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The Building Trades and Violence in the African-American Communit PDF Print E-mail
Friday, January 30, 2009

ImageDespite our emphasis on safety, many of us in the unionized construction industry have been on a job where there was a wreck, a major accident all too often causing death or maiming.

Those of us who have followed the history of wrecks back to their origins know that a wreck rarely results from a single grand misstep. Instead, multiple missteps, some of them decisions on their faces benign, some of them actions that in isolation involve little risk, combine to produce an event horrifically wrong. Architects, engineers, detailers, project managers, supervisors at all levels – it is common for some or all of these to play a role in the origins of a wreck.

Far from understanding or acknowledging this, however, television and radio and the front pages of newspapers reporting on a wreck invariably speculate on “operator error.” Even workers on the job itself where the wreck occurred suspect at some level that the dead or injured workers must have made some fundamental mistake; to believe otherwise is to recognize the danger we all face and the degree to which our lives are not in our own hands. Insurance companies understand this tendency among us and will conduct interviews as soon as possible after a wreck in the expectation that in this moment of deepest stress we will oversimplify to their benefit, that we will find some error in the actions of the dead or injured that seems to us to explain everything.

While useful for the purposes of some, this oversimplification leads away from the truth and from the real preventatives of missteps that might lead to further wrecks.

Something very analogous may be taking place with regard to the relationship of the Building Trades to the wreck that is the present spate of murder and violence in the African-American communities of San Francisco.

At a recent meeting at City Hall that I attended, activists and representatives of community-based organizations (CBOs) in the southeastern neighborhoods of the City complained that the Building Trades had restricted opportunities for members of their community to enter. They demanded both more “local hiring” on projects in those neighborhoods – where so much of our future work will be – and more of a role for themselves in assuring it. Some spoke of personal experiences of discrimination in their attempts to enter our unions or establish careers in them thirty and forty years ago. Others advocated establishing a company themselves that would focus on hiring in the neighborhoods. All expressed an aching dismay at the violence in those neighborhoods and the conviction that much of the solution lay in the jobs that would be available on projects there through our unions.

The common wisdom says that the best shield against a bullet is a job, and there is truth in the common wisdom.

But this truth is only partial.

Much of the increase in murder and violence in African-American neighborhoods has come among those who are younger than eighteen years. Since 2000, the number of African-American males under eighteen who died in gun violence nationally increased forty percent. In 2007 almost ten percent of African-Americans arrested for murder were under eighteen (SF Chronicle, 29 December 2008). California law says that no one under eighteen can be employed in construction. Our unions and apprenticeships, then, can do nothing directly to address this factor in the wreck. As to what can be done indirectly, we do perhaps more than anyone. We sponsor and attend job fairs. We give presentations to high school students and their counselors. Over and over, year after year, we advocate locally and at the state level for the return of shops to schools. We try and try again to tell young people that we are here as an opportunity for them.

Even where young persons older than eighteen are concerned, it is unlikely that any other organizations – business, non-profit, or labor – exceed the efforts we make through pre-apprenticeships and other preparatory programs both hands-on and online on their behalf.

Also according to the Chronicle (2 January 2009), “In any given year, almost 95 percent of [homicide] victims younger than 25 are high school dropouts, prosecutors said.” Again, we are limited in what we can do to address this factor in the wreck. Almost all of our apprenticeships require for entry a high school diploma, a GED, or some specified equivalent. Apprenticeships with us require hundreds of hours of classroom study and thousands of pages of bookwork. It is reasonable to require that someone demonstrate the discipline and ability to complete this work before we commit to their training. To do otherwise is to put at risk the general level of knowledge that makes us competitive with our much lower-paid non-union counterparts, and thereby to put at risk also the very wages and benefits that make us attractive as a source of jobs.

High school teachers of my acquaintance tell on the one hand of peer pressure among some African-American students against serious study as “acting white” and on the other of truly heroic efforts by many African-American students to succeed in high school without much of what is now a standard prerequisite for that success – without computers, without internet access, without even the freedom to go to a library or to arrive home late from after-school or group study except at real personal danger. Building Trades jobs are not the answer to these factors in the wreck.

Beyond the fact that our jobs can serve as little protection against bullets for those who are under eighteen or those who have no high school diploma or GED, beyond the fact that we have no part in the educational challenges faced by young African-Americans, there is the even grimmer fact that some of those who have died in the recent violence in the City were already Building Trades members. I counted at least four in my first two years in this office. Two I knew fairly well. One was an Operating Engineer who had run man lifts on several jobs on which I myself had worked. Another was an Iron Worker whose progress away from youthful problems and through apprenticeship I had followed with admiration. Both were shot in the Southeast of the City. Far from shielding them from bullets, success in the Building Trades may have made them targets.

After these, I stopped counting.

Nonetheless those in the meeting who argued for Building Trades jobs as a solution to the violence were right in part, just as jobsite safety meetings and attempts to address “operator error” are still important in avoiding wrecks. Our jobs can bring both financial advancement and well-deserved pride. This money and pride can serve as motive to avoid trouble, and a long day spent driving bull pins or nails or ground rods can leave little energy for it. “Local hire” requirements can and should serve as a means to help bring African-Americans into our trades through jobs in the City.

But those in the meeting who believed that the Building Trades were somehow restricting opportunities for the entry of African-Americans were wrong in full. We are not the Building Trades of thirty or forty years ago. Most of us in the Trades know African-American members of our unions who are enjoying or who are about to enjoy full retirements. We should not doubt that many of them faced obstacles in entering our unions or bias during their many years of work, and we should recognize that some of that bias still exists, as elsewhere in our society. At the same time, we should honor them for what they have achieved: Our unions are not only open to African-American applicants, but invite them. Those retirements demonstrate that for at least a generation complete and rewarding careers with us have been available. In fact, we in the Trades understand well that the African-American communities of San Francisco are a prime source both for our future workforce and our future leadership.

To bemoan a supposed exclusion of African-Americans by the Building Trades as a key part of the wreck that is occurring in African-American communities, then, is to do much as the press does when it speculates on “operator error” in the immediate aftermath of a jobsite wreck. It ignores other factors leading to the wreck, factors in which we play no part. Given old habits, thirty- and forty-year-old senses of grievance, it comes as easily to the lips of some as “operator error” comes to the pens and lips of the press. It leads attention away from the kind of efforts that are truly necessary to stop the wreck.

Most who focus on this supposed exclusion will do so from a genuine and profound concern for their community. At the same time, they and we must be wary of those who for their own ends would exploit the preconception of exclusion, just as insurance companies for theirs exploit our tendency in moments of stress to see “operator error”. Those who are truly concerned need to come to understand us; we need to work with them. Our future and the future of their communities are joined at the heart.

 
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