us because we’ll be one of the first who will be getting hired for those jobs.”

With the “We Build Green” card Salceo said he could make between $28 and $36 an hour–$12 more per hour than his previous job.

While statewide budget cuts are not hurting LAUSD’s plan to install solar panels, the cuts are impacting students at the ELASC.

According to Brian Hurd, Director of the “We Build” programs at ELASC, the school has taken a 30 percent cut across the board, meaning less money for classes, supplies and teachers for a waiting list of more than 400 students.

“The biggest hit is the closing of our popular Saturday lab.  No more Saturday classes starting this summer,” Hurd said. “For teachers working Saturdays that is 6 hours off of their weekly pay.”

Hurd said they are looking at creative approaches to keep the classrooms open for students in the “we build” programs. One possibility is closing other less popular classes to make room for more “we build” classes.

Hurd is hopeful that the process will “work itself out” but said the cutbacks are a “definite interruption.”

Still, the first group of students will graduate from “We Build Green” on Saturday and move on to jobs with the district and other independent solar contractors.

“The new group of ‘We Build Green’ students started yesterday and the class is packed,” Hurd said.

Hurd has been working closely with partners in the solar industry to gain as much support as possible for the program during these tough economic times.

“We just received a donation of new modules and racking hardware from Solar Dock of $20,000,” Hurd said. “It’s like Christmas in April.  So, I think there is room for hope.”

Britt said architectural and engineering preparations are well under way for the eight sites already approved by the Board of Education.  Installation will begin as soon as the Division of State Architect approves the plans.

The Department of Sustainability has also finalized surveys for another 100 sites, meaning even more job opportunities for the hundreds of new “We Build Green” graduates.

Day laborers in South Los Angeles

Carlos Joiel, Santo Guzman Flores and Humberto Jauregui were among the men still waiting at the end of the day. 

"We never know when we will work and when we will just wait," Jauregui said. "Sometimes there are 50 people waiting and only four will get work.  You stay here all day long and you don’t find anything."

The slowing economy has greatly impacted laborers who used to rely on construction, landscaping and home improvement jobs. Since construction is slow the men go to The Home Depot to find work instead. 

Jauregui, 25, graduated from high school in Mexico and said he wants to go back to school so he can get his GED in the U.S.  He was the only one of the three men who spoke English fluently.  He has been working as a day laborer since he lost his job as an auto mechanic five months ago.  

Every day, the men wait from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. On average, they work one or two days each week, making a total of $160. 

Abel Valenzuela Jr., UCLA professor and director of the University’s Center for the Study of Urban Poverty, said the number of day laborers in South Los Angeles and Los Angeles County is about the same.  He said the steady increase in day laborers coupled with the steady decrease in employment has made the job outlook grim.  

"We are seeing many more unemployed workers looking for work along with the regular day laborers who have been doing this for a long time," he said. "There has also been an increase in non-immigrants looking for work as day laborers."

Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, a company that organizes day laborers to protect their civil, labor and political rights said the economic downturn and housing crisis have been devastating for day laborers. 

"Fifty percent of the employers who hire day laborers are homeowners, 43 percent are construction businesses and the other 7 percent are restaurants and small factories," he said. "Now with the housing and mortgage crisis a lot of the employers have either lost their homes or are no longer investing in remodeling their homes so that means they are not going to the corner to get day laborers." 

Alvarado estimated there are between 110 and 120 day labor locations and at least 35,000 people who work as day laborers in Los Angeles County including South Los Angeles. 

The number of day laborers across Los Angeles is increasing as sub-contractors and contractors who once employed day laborers have been forced to wait with them for work according to Alvarado.

"The employers themselves are now coming to look for work on the corner with the day laborers," Alvarado said. "These are people who didn’t look for work before, they were the ones hiring day laborers, but because of the economic downturn they have been forced to wait on the corner for work." 

The recession has forced many people to stop supporting their local businesses.  In turn, this has created a decrease in available jobs for day laborers.  Alvarado said the restaurant business used to hire a good number of day laborers but now that people are not going out to eat, the restaurants don’t have enough money to hire the extra help. 

Culver City Celebrates Historic Inauguration

The crowd hissed and booed as members of the outgoing administration took their seats on stage.  Their angry chants grew louder when the camera turned to President George Bush.

Event organizer Theresa Basile, saw the inauguration as a chance to bring her community together.  Since she couldn’t make it to Washington she did the next best thing — she threw a party at the Culver-Palms Methodist Church.

"I wanted to organize something that would live up to the Washington experience," Basile said.  She is an active member of and the Methodist Federation for Social Action, an independent organization that promotes peace and justice through the Methodist Church.

The mid-sized church auditorium was more sparsely decorated than Basile would have liked, partly because she was too busy cooking for the more than 45 people who signed up to attend the event within hours of the ceremony.  Still, American flag centerpieces adorned six tables, along with kazoos, American flag hats and patriotic leis.

About 60 people filled the room, all facing the large pull-down projection screen, watching the ceremony that many could not believe was finally happening.  A tearful crowd shouted in approval as President Obama delivered his inaugural address. 

Georgia Malsich, a Culver City accountant, could hardly contain her excitement as she hugged strangers and cheered as President Obama walked on stage. "This is the first time so many people are gathered here for something peaceful.  It’s happiness.  I’m just so excited," she said. "He’s only one year older than me. We grew up with the Civil Rights movement, and this is our generation stepping up and saying it’s our turn."

Malsich and others showed up at the church’s inaugural brunch.  Some had stayed home from school to share the moment with their families, others dropped by before heading to work, a little late of course.  Still there were some people who took the entire day off to celebrate with the community and watch as Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States.

The Rev. Louis Chase, a pastor at Hamilton United Methodist Church, hopes Obama can rebuild America peacefully and avoid the destruction of war. For him, the inauguration was more than just a peaceful transfer of power.

"This is the beginning of positive and transformative change in the U.S. for the good of the whole world.  It’s a pivotal historical moment given that this president is the first African-American to hold this office," Chase said. "I hope that his policies will meet the laws of the international community, decisions will not be unilateral and we’ll seek to create a world of peace rather than war."

To the multi-racial community assembled at the inaugural brunch, Obama is more than just the first African-American president.  Chase said the huge crowds in Washington are "an indicator of the support he has, not because he is black but because of his ability, integrity and commitment to be a national leader."

Lisa Perry and her 14-year-old daughter, Ricca, took the morning off from work and school to share the historic moment together. She remembers watching the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on her black and white television as a child, and said the possibilities that Obama brings to her and her daughter are phenomenal.

"He’s biracial so everybody can see him as their own," Lisa Perry said. "He’s African-American, Caucasian, and grew up in an Asian home, so when he says he understands, he really does understand. A combination so unique and unifying has to be a product of god because how else could such great things happen all at once."

As a social worker, Lisa Perry said the negative and greedy atmosphere in society is sending the wrong message to the youth of America.  Young people, she said, have become discouraged and let down by life because they have learned to equate success with money.  Obama’s message of hard work is just what the families she works with need to hear. "Materialism is not the sum total of success," and that’s what she believes Obama will bring back to American families.

Voter turnout in this year’s presidential election for young Americans, those between the ages of 18 and 29, was the second highest ever, according to CNN.  Fifty-five percent of those eligible to vote in that demographic showed up at the polls, according to Rock the Vote.  With 66 percent of those votes going to Obama, it is clear that he has bridged a generational divide.  Even for those too young to cast a ballot, Obama’s message was heard loud and clear.

"He knows what he wants and he’s sticking with it," said Ricca Perry, an 8th grader at Frederick KC Price III School. "He’s not changing his mind.  He’s sticking to exactly what he said at the beginning."