It’s 5 a.m. on one of the coldest mornings of the year in Los Angeles. The sun isn’t up yet, but the light from Anthony Fagan’s phone illuminates a little cloud of his breath every time he exhales. Anthony’s wearing a bright orange construction hat and a vest with reflective tape. He’s a union carpenter and he’s standing in the middle of a huge construction site, nine buildings in all. No one else is in sight, and it’s really quiet.
“It’s going to be chaotic in about 30 minutes,” Anthony says. “You will see how loud it is. Extremely loud. High voltage.”
This is USC Village, a $650 million development that includes housing for 2,700 students, a Trader Joe’s, a Target and a Bank of America. It’s one of the largest developments ever in South L.A.
And this is just one of the large developments under construction south of the 10 Freeway. L.A. Metro is expanding the light rail Crenshaw Line to the Los Angeles International Airport, and Hollywood Park has been leveled for a proposed multibillion-dollar development that will include an NFL stadium.
Some of the big construction projects in South L.A. have local hire initiatives. More than a quarter of the 4,000 construction jobs at USC Village are expected to be filled by local residents.
This Jan. 10 drone video produced by Brindle Collective and released by the University of Southern California gives an aerial view of construction progress at USC Village.
When contractors need local workers, they come to a union electrician named Big John.
Anthony usually gets to work an hour and a half to two hours early, something he learned from Big John, his mentor, whose motto is, “It’s better to be two hours early than two minutes late.”
“He’s amazing,” Anthony says. That’s the only word that comes to mind when you think about Big John. He knows his stuff.”
Before Anthony met Big John, he didn’t think a career in construction was possible for someone like himself. In fact he didn’t think he would ever have a career of any kind.
“Well, a person like me, having a criminal record, I thought once I went to prison, my life as far having a decent career making a decent living I thought that was over,” Anthony says “I was going to be stuck at a McDonald’s job or something.”
Anthony dropped out of high school his senior year and started making money any way he could.
“All type of stuff, crazy stuff. Robbery. I sold drugs. Lotsa stuff,” Anthony says. Asked what his strategy was for doing a robbery, he replies, “I didn’t have no strategy.”
On Dec. 3, 2009, Anthony and two friends robbed a check cashing store at gunpoint. They were apprehended by police a few blocks away. Anthony was sentenced to nine years. While he was in prison, he persuaded a childhood friend, Tiara Williams, to visit.
“Our first conversation we just clicked on a different level,” Tiara recalls. “Kinda like love at first sight,” but with someone you’ve known for years. Tiara kept visiting Anthony in prison and talking to him on the phone, and on one of those calls Anthony asked her for her address.
“Fifteen minutes later he’s knocking on my door,” she says. “And when I opened the door I screamed and I was really in shock cuz he didn’t tell me anything. He just said, ‘I’ll be home sooner than you think, sooner than you think.’”
Anthony was paroled two years early. He asked Tiara to marry him, she said yes and he moved in with her and her 3-month-old son. He was 26 years old, a convicted felon with a GED he’d gotten in prison and he had a family to support.
“I really didn’t think I would be able to provide for my family in a legal way,” Anthony says.
Around this time someone told Anthony about meetings that happened every Thursday night in a church basement at 35th and Normandie, in a working-class neighborhood southwest of downtown.
The meetings are held by an organization called 2nd Call, which is an acronym for Second Chance at Loving Life. The meetings are run by Big John, sitting at the head of a large table, actually several folding tables pushed together. With about 50 people gathered around, Big John begins the meeting by introducing himself. His real name is John Harriel.
“My name is John and I feel excellent. I ain’t dead or in jail. Have I been to jail? Absolutely. I’m a union electrician. What we do at 2nd Call is basically we save lives.”
For Big John, saving lives means getting people into a well-paying career, an opportunity that could have saved Big John four and a half years that he served for possession of cocaine. While he was locked up, one person stood out to him: an electrician who worked in the prison and became his mentor. When John was released, he joined the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and he saw his new career as a solution to the high rates of violent crime in his neighborhood.
About one in 15 working-age U.S. adults in 2008 was an ex-felon, lowering their prospects in the labor market, driving down the total male employment rate at least 1.5 percentage points and costing the U.S. economy more than $57 billion
“Take any culture, I don’t care where it is, if they don’t have the ability to make money or work, it will become a violent community,” Big John says.
“So I can say, ‘Hey man, listen. We have something available to you that will pay you a livable wage. And not treat you like a dog.’ More than likely that individual will pull themselves up through the proper life skills and realize that, hey now I am a productive, contributing member of this community.”
The workers who make it through Big John’s program are in high demand right now. The expansion of Metro subway and light rail lines through South L.A. has a target of hiring 40 percent of the workforce from low-income local areas. And USC Village has also set a goal of 30 percent with an emphasis on hiring people who live within a 2-mile radius of USC.
Click on pins for details of some major construction planned or underway.
The sun is up at the USC Village construction site, and just as Anthony Fagan promised, it is extremely loud. Anthony is on the fifth floor of an unfinished building. He’s using a chop saw to slice through 9-foot aluminum studs. Sparks fly out from the blade and scatter around his work boots.
Eventually these studs will support the walls of the USC dorm rooms that are expected to fill up with nearly 3,000 students in the fall of 2017.
Anthony rarely talks while he works. Most of the time he has his head down, measuring or cutting. He’s a first-year apprentice and usually, first-year apprentices don’t wear tool belts because they mostly sweep floors and do other menial tasks, says Anthony’s foreman Greg Makie. But Makie says their employer, Standard Drywall Inc., subcontracted the cleanup work, which in turn helped meet a mandate for minority jobs.
Anthony appears to be one of the only black workers not doing cleanup at a job site where racist graffiti can be seen in the portable toilets. The graffiti singled out black employees of his company, but Anthony brushes that off.
“What I show up to work for, I don’t show up to read what’s wrote on the porta potties. I just show up to do my job,” he says.
As an apprentice Anthony makes $16.16 an hour plus benefits. If he stays in the union, by the time he’s a journeyman in about three years he will be making $40 an hour plus benefits. His goal is to buy a house within the next five years. Right now, home prices in South L.A. are lower than the city average. But all these large developments will likely raise property values, potentially pushing out the very people who are building the new South L.A., the very people who have been hired precisely because they live in South L.A.
Less educated suffer in job market
Millennials ages 25-32 with only a high school diploma are three times as likely to be jobless as college graduates with bachelor’s degrees. Americans over age 25 with less than a high school diploma on average earn 41 cents for every dollar earned by those with a bachelor’s degree or more.
Other Local Hires from South L.A.
In the summer of 2015 Amber Carter, 26, moved from Atlanta to Los Angeles with her two sons, 8 and 4 years old. She’s been a part of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 11 for three months. In Georgia, Amber worked two minimum wage jobs and could barely support her family.
She said joining the electrician’s union changed her life, “It’s balanced my world in way. I’m working, learning and spending time with my family.”
Amber is working in a warehouse in the City of Industry. She begins training to become an electrician next month.
Charles Slay, 51, has been a part of IBEW Local 11 for about a year. After spending 27 years in prison for a gang related homicide, he worked multiple jobs as a security guard and unloading trucks at the port. It wasn’t until Charles found the union that life as a free man began to settle.
“It changed things for me dramatically. I feel stable. I’ve been a criminal of the state my entire life,” Charles said. “For lack of a better word, it makes me feel like a man.”
Charles is working on a new building at Cal State Northridge.
LeDaya Epps, 39, is a construction worker on the new Crenshaw/LAX Metro Line. She has two boys, 16 and 12, and a 4-year-old daughter. Before joining the union a year and a half ago, LeDaya moved a lot and held several jobs: customer service, teacher’s assistant, hair stylist, warehouse employee and caregiver. Her story, foster care child turned single parent who found stability in the union, caught the attention of Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, which led to LeDaya being First Lady Michelle Obama’s guest at the president’s 2015 State of the Union Address.
“How many kids can say, ‘My mom met the president.’ I feel it will make my kids have high expectations,” LeDaya said. “I can definitely say that my household is provided for. I can say that there are groceries in the cabinets, and that I’m going to be paid.”
Richard Valles, 42, has been a part of IBEW Local 11 for 14 months. He’s been out of prison for two years, after spending more than half his life behind bars for a gang-related homicide. When he got out, Richard feared he would never find work. He said, “Just the thought of them asking that question, ‘For what? You have a criminal record for what?’ and then having to answer. Who was going to give me a job?”
Richard spent months jumping from job program to job program, working for $9 or $10 per hour. He’s now working on remodeling the Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills. He’s grateful his criminal record doesn’t hinder his potential in this new trade. “Now it’s all about not messing it up, showing up on time, being an effective member of the union, being a team player,” Richard said. “If I want move up, I have the resources, the guidance, everything around me, and there for me. All I gotta do is keep going up.”
Warren Goodman, 54, has been out of prison for almost five years. He served 18 years for murder before getting out on parole. Finding work as a convicted felon was difficult for Warren. The three years he has spent as a union electrician have given him the stability he was looking for after serving his time.
“Now whether I keep a job is on me. It’s based on my skill, my attitude, my relationship with my employer. It’s not based on what a piece of paper says about me.” Warren is working in the rail tunnels, helping build the Crenshaw/LAX Metro Line.