Community benefits win big: Construction contracts and jobs for Oaklanders

Pack the Oakland City Council meeting Tuesday, Feb. 7, regarding local hire and a Jobs Center

by Joseph Debro

We finally have legislation that benefits the taxpayers of Oakland. Desley Brooks took a giant step to bring economic parity to the community of the poor. She introduced and passed legislation that challenged the history of construction companies that make promises inconsistent with their past performances. What she has done will slow down the Oakland process of importing labor and exporting capital.

Descendants of former slaves have a lot to overcome in this country. We are injured by self-inflicted wounds. We are crippled by wounds inflicted by others. Politicians who represent descendants of former slaves often think that a handout helps us more than a hand up. We should all remember that if you give a fish to a hungry person, you feed that person for a day. If you teach a hungry person how to fish, you feed that person for life.

What she has done will slow down the Oakland process of importing labor and exporting capital.

Councilwoman Desley Brooks, the vice mayor of Oakland, was able to help a friend because she had a relationship with an Oakland developer. Both the friend and the developer were limited in their growth potential. She helped two people, both of whom thought that they got over.

The 8(a) program was started by a descendant of a former slave: Joe Conrad, who worked for SBA (Small Business Administration) in Washington, D.C. This program was designed to bring community benefits to the community of the descendants of former slaves. It has since been corrupted to bring advantage only to white men.

A racist senator from Mississippi used a provision of the U.S. procurement code to give Mississippians contracts without bid. The work was in areas that had been devastated by floods. The people were disadvantaged. Joe thought about how disadvantaged the descendants of former slaves were. He got help, and the 8(a) program was born.

For reasons which are too complex to discuss, Ms. Brooks took a different approach. Her new approach compelled her to formulate a new city policy which will feed the unemployed of Oakland and other urban cities for life. Her legislation is limited to the Oakland Army Base. That limitation will be removed when it is demonstrated how well her legislation works.

Desley, who is not known for her ability to put together four votes on the Oakland City Council, was able to get eight votes for her new powerful economic development tool. What Desley has done deserves a Nobel Prize.

The legislation that she has passed into Oakland law is a great start in the right direction. Building contractors will not be granted a contract if they have no history of constructing while adding community benefits. Desley uses the geography of Oakland, as we all should, to describe where the benefits must be bestowed.

Her legislation forces all contractors to demonstrate their history of delivering community benefits to a local community in which they work. If they have no such history, they must joint venture with a contractor who has such a history. Joint ventures are the most effective way to build capacity, increase local employment and training and retain a fraction of the profits generated by local projects.

Her legislation forces all contractors to demonstrate their history of delivering community benefits to a local community in which they work. If they have no such history, they must joint venture with a contractor who has such a history.

Ms. Brooks worked with local contractors and with community groups in developing this plan. She is to be commended. This is an idea whose time has come. It will spread all over the United States. One of the contractors with whom she worked will win the demolition contract at the Oakland Army Base. He deserves it.

Joseph Debro is president of Bay Area Black Builders, co-founder of the National Association of Minority Contractors, president of Transbay Engineering and a bio-chemical engineer. He can be reached at

Desley Brooks on KPFA’s Education Today

Oakland City Councilwoman and Vice Mayor Desley Brooks appeared on Education Today, hosted by Kitty Kelly Epstein, on KPFA Jan. 27 to discuss this historic legislation: “I worked with a group of community folks who were engaged in the construction industry. You see all the time that the prime contractor on a construction job is always a firm, it seems like, that’s not from Oakland. And we know that when they’re not from Oakland, they’re not likely to hire Oakland people. …

“The legislation we put through would have the Oakland firm be the prime. And for them to even compete to get that job, 33 percent of their core workforce would have to be Oakland residents. It’s a first in the history of the city of Oakland. … Oakland residents have to be the core people who are going to stay on that job through completion, and it can’t be somebody hired for this single job. …

For them to even compete to get that job, 33 percent of their core workforce would have to be Oakland residents.

“When I drive down the street, what I hear consistently from Oakland people is, ‘I need a job.’ One of the things that cities can do with the money that they have – we give millions and millions of dollars for (construction) contracts – is recirculate the dollars in our communities. I’ve always advocated for that and tried to figure out ways that we can create jobs. …

“We’re doing the legislation on a pilot basis, so we’re testing it out. We’re testing it on the remediation work that’s to be done on the Oakland Army Base (in West Oakland). There’s approximately $9 million worth of work, and the ordinance I had pass applies only to that $9 million. If it works well, we’ll have an opportunity to consider extending it. …

Oakland spends millions and millions of dollars for construction contracts and should recirculate those dollars in our communities.

“Oakland’s unemployment rate is somewhere around 17-20 percent officially …; in our community, it’s much higher than that. … The hope is that with this ordinance, we’ll start to grow our minority contracting companies. … There are very few minority contracting firms because they are always having to compete with the major firms and they don’t get the jobs. …

“A major contractor sent me an email saying, ‘We won’t be able to bid on that work because of your 33 percent requirements. And I thought, ‘Really!’ They have probably more than $40 million in construction work with the City of Oakland already. …

“We said (when the proposed ordinance was before the City Council), ‘Put Oaklanders first! Put Oaklanders first! … Who on the Council would vote against their own residents? So it passed unanimously. …

Put Oaklanders first!

“We increased our contracting requirements (for hiring on all construction contracts) from 20 percent to 50 percent. It’s not just jobs that we’re interested in; we’re interested in contracts, because when Oakland contractors have the ability to get a contract with the city, they usually hire people who live in the neighborhoods. So again, it’s that proper distribution of wealth; it’s that recirculation of the dollars that’s so important.”

Host Kitty Kelly Epstein said: “When we looked at the number of hours on construction jobs that were going to African Americans in particular a few months ago, we found it’s about 27 percent of the population is African American and about 5 percent of the construction hours on journeyman jobs. … A minority firm is more likely to hire non-white people than a white majority firm is.”

Brooks added: “The way our contracting process has always worked is (the contractor) promises to do the local hires …, but with this new ordinance, you have to show that up front you have 33 percent (Oakland residents in your core workforce), so there’s more likelihood that an Oaklander will actually get a job. …

“I started talking about this to everyday people who needed a job. They came consistently down to the Council. They came to all the committee meetings; they came to the Council meetings – and kept pushing, because they know that when their voiced aren’t down here, they may not be heard. … I worked with some everyday folks who made a big impact in this city; it’s the first time that happened – ever.”

Education Today is broadcast at 2:30 p.m. on alternate Fridays on KPFA 94.1FM. Host Kitty Kelly Epstein can be reached at Councilwoman Desley Brooks, who represents District 6 in East Oakland, can be reached at  

How you can get involved

When they learned in 2010 that 8,000 new jobs would be created through the redevelopment of the Oakland Army Base, eight organizations came together, forming the OaklandWORKS Alliance to ensure residents of the flatlands would have full access to those jobs. It was their research that revealed that African-Americans were obtaining only 5 percent of the journeyman hours on city-funded construction jobs, even though African-Americans make up 27 percent of the city’s population.

The upcoming Tuesday, Feb. 7, Oakland City Council meeting will review a number of proposals: local employment on both construction and permanent jobs, a Jobs Center to ensure that there is more fair access to employment and other provisions. The Alliance will work to ensure that the community stays involved, so that the parts of the policy which reflect the community’s interests are enforced.

OaklandWORKS also campaigned for Oakland-based contractors to be able to obtain contracts for the Army base work. Local and minority contractors have shown themselves to be much more likely to hire Oakland workers.

The OaklandWORKS Alliance includes Oakland Black Caucus, Oakland Parents Together, John George Democratic Club, The West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, PUEBLO, Black Women Organized for Political Action (BWOPA), Concerned Black Men of Oakland and Oakland Natives Give Back. For more information, contact Robyn Hodges at