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Black and Brown workers protest White contractor in Harlem

May 14, 2011

Return of the coalition: Are New York City’s minority construction workers’ organizations making a comeback?

by Gregory A. Butler

The quiet midday West Harlem streets around City College of New York were suddenly and jarringly filled with angry workers’ chants on Tuesday, May 10, 2011.

“Things must change,” “Blacks need work, too,” and “African Americans built America,” read the protest signs held by contractors, construction workers and union members silently demonstrating their dissatisfaction with the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority, alleging that Black workers are being excluded from the $700 million expansion project and promising to continue to disrupt the project until African Americans sign contracts. The Authority had agreed to make its best effort to maintain a minimum 20 percent of African-American contractors. Black firms participate in less than 1 percent of Philadelphia construction industry revenues. “They have white firms not even from this city bid on work and sign contracts,” one Black worker told the Philadelphia Tribune, a Black newspaper. – Photo: Hiroko Tanaka, Philadelphia Tribune
A group of about 50 Black and Latino construction workers – mostly men but a few women and all wearing workboots, hardhats and federal safety orange construction vests – marched down Amsterdam Av in two disciplined lines, chanting slogans and carrying picket signs and American flags, with one hapless police officer chasing after them to “maintain order.”

They were members of a minority construction workers’ organization – or “coalition,” as they are commonly known in the industry – called Positive Workforce.

The issue that the Positive Workforce members were protesting this day was that City College’s new dormitory is being built by Skanska AB, a White-owned firm from Sweden, rather than a minority-owned firm.

Worse yet, Skanska’s owners had actually tried to pass their firm off as “minority owned” because allegedly one of the owners was married to a woman of color!

While a White-owned firm from Europe got the contract, legitimate Harlem-based Black and Latino contractors were not hired, a pattern that City College has followed throughout its 30-year long campus renovation project.

While a White-owned firm from Europe got the contract, legitimate Harlem-based Black and Latino contractors were not hired, a pattern that City College has followed throughout its 30-year long campus renovation project.

The marchers got approving honks of support from teamster truck drivers going up and down Amsterdam Av – the main freight truck route for the entire borough of Manhattan – and after they had made their point, Positive Workforce’s “site coordinators” directed the workers to board passenger vans, which drove back to the group’s headquarters in Harlem.

For over 30 years, from 1965 to 1998, these coalition protests were an ever present feature of the construction scene in this city.

The protests were typically known in the coalition world as “shapeups” because usually they involved coalition members going to a jobsite and demanding jobs. In the industry, going to a site and looking for work is known as “shaping up.”

On a typical day during New York’s April to November building season, it would not be unusual to see every one of the 60-odd coalitions that operated in the city during that era carrying out a mobilization as large or larger than the one that happened at City College on Tuesday.

In city after city, it’s the same story: Blacks are locked out of the construction industry, even in their own neighborhoods.
That mass movement is the main reason why New York’s construction industry, once a bastion of de facto racial segregation, is as racially integrated as it is today.

The coalitions were hit with a wave of police repression in the late 1990s, around the same time that police and federal authorities were carrying out a broader crackdown against Cosa Nostra racketeers in the construction unions.

Many coalition leaders were jailed and organizations broken up, and the groups that remained survived by being far less active then they were in their heyday.

That pushed the coalitions from center stage far to the sidelines. They continued to exist but were far less of a presence in the industry. Now apparently they are making a comeback.

Let’s take a look at the rise, fall and rise of the coalitions.

New York City’s construction unions, and the national unions with which they were affiliated, had a long, shameful tradition of racial discrimination that dated back to the days of slavery.

From the 1850s to the 1960s, only two local unions in the entire New York building trades – Carpenters Local 1788 in Harlem and Housewreckers Local 95 of the Laborers Union – freely admitted Black workers to membership.

The Plumbers Union even explicitly proclaimed in their constitution that their organization was “restricted to Caucasians.”

This system of racial segregation had long angered workers of color in New York, in particular migrants from the South and the Caribbean who had worked in the trades back home but were locked out of those jobs here.

This system of racial segregation had long angered workers of color in New York, in particular migrants from the South and the Caribbean who had worked in the trades back home but were locked out of those jobs here.

Matters came to a head during the 1950s, when local civil rights activists began pressuring the real estate industry and the New York City Housing Authority to desegregate housing.

A side effect of these campaigns was a demand that contractors working on jobs in African American and Latino communities be required to hire Black and Latino workers for those jobs.

Electricians Local 3 and its politically savvy leader, Harry Van Arsdale Jr. – who also ran the New York City Central Labor Council – saw the handwriting on the wall in 1961.

His union formally desegregated its electricians’ apprenticeship program, in such a way that Local 3 appeared to abandon its longstanding institutional racism without having to actually take in that many Black or Latino workers – and actually barring African American and Puerto Rican non-union journeyman electricians from coming into the union at all.

The rest of the industry – particularly the plumbers, boilermakers and metallic lathers and the employers associations in those industries – wouldn’t even go that far. They dealt with the pressure to integrate with a policy of massive resistance, defying even the mildest efforts to abolish segregation in the industry.

This included the City of New York’s very mild New York Plan, which involved a handful of Black and Puerto Rican young men being admitted to apprenticeship programs and a few minority journeymen being hired on select city jobs.

Plumbers Local 2 actually called a citywide strike rather than admit four Puerto Rican men and one African American man into their union!

Plumbers Local 2 actually called a citywide strike rather than admit four Puerto Rican men and one African American man into their union!

Meanwhile, the Harlem club of a Maoist Communist organization called the Progressive Labor Party began organizing among Black construction workers.

The Harlem club of the PLA set up an organization called Harlem Fightback. Initially, they followed in the footsteps of the NAACP and other mainstream civil rights groups and began picketing all white jobsites in the community. Then, they came up with the idea of going to jobsites en masse to shape up for work.

The American construction industry had a nearly 200 year long tradition of workers having a right to enter any jobsite to shape for work. This practice was included in the bylaws and union contracts of every trade, and there was a longstanding practice at the time of White tradesmen organizing themselves into large groups and going to sites looking to be hired as a body to work on the job. The coalitions merely adapted this practice to their political ends.

Jim Haughton, executive director of Harlem Fightback, leads a demonstration for justice for workers, especially African-Americans and immigrants. – Photo: Courtesy of John Antush, NMASS
Most of the African American tradesmen in Harlem had experience working as laborers, carpenters, plasterers or bricklayers in the South. Fortunately, those trades had the strongest contract language protecting workers rights to shape up and also all of those unions had rules that any non-union worker who shaped up a union job and got hired had an unconditional right to join the union immediately. This made it impossible for the unions to keep Fightback members from joining the unions once they got hired.

However, while Fightback was successful in the field, it had internal problems at home.

The group’s parent organization, the PLP, had decided that organizing African American construction workers was less politically important than mobilizing middle class White college students to oppose the Vietnam War that was raging at the time.

This led to a permanent parting of the ways between Fightback and PLP, although there were still traces of Fightback’s Communist origins that were visible even years later, like the red armbands that Fightback members wore when shaping up jobs – a practice that every other coalition would end up adopting.

On the other end of the spectrum, the non-Communist African American workers who led Fightback’s Brooklyn branch seceded and set up their own non-leftist organizations.

Brooklyn Fightback was the first of many Fightback-style organizations, which came to be known collectively as “the coalition.”

By the late 1970s, there were over 60 coalitions across the city, many of which also included Puerto Rican and Dominican workers alongside African Americans.

There was even an all Chinese coalition in Chinatown, the Chinese Construction Workers Association. CCWA was the only other coalition besides Fightback to have explicitly Maoist roots; it had been founded by people who came out of the Communist Workers Party.

The coalitions’ tactics had pretty much crystallized at that point. Typically, a large group of coalition members would put red armbands on, board an old school bus and proceed to drive around the city. When they reached an all-White jobsite, coalition members would dismount, enter the jobsite, order the White workers therein to stop working and then the coalition’s “site coordinators” would negotiate with the contractors as to how many minority workers the bosses would hire.

At an all-White jobsite, coalition members would order the White workers to stop working and then the coalition’s “site coordinators” would negotiate with the contractors as to how many minority workers the bosses would hire.

The coalitions had become an established part of the New York construction scene and had forced the unions to admit several thousand of their members.

In the late 1970s several things began to change around the New York City construction scene that majorly affected the coalitions.

The City of New York had begun using non-union contractors to renovate buildings destroyed by landlord arson. Most of these jobs were in areas where the coalitions were based. Since these scab contractors didn’t have access to the union hiring halls to hire extra labor, they started to use the coalitions as a labor source.

Also, contractors, union and non-union, began signing exclusive agreements with particular coalitions. That coalition would be that firm’s supplier of minority labor and they would also be bound to provide coalition members to act as guards and keep other coalitions from doing shapeups on their sites. The contractors also would agree to pay a site coordinator from that coalition labor foreman’s wages until the job was completed.

Site coordinator pay began to have a corrupting affect on coalitions, especially because site coordinators often were on the payrolls of multiple sites, with some site coordinators being paid as much as $10,000 a week!

The Carter administration came out with a system of affirmative action quotas for federally funded construction in 1979. Contractors in New York City were expected to have a labor force that was 28 percent minority and 10 percent women, and 10 percent of the contractors on jobsites were supposed to be minority as well.

Many of the non-leftist coalitions began presenting themselves to employers and clients as “EEO (equal employment opportunity) consultants” who could help contractors comply with these new rules.

The need to help employers meet that 10 percent women requirement led to the first women being allowed to join the coalitions. Many of the initial recruits were the wives or girlfriends of men in the coalitions, with many site coordinators actively recruiting their own wives – and in some cases their mistresses – into the coalitions.

Many coalitions also began developing a hierarchy, not unlike the one existing in the unions, which began to affect how jobs were distributed.

It became common for the tough guys that coalitions used as “muscle” to guard sites and strong-arm recalcitrant contractors to get first dibs on work. Relatives, wives and mistresses of site coordinators came next. The rank and file members on the busses who risked arrest while shaping jobs were now last on the list when it came to employment opportunities.

The Genovese Crime Family, which had regulated competition in the highrise concrete and drywall and ceilings sectors for the previous 30 years, also began cultivating relationships with some coalitions around this time, basically to protect their rackets from being interfered with.

Coalitions still did shapeups, of course, but their politics began to drift to the right and now there were some racist contractors who actually paid protection money to coalitions to keep their crews all White!

The two Maoist-founded coalitions, Harlem Fightback and the Chinese Construction Workers Association, went in a different direction. Their leaders cultivated ties with the academic left and became policy advocates, while still continuing to do the shapeups.

Fightback and CCWA’s goal was to use their ties with the not for profit social services world to lobby the government to give more contracts to African American-, Latino- and Chinese-owned contractors.

Fightback and CCWA’s goal was to use their ties with the not for profit social services world to lobby the government to give more contracts to African American-, Latino- and Chinese-owned contractors.

The idea was basically left wing trickle down economics – if minority contractors got more jobs, they’d hire more minority tradespeople.

By the late 1990s the coalitions began to be hit by collateral damage from the racketeering crackdowns being carried out against the Genoveses and other crime families by federal and New York City authorities. Arrests, prosecutions and convictions of many site coordinators basically stopped the shapeups.

By 1998, the busloads of red armbanded minority workers roaming around jobsites were no longer a part of the New York construction scene.

A few of the coalitions, like Harlem Fightback, CCWA and Positive Workforce, remained functional but with a far less aggressive posture.

This may be changing. With all the mass joblessness and misery in the inner cities and the extreme decay of the unions, the coalitions have a niche to fill.

Hopefully, the revived activism of the coalitions will trigger more widespread activism among construction workers of all races – with our unions presently under severe attack, somebody has to step up and hopefully the other remaining coalitions will follow Positive Workforce’s lead here.

Gregory A. Butler, Local 157 Carpenter, writes commentary for Gangbox: Construction Workers News Service. He can be reached at GregoryAButler@aol.com, gangboxnews@yahoogroups.com or gangbox@googlegroups.com or through http://finance.groups.yahoo.com/group/gangboxnews/, http://groups.google.com/group/gangbox/, http://myspace.com/gregory10031, http://gangboxnews.blogspot.com or http://clnews.org. He describes himself in his profile on In These Times as a “union carpenter, shop steward, revolutionary communist, African American man, lifelong New Yorker, labor journalist, author of ‘Disunited Brotherhoods: Race, racketeering and the fall of the New York construction unions’ and ‘Lost Towers: Inside the World Trade Center cleanup.’”

Watch a March 17, 2010, WLWT news video on an NAACP protest against the exclusion of Black contractors by the Cincinnati school district by clicking here.

9 thoughts on “Black and Brown workers protest White contractor in Harlem

  1. Kathy Demar

    This story just goes to show how hysterical, ignorant and STUPID people are. Skanska is a publicly-owned corporation from Sweden. It does not have an "owner". Furthermore, jobs are given out based on who is the LOW BIDDER. Why do minorities think that they should be given a job simply because they say so. If Skanska has to be the low-bidder to get work so should minority contractors. Finally, there are very few minority contractors that can obtain the bonds necessary to even bid on these large jobs and oh yeah, the coalitions that the author writes about with stars in his eyes are largely criminal enterprises that got minorities work on construction projects by the use of and threat of force. Give me a break already.

    Reply
    1. MOVIE, REVIEWED

      Kathy,

      The reason the Coalition had to use force to integrate the industry was because of employer racism.

      I have no "stars in my eyes" about that – but I do admire those freedom fighters who kicked in the door of a segregated industry. But for them I'd never have been able to become a union carpenter.

      As for Skanska AB, they are a company from a majority White country. Since most Swedes are White, it's a fair bet that Skanska's shareholders back home, not to mention it's executives, are White folks.

      Look, why not be honest.

      You obviously don't like Black people and you don't want us to have good jobs or business opportunities, you want to keep the good opportunities in this country for you and your race.

      If you are going to be a racist, be an honest one.

      GREGORY A. BUTLER

      Reply
    2. Mary Ratcliff

      Kathy, I'm curious what your role is in the construction industry. You know about the denial of bonding to Black contractors, so to what do you attribute it? Most Black contractors, like most White contractors, served their apprenticeships and spent years in the trades, often working their way up to superintendent or project manager, often successfully running huge jobs for big white contractors before starting off on their own – many with college degrees as well. So why are they routinely denied bonds? Could it be racism?

      Mary Ratcliff, editor
      SF Bay View

      Reply
      1. Werwolf

        Could it be racism? You tell me:

        *Give me examples: what was the credit rating of an African American contractor turned down for a bond? Now, can you find an example of a white male with a comparable credit rating who has been bonded?

        *In cases where bonding is offered, have you found different rates offered to contractors with comparable credit histories, but different races? Can you document this?

        *Have those turned down for surety bonds filed legal complaints? Approached regulators? The press? If not, why not?

        Reply
        1. Werwolf

          Also, apologies for using the word 'racism,' a disparaging and offensive term used to describe European-Americans that is empty of actual meaning beyond its use as a simple epithet.

          I should have written "Could it be discrimination based on race? You tell me."

          Reply
  2. JOHN

    I work on trade union construction sites in nyc and the majority of the workers are minority so whoever wrote this story in california needs to stop smoking the legal weed

    Reply
    1. MOVIE, REVIEWED

      I wrote this story. I'm a lifelong New Yorker and I've been a union carpenter for 18 years.

      However, but for the efforts of the Coalition, African American men like me wouldn't be able to work union in this town – I walked in the front door because the Coalition kicked it down before I got there!

      GREGORY A. BUTLER

      Reply
  3. John

    Typical minority bs! My suggestion is to "shape up" or "shut up"!!!! Minorities are ALWAYS wanting a "hand out" or a "leg up" or a "free lunch"!!!!! I suggest the black and latin communities get their houses in order, from the inside out. The rest of the Nation is sick and tired of hearing this constant WHINE about all the injustice and suffering. And think about it. During the middle of ANY day, if there is a protest occurring, there is NEVER a shortage of blacks or latinos to hold signs and march. Why? Because they are unemployed and have nothing else better to do. I am sure alot of people will consider me a racist, but it does not change the FACTS that this is the reality. Everyday, anyday…and until their attitudes change and they get some pride in pulling their own weight, then this same argument will continue!!!

    Reply
  4. Doug Tweedy

    Truly a stupid article based on half truths and lies. The Coalitions were actually organized crime groups who demanded kickbacks from developers or they would have trouble.

    Coalitions such as the one featured in this article are about a pay payoff to a African American business owner and has little or nothing to do with construction workers. While the coalition is focused on Skanska they have no actions on the growing number on non-union construction sites in the city who only hire undocumented workers. The protest at Skanska doesn't even speak to the hiring of minority workers but handing a contract to a select group of businessmen. What if the gave the contract to an African American drywall company that only employed undocumented workers? Would that be acceptable?

    The Coalitions disintegrated for a good reason, they were nothing more than gangster organizations.

    Reply

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