by Harry C. Alford
Unions, for the most part, have been good for this nation. The United Auto Workers helped create the Black middle class. The Communication Workers of America and the United Postal Workers have been a part of the American legacy in the 20th century. We certainly cannot omit the United Pullman Workers, led by strong Black leaders. However, there has been a big “fly” in this “ointment” and that is the construction unions.
They have fought affirmative action and have excluded Black hiring in a criminal fashion. Today, construction sites are still close to Jim Crow and they get away with it by huddling up to the aforementioned good unions and paying off our elected officials with campaign donations and Lord knows what else. Black unemployment is more than twice that of Whites and construction unions and their Black political lackeys have a lot to do with that situation.
Years ago, we would shrug our shoulders when witnessing Black politicians pushing union programs and say they were just ignorant. The saying goes, “Ignorance is bliss.”
But during this recession it appears that ignorance is a cancer eating away at our economic fiber and killing our communities and causing hopelessness in our children as they reach maturity. Ignorance can no longer be tolerated and Black politicians are going to have to find new thrills and leave the vile, racist construction union lobbies alone as they suck the economic blood from our communities.
Allow me to take you through a few examples.
I participated in a Congressional hearing about allowing “helpers” on construction projects. Helpers are new workers and are not apprentices. They are kids off the streets looking for work and a way to make a living. Non-union shops hire them when there is a demand for new workers.
Unions were trying to outlaw this free enterprise system and block our young people from work opportunities. There I was fighting for the rights of these non-union shops who were hiring Blacks at the rate of 40-50 percent of their total workforce. The opposing side included retired Black Congressman Major Owens, D-N.Y., and Black Congressman Bobby Scott, D-Va. They were fighting against this opportunity for Blacks to work as helpers and supporting the construction union position.
During the exchange I challenged them: “Why am I debating with you two about hiring Blacks. Shouldn’t you be for the hiring of Blacks instead of trying to block them? This is why you don’t have any Black roofers, carpenters and electrical workers in your districts at any appreciable level. Don’t you think this is ironic and don’t you feel uncomfortable?” At that point they became quiet and left – three minutes apart.
I later participated in a field hearing in Indianapolis. It was about “salting.” Salting is when construction unions plant union workers in a non-union shop and cause disruption amongst the employees to the point of leading a rebellion to force the company to join the union. The Department of Labor frowns on this practice, but construction unions have the nerve to try and make it legal. They brought about 150 of their goons to boo me.
“Why am I debating with you two about hiring Blacks. Shouldn’t you be for the hiring of Blacks instead of trying to block them? This is why you don’t have any Black roofers, carpenters and electrical workers in your districts at any appreciable level,” I told the two Black congressmen.
The late Julia Carson was drafted to do their bidding and oppose me. In our exchange, I retorted: “Congresswoman Carson, behind me are 150 construction union workers and I count four Blacks among them. Is this the best they could do on this day? This city is 23 percent Black and they can’t bring 3 percent out on their best day. I rest my case and you should not support or defend them.” A few minutes later, she left saying that President Clinton was calling her. Yes, they can’t defend this, so why do they support it other than for the money.
The Congressional Black Caucus continues this selling out of Black workers. Just this month Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., put out a press release praising the Project Labor Agreement (PLA) for the new headquarters of Homeland Security – a boondoggle.
A Project Labor Agreement means union-only labor on the project or union only rules for anyone there. That locks out 98 percent of the Black workforce and she is shouting for joy about this. The very next day the Washington Post reported that Black unemployment in D.C. was actually increasing.
This can certainly be attributed to the betrayal of elected officials like Congresswoman Norton. They get it, but just don’t care about those defenseless, underrepresented citizens in their district who do not get a decent chance to make a living.
Clearly, Congresswoman Norton works for the enemy. She is too intelligent to be ignorant. She knows the deal – blocking Black employment – and she and others play along with it, as their constituents can’t organize worthy opponents to defeat them at the next election. We are still waiting on the change.
Ignorance is not bliss. It is duplicitous.
Black America to construction unions: Open your doors
by Marc H. Morial
“If you live in America, you should be able to have bacon and eggs on Sunday morning. It means you can work – that you got a job.” – Nate Smith, labor and civil rights leader who broke the color barrier in Pittsburgh’s construction industry
Harry Alford, president and CEO of the Black Chamber of Commerce, recently reminded us that African Americans face an added barrier to finding good jobs in this struggling economy: discrimination by construction unions. In a National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) column, Alford said that construction unions “have fought affirmative action and have excluded Black hiring in a criminal fashion. Today, construction sites are still close to Jim Crow.”
The National Urban League was founded 100 years ago to open the doors of opportunity to African Americans workers who migrated north from the Jim Crow South in search of good jobs and a better life for their families. It has been a cruel irony that labor unions, created to protect and empower the dispossessed, have historically fought to keep Blacks out – none more egregiously than construction unions.
Despite this opposition, today one in every five Black workers belongs to a union. These workers earn about 40 percent more than non-union workers. They are also more likely to have health insurance, defined pension benefits and greater protections against discrimination on the job.
The National Urban League has been in the forefront of the fight to expand union access to more African Americans for decades. The great Lester Granger, who served as National Urban League president from 1941-1961, worked tirelessly to integrate racist trade unions. He teamed up with A. Philip Randolph in a successful campaign to persuade President Franklin Roosevelt to sign the 1941 Fair Employment Act, barring discrimination in defense industries.
Other African American leaders, including Coalition of Black Trade Unionist President William “Bill” Lucy, have repeatedly called for the construction industry and other unions to open their doors to Blacks. In the 1960s, Nate Smith, an aspiring professional boxer and construction worker in Pittsburgh, laid down in front of bulldozers, challenged established union authority and developed a training program called Operation Dig that helped raise minority union rates from 2 to 15 percent in that city.
Since the start of the recession in 2007, our economy has lost almost 2 million construction jobs. Another 21,000 disappeared in September. The Obama administration’s stimulus plan recognized that the key to getting those jobs back and to fueling our economic recovery is a robust investment in rebuilding the nation’s roads, bridges and public works infrastructure. Construction unions, which stand to benefit greatly from that opportunity, have an obligation to open their doors to workers of color so that no one is left behind.
Marc H. Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League, which can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.