In a recent news article, the secretary-treasurer of the local Building Trades Council asserted that racism is no longer a problem within the construction unions. He acknowledged that the construction trades have a history of excluding Black workers, but he said that is over.
Unfortunately, the evidence indicates a different reality, and there is no way for Andreas Cluver of the Building Trades Council to support his point, since the organizations he represents refuse to reveal their membership by ethnicity.
However, we do know for sure that on city-funded construction projects in the City of Oakland, Black workers get only 9 percent of the work, in spite of the fact that they make up 25 percent of the population (See records of the Oakland Office of Contract Compliance). And we know from national statistics that African-Americans are 12.3 percent of the U.S. population and only 6 percent of those employed in construction.
One of few councilmembers who has consistently protested discrimination against Black workers in construction, cannabis and other arenas important to the Black community is Desley Brooks.
Instead of taking the issues Brooks raises as an opportunity for discussion and change, several of the organizations Mr. Cluver represents are attempting to unseat her using an “Independent Expenditure Committee.”
The electricians union has contributed $10,000 to the expenditure committee. Data use reports that nationally only 2 percent of electricians are women and only 6 percent are Black.
Interestingly, supporters of Mayor Libby Schaff, whose gentrification and housing policies have also been opposed by Brooks, is contributing to the same “Independent Expenditure Committee” and so is the locally-based corporate-funded charter organization.
The building trades have started demanding recently that they get virtually all the work on city-funded construction projects, even if it means that Black workers will continue to be less employed, by virtue of their underrepresentation in the construction unions.
CM Brooks is one of few who has had the courage to ask questions about these demands.
The national unemployment rate in March 2018 was 7.2 percent for African-Americans and 3.3 percent for whites. These numbers fluctuate, but the 2 to 1 ratio between Black and white unemployment has remained the same for decades.
And a recent national meta-analysis indicates that there has been no decrease in job discrimination against African-Americans over the last 25 years. (See Quillian, Pager, Hexel, and Mitboen 2017).
Jobs in construction offer relatively high wages. Unlike many manufacturing jobs, most of the labor cannot be exported to lower-wage states or countries. It is considered a growth industry by the Department of Labor and is therefore an important industry for a group which experiences high unemployment.
This could be an historic moment, given that unemployment is relatively low for whites. The Building Trades could more easily develop an ethic of racial solidarity.
These unions could support racially progressive elected officials. They could take the structural steps necessary to welcome large number of Black workers into their ranks and facilitate their speedy achievement of journey person status.
This would require locating apprenticeship programs that are accessible to Oakland residents in this community, finally revealing their numbers by ethnicity and joining with all stakeholders to work together to take other pro-active steps.
Such steps of solidarity would help the whole labor movement and the general position of working-class people in the Bay Area.
Kitty Kelly Epstein, PhD is a professor of education and urban studies.