Criticized for Racial Exclusion, Unions Open Door to Minorities

In the lobby of a vocational training center here, there is a special bell that symbolizes what some regard as a new chapter in the often-troubling story of African Americans and the trade union movement in the United States."You can't touch that bell unless you get a job," said Sharon Williams of Project Build, a union-backed effort to train and find jobs in the building trades for poor blacks and other minorities. "You can hear it all through the building. Everyone runs out there and claps."In the past, blacks often found little to clap about in their encounters with the building trade unions in America. "Up until recently, the white construction trades had excluded blacks, Hispanics and women. That was the old way of doing things," said Hugh Weathers of the International Brotherhood of Painters and Allied Trades, in Washington, D.C.Even today, building trade unions are dominated by white males, lagging behind other labor unions. But this is changing, according to Weathers and other black labor officials. In a dramatic reversal of past inequities, a growing number of these unions are going out and recruiting minorities into their ranks.The outreach began to a lesser extent in the 1960s. But the bitter experiences of the past had bred among some African Americans a reluctance to join the building trade unions, say those close to the problem."I think the unions made an effort to be inclusive, but the trust wasn't there from the African-American community," said Williams, executive director of Opportunities Industrialization Center West, which houses Project Build in the San Francisco Bay area.Deciding to do something about it, Williams and union leaders conceived the idea for Project Build, which trains unemployed residents of nearby East Palo Alto in the basics of the building trades, then feeds them into the unions. Since it started in March 1995, the program has placed 136 workers -- about three-quarters of them African American -- into skilled, full-time construction jobs. "A lot of these people had some very bad experiences with unions, prior to the time we came into contact with them," said Rigoberto Laguardia, a business agent of Carpenters Union Local 217, the principal backer of Project Build. "There's this image that it's white male dominated, and you have to know someone, or be someone's brother, to get in. I wanted to show them that the unions were different from the experiences they had -- that we had a lot to offer."In April 1996, Local 217 was named a winner of the President's Service Award, the White House's highest honor for volunteer service co-sponsored by the Points of Light Foundation. Laguardia, the union's chief volunteer for the project, went to Washington to receive the award personally from President Clinton.A 35-year-old Latino, Laguardia said he was motivated to volunteer -- on his own time, at no extra pay -- because the carpenters' union gave him an opportunity 12 years ago. "I wanted to give back what I got from it," he said.All participants without previous experience must take an introduction to construction class. "It gives them a broad view of all the trades -- a little bit of carpentry, plumbing, electricity. When they show interest in a particular trade, they get a little more concentrated effort in that field," says Laguardia. "If the students want to enter the union, they're directed to the proper union."Those who join Laguardia's union, the International Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, start at $9.80 an hour. Over the four-year period of apprenticeship, this gradually rises to the full union scale of $24.50 an hour plus benefits."They cannot miss work. They get fired in an instant from a work site if they don't show up," a point driven home during the training, Williams said.In 21 cities from New York to Los Angeles, black and Hispanic workers have begun their apprenticeships for the building trades as part of The America Works Partnership, a new coalition led by the national carpenters' and painters' unions.In Detroit, where a construction boom is under way, the partnership expects in the next year to move 125 trainees into unions and onto the job, said spokesman Jim Barnes.In one of the longer-running efforts, the Carpenters Educational and Training Institute in Los Angeles has trained and found work for 3,600 people over the past 15 years, according to union officials. The vast majority of the new unionists are black and Hispanic.[EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE.]These and other union initiatives are resulting partly from a new consciousness among younger labor leaders who "know that a black worker is just as good as a white worker," said Weathers of the painters' union. Yet he and others note that change is also coming out of necessity, a response to the dire need for new members."Studies have shown that both minority employees and female employees are more inclined to support a union than white males," said Charles B. Craver, a law professor at George Washington University and author of Can Unions Survive? The Rejuvenation of the American Labor Movement (New York University Press, 1993). "The collective voice of the union gives them a greater voice of empowerment, whereas white males don't quite have the same feeling."Still, some critics are not ready to let the building trade unions off the hook. Asked if the building trades are lagging behind other unions in their outreach to blacks, Jim West, editor of Labor Notes, a newsletter published in Detroit, said: "That's an understatement. Detroit is mostly African American, and the building trades are almost all white."Some unions, at times reacting to lawsuits or bad publicity, bring in minorities but hold back on job assignments for them, said Herman Benson of the Association for Union Democracy in Brooklyn, N.Y. He added: "After they take you in, do you work? Is it all a big public relations thing, or is it real?"There are no doubts, however, that the training offered by Project Build is real.Upon graduation, everyone is given a toolbox worth about $250. Then the graduate must begin an intensive job search, said Shawn Smith, a 28-year-old African-American carpenter who now works as full-time coordinator of the project. He said, "I don't consider it complete until they (the trainees) get their first job."

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close