Now that all things are possible, it’s our turn

Let’s end the lockout and resume our place as a race of master builders

Editorial by Willie Ratcliff

We elected a Black president. Now tell me what we can’t do.

I want to see us use that muscle to prove to ourselves and the world once again that Black people are master builders. We built the White House. We built the South and much of the North.

And nobody’s going to lock us out of construction any longer. We’re demanding our piece of the pie. Will you back me up on that?

The average construction worker in California makes $24 an hour. You could support your family on that, right?

Can you work construction? Well, Black contractors like me and others I know don’t look at your school record or your police or prison record.

We look at your work. We want you to work hard and smart, work as a team with the rest of the crew, and master your trade.

We want many of you to learn how to run the work like the coach of a championship team, dealing with all the challenges, including racism, and bringing in the project on time and under budget.

Only with strong Black contractors can we put our Black people back to work. I’m calling on all Bay Area Black contractors to contact me. Let’s get organized again and lead our people out of hopelessness. Call me whether your license is current or not; I know how tough it’s been, especially for the last 10 years. But we can rise again. Yes we can!

In his radio address Saturday, President-elect Barack Obama pledged to “jump-start job creation in America and lay the foundation for a strong and growing economy. We’ll put people back to work rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, modernizing schools that are failing our children, and building wind farms and solar panels …

“These aren’t just steps to pull ourselves out of this immediate crisis; these are long-term investments in our economic future that have been ignored for far too long,” he said.

He wants to create or preserve 2.5 million of those jobs in the next two years. And on top of that, he says on his new website, www.Change.gov, where you can participate in the discussion, he will “invest in a clean energy economy and create 5 million new green jobs.”

Is one of those jobs yours? That’s largely up to you – how well you prepare yourself and help me organize enough pressure to stop the lockout of Blacks from construction and make sure we get our fair share.

You’ve heard of the New Deal in the 1930s; if not, ask your grandparents and other elders. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was pushed by the masses of jobless people during the Depression to create masses of jobs. You can see what they built: the Alameda County Courthouse, Coit Tower, the Caldecott Tunnel and Treasure Island. That’s when the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge were built and comparable projects around the country.

Can we do as much and do it as well? This time can we – Black people – win a fair share of the work? Yes we can!

I’m sick and tired of segregated jobsites and segregated money – a system that locks Black people out of legal jobs and forces many of us into an underground economy that may produce a little bling for a minute but sooner or later puts the family breadwinner in prison or the graveyard and leaves the family to starve, go homeless and get torn apart, children snatched by the state from their mother’s arms.

Construction can turn all that around. It was a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge that lured me when I was still in my teens to come to San Francisco from Deep East Texas, where I was born and raised in East Liberty, a little Black nation founded by my ancestors some 200 years ago who won their freedom long before the Civil War. I was an adventurous kid who’d gone to Houston on my own at 13 and got my first construction job at 14.

At 17, with a wife and baby, I followed my dream to San Francisco, where I took what jobs I could find, from shining shoes at the AC Transit terminal to rigging – loading and unloading ships – at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. When I learned of higher pay on the North Slope of Alaska building the Distance Early Warning System, some friends and I went there, only to find that Blacks weren’t allowed in the segregated camps. At 18, I made a picket sign and, after marching alone in front of the union headquarters, forced open the door to jobs for me and other Blacks.

Learning all kinds of construction trades, both on the job and by building my own house for my family that grew to 10 kids and getting involved in local politics – when I came to Fairbanks, Blacks couldn’t teach in the schools; when I left, we had a Black school superintendent – I was eventually trusted to run big construction projects. Many said the massive highway that was to hug a steep mountainside, coming within inches of the capitol building in Juneau, Alaska, couldn’t be built. I was chosen to run that job, and today you can drive on that highway and just about touch it from the windows of the capitol.

By the early 1970s, having become a licensed contractor in 1967, I was demanding that Blacks get a fair share of the work building the $10 billion Trans-Alaska Pipeline. As chair of the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights, known as the most aggressive HRC in the country, and after organizing all the Black contractors in the state, linking with some from out of state and joining forces with Congressman Parren Mitchell, founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, I testified at hearings around the U.S., pounding on tables and making allies, and won $80 million worth of work for Blacks.

Of that, I ran $20 million myself with an all-Black management team, except for one Alaska Native, and crews that were nearly all Black and Native, including many women. I’d led the HRC to sue, forcing the oil companies’ pipeline camps to end gender segregation, and many women helped build that pipeline and build prosperity for their families. Construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was by far the biggest and most successful affirmative action project in U.S. history.

As a reward, once the pipeline was built, I was blacklisted when the oil companies and banks decided they had no more use for troublemakers and, in 1987, I returned to San Francisco. Here, I once again called for Black contractors and workers to come together with me and, to generate support for equal opportunity, took over as publisher of this newspaper in February 1992.

Organized as the African American Contractors of San Francisco, a small group of us, including me and my company, Liberty Builders, pushed open enough doors and won enough work to put dozens, sometimes hundreds, of Black people to work at construction jobs earning enough to support an extended family. That movement was stopped dead in 1998, when a noose was hung on Liberty Builders’ job just as we were completing our work on the $4.8 billion expansion of the San Francisco International Airport, where my crew and I were the only Blacks who refused to be locked out of that huge project.

Since then, nearly all Black troublemakers – meaning nearly all Blacks – have been locked out of all construction in San Francisco. Now is the time for that lockout, which is enforced by major contractors who fear our competition and their City Hall and construction trade union lackeys, to stop. Who else will do it but us?

I’m telling you this not to blow my own horn, but to give you a clue to what you can do. Yes, Willie Ratcliff, the veteran of many battles, who lives and works at Third and Palou, the main crossroads in Bayview Hunters Point, in the pretty green Bay View Building I no longer own since the foreclosure in September but where, thank God, we still live and work, can do impossible things – and you can too.

I come from a long line of freedom fighters who refused to tolerate enslavement, lockouts or segregated jobsites. I’ve had to pay some high prices like so many freedom fighters, but did that teach me not to be a troublemaker? Hell no. If you don’t trouble the waters, you’ll drown.

Now is the time to reach for our dreams. Why would we put a Black family in the White House – the house that our enslaved ancestors built and toiled in for presidents who literally and legally owned them – if we weren’t determined to free ourselves?

We’re not a half-stepping people. We excel at whatever we’re able to do. We’ve excelled in sports and entertainment on a world scale, and we can excel in the construction industry. Join me as we resume our place as a race of master builders.

To contact Willie Ratcliff, email editor@sfbayview.com or call the Bay View at (415) 671-0789 or Liberty Builders at (415) 571-1722. Willie’s son Anthony Ratcliff took most of the photos that illustrate this editorial.