“Ban the Box” Helps Forge Strong Labor-Community Alliances

At the National Employment Law Project (NELP),  where we advocate for low-wage and unemployed workers, some of our most inspiring moments have come from being involved in campaigns where labor and the community work together for greater economic justice.   

The recent passage of AB218 — Assemblymember Roger Dickinson’s “ban the box” bill — was a shining example of the labor movement working in alliance with the community to expand economic opportunity to people hardest hit by unemployment.  The unions, led by the California Labor Federation and SEIU Local 1000, were an essential partner to the powerful coalition that organized with NELP for more than two years to provide a second chance to the one in five Californians with a criminal record who struggle to find work. In addition to our partners that co-sponsored  and led the charge organizing in support of the bill – PICO California, All of Us or None, and Legal Services for Prisoners with Children – a long list of over 135 individuals and organizations made their voices heard loud and clear across the state. 

They included law enforcement officials like Police Chief Chris Magnus of Richmond,  elected officials like Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti,  and a vast array of dedicated  organizations,  especially the  National Council of La Raza, PolicyLink’s Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, A New Way of Life, Justice Not Jails, the ACLU, Californians United for a Responsible Budget, Californians for Safety and Justice, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, Oakland Rising, the California Violence Prevention Network,  and the NAACP.   

On the union side, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor weighed in with a resolution that helped send a strong message of labor support to the critically-important Los Angeles delegation, and  individual unions, including AFSCME, the Teamsters, UFCW and the California Correctional Peace Officers Union, engaged as well when the campaign needed their help most.  

In California and across the country, criminal justice reform is taking hold as an issue whose time has finally come, after the failed “war on drugs” of the last two decades.  Mass incarceration has taken a heavy toll on our communities, diverting limited public resources away from education, social services and other core priorities.  Thus, at the 2013 AFL-CIO Convention in Los Angeles, the Executive Council passed a resolution (#17) that takes a strong stand against mass incarceration by calling on the labor movement to promote funding of strategies that “assist in reintegrating people who have served their time into our communities” and ensure “full access to government services such as financial aid for education, housing and employment assistance.”

It’s a tall order, but here in California, the labor movement is helping to pave the way with the passage of AB218.  The legislation is simple but packs a punch.  It requires the state’s public sector employers—the state government, cities and counties—to remove the criminal-background checkbox from their job applications.  “Banning the box” is a model hiring practice endorsed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that all employers should adopt.  Our state’s public sector employers would be setting the example for the private sector to follow.  

Banning the box doesn’t in any way undermine screening for workplace safety because it still allows employers to ask about an individual’s conviction history, but just later in the hiring process, after the person has met the minimum qualifications for the job.  It also doesn’t apply to law enforcement positions and other jobs that, by law, require a criminal background check.

Ban the box is a cause that has caught fire around the country.  In addition to California, the states of Illinois, Rhode Island and Maryland embraced ban-the-box in 2013 (bringing the total to 10 states) and Minnesota expanded its policy to private employers.  In addition, more than 50 cities across the U.S. have ban-the-box policies, which is double the number since 2011.  The nation has taken notice, especially with California now joining the pack.  AB218 was endorsed not just by the Los Angeles Times and the Sacramento Bee, but by The New York Times as well.  The New York Times got it right when it said,

This measure will help remove unfair barriers to employment that keep millions of qualified workers trapped at the margins of society. Gov. Jerry Brown should sign this sensible bill.

In the nearly 25 years that I’ve been working on economic justice issues, I’ve never been involved in a campaign that hit home so deeply with so many communities.  It’s a cause that resonates far and wide because, at its core, it’s all about the basic right to work, to compete fairly for a job, and to do what’s right for your family and your community.  

Now, with AB218 taking effect on July 1, 2014, the challenge turns toward implementation, especially at the county and city levels.  The county labor federations and central labor councils are positioned to help lead the way for reform.  Together, let’s build on AB218 at the local level to ensure that people with criminal records are given a fair shot at employment, so that the letter and spirit of the AFL-CIO’s resolution are fully realized.