Michael Theriault headshot

San Francisco’s Democratic County Central Committee passed a resolution 28 June supporting Supervisor Mark Farrell’s Citywide Project Labor Agreement Policy. Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer offered an amendment saying that the policy should require an effort to provide opportunities to previously incarcerated individuals.

I was there. I nodded when committee members glanced my way. The amendment passed.

The Building Trades have an exemplary record of helping men and women who have done their time for bad decisions make new, productive, law-abiding lives. No one in the Trades needs to be told this. We know who we are and who has worked beside us. We understand redemption. We transform identities shadowed in shame of error into those burgeoning in pride of craft.

An individual need no longer say, I was a thief. He can say, I am a Plumber. She need no longer say, I was a gang member. She can say, I am a Carpenter. Their hands now build our City, and they can claim full credit: Look, my daughter, my son, I built that.

Our record goes back decades. In 1984 California Senate Bill 450 required the Department of Corrections (CDC) to cooperate with the California State Building and Construction Trades Council (CA BCTC) in establishing inmate apprenticeship programs. This requirement came to be understood as one of pre-apprenticeship; full apprenticeship needs more varied and lengthier exposure to construction processes than is available in prisons.

A 2012 CDC press release reported that in the preceding ten years 500 inmates had obtained certificates in the Inmate Ward Labor Construction Program, a “Pre-Apprenticeship curriculum that teaches a basic overview of the building and trades industry.”

The CDC says that four pre-apprenticeship programs operate in California prisons. It plans to double that number by year’s end.

The Northern California Carpenters Regional Council, which is not affiliated with the CA BCTC but is affiliated with our Council through several local unions, as of 2006 had a pre-apprenticeship program at California State Prison, Sacramento.

And the Iron Workers have drawn apprentices from a “virtual welding” program at Folsom Prison. A 2008 story in weldingdesign.com told of one apprentice “who entered the prison system as a teenager, and did 17 years. Before his release, he got into the welding program. Today, he is with the Ironworkers Local 433 working on a high-rise building. He called … on his cell phone from the 37th floor to tell … how much he loves it.”

Our work for those wanting to build new lives after incarceration, then, is multifarious and growing.

I must acknowledge the efforts in San Francisco of Terry Anders, a retired Iron Worker who has long been an effective advocate and mentor for those who have struggled with the criminal justice system or with addiction. No matter what agreements or requirements we have, the dedicated personal involvement of true believers such as Brother Anders is invaluable in helping one man or woman after another after another through the travails of reinventing lives.

If City government can hack through its bureaucratic brambles to identify and support a squad of Terry Anderses, we will have little to fear and much to gain in the reentry even of hundreds of former inmates into our communities

It was Brother Anders who advocated relentlessly for Iron Worker involvement in a key struggle on behalf of the formerly incarcerated.

Apple Computer had instituted a policy barring former felons from construction of its flagship Cupertino campus.

Under Brother Anders’s prodding, Iron Workers 377 wrote Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, to ask that he rescind the policy. We called out the underrepresentation of some communities in direct employment by the Tech industry, the disproportionate effect of incarceration on those same communities, and the importance of industries ancillary to Tech such as construction to remedy Tech’s disparities.

When Cook didn’t respond, the Iron Workers went to the press against Apple, one of the largest corporations on the planet. We enlisted the help of then-California Attorney General, now United States Senator Kamala Harris, of Assemblymember David Chiu, of State Senator Mark Leno, and of the CA BCTC.

Apple rescinded the policy. Workers who had been denied employment on the project because of felony records were put to work.

City government has a ways to go to approach our record in helping the formerly incarcerated.

It can start by overcoming its own dysfunctionality.

Former Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi wanted to institute preapprenticeship in City jails. The Trades were committed to CityBuild Academy under the leadership of Pat Mulligan, a Carpenters 22 member who understood our apprenticeships and our dispatch systems, and we did not want to see programs duplicated unnecessarily. I urged Mirkarimi to work with CityBuild.

But Mirkarimi never bridged his political gap with City Hall. We in the Trades can’t know just why. We can instead mourn the opportunity lost.

And we can ask that now the City follow Brother Mulligan with a new CityBuild leader who understands us as well, and that this leader work with new Sheriff Vicki Hennessy to bring preapprenticeships into City jails, just as they have long been in California prisons.

Organized Labor


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