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Strike at Jobs Program : L.A. Conservation Corps Workers Stage Sit-In, Demand Benefits and Better Pay

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Los Angeles Conservation Corps has earned a reputation as a do-good organization that employs hundreds of inner-city youths in jobs that are low in pay but high in self-esteem building.

But in recent days supervisors have been confronted with a problem they never expected: A group of about 20 workers has occupied a Conservation Corps office in Downtown Los Angeles, complaining that the jobs demean minority workers and demanding higher pay, health benefits and advancement to management jobs. What started as a protest when a popular supervisor was placed on administrative leave has grown into concerns about broader issues, workers said.

The corps is a nonprofit organization with a $6.5-million annual budget funded by government money and private donations. Its workers, paid $4.25 to $6.25 an hour, plant trees, remove graffiti, clean up after disasters and paint murals at elementary schools and other buildings.

The dissident workers, led by the 38-year-old supervisor who has worked with the corps for five years, began their sit-in two weeks ago at a 4th Street office leased by the group.

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“I think it’s time to go beyond the $5.25 per hour,” said Ernest Monroe, 23, a corps employee who drives workers to their job sites. “That just pays for food and bus fare.”

“It’s slave labor,” said Wil-Dog Abers, who is paid $4.25 per hour. “Some of these women have two children. How are they going to pay for those children on minimum wage?”

Corps administrators denied that they are exploiting minority worker, saying that besides the jobs, workers are offered about $25,000 a year in college scholarships, and classes to help them obtain high school diplomas to get better jobs.

Until Tuesday, administrators had been patient, asking the workers to leave the office and report to other assignments. But on Tuesday, the workers who did not report to work were classified as having resigned, officials said.

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Bruce Saito, corps deputy director, said authorities may be called today to evict the workers from the office, whose use was donated to the organization.

“It’s safest to say we are going to try and mediate with the group,” he said. “I never have experienced something like this and I’ve been doing this for 20 years,” added Saito, who said the group was not eager to generate bad publicity by forcibly removing the workers.

The brouhaha started when Carmelo Alvarez, who was in charge of the workers under a program that performed earthquake preparedness plays at local schools, was placed on indefinite administrative leave March 9.

Administrators ordered Alvarez’s 20-member crew to work under another supervisor. They refused, insisting that Alvarez be reinstated. They said his suspension sparked them to finally rebel against the corps.

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Corps officials said they believe Alvarez is instigating the sit-in, but workers denied the claim. Said Abers: “It’s not about him. I’m doing it for the kids and the women who have kids.”


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