The City of Oakland is holding a series of three community engagement meetings to examine ways to mitigate inequities in a potential Project Labor Agreement (PLA), backed by local building trades unions and their supporters, that would require developers to hire only union labor and contactors for projects that are built on city-owned land and or involve city funding.
Under a PLA, also called a Community Workforce Agreement (CWA), contractors and sub-contractors on city projects exceeding a certain dollar amount would use only union labor or pay prevailing wages. “All workers on the projects covered by PLA/CWA will be referred to contactors through the various unions’ dispatch process, (and) all workers must either join the union or pay union dues /fees,” according to a city factsheet.
While a traditional PLA could benefit the over 30 unions that belong to the Construction Trades Council of Alameda County, the concern of the African American construction workers and contractors and many in the city is that such an agreement could solidify the long-term racial disparities that have marginalized Black contractors in the industry and limited the job prospects of African American construction workers, most of whom have only been able to find jobs working for African American non-union contractors.
Many of the building trades unions, which send workers to construction sites from their hiring halls, have been historically segregated, admitting almost no Black workers. The unions, so far, have been unwilling to release data on their racial composition, though there are indications that they may be willing in coming months to respond to the city’s request for information.
The City Council, which has been considering a PLA for a while, currently has no proposed agreement on the table. Instead, the council has directed staff to hold community meetings to “identify barriers to training, employment and retention in construction-related jobs/careers and opportunities for small contactors and offer suggestions how existing equity policies can be strengthened and/or expanded through a community workforce agreement ordinance.”
In addition to mandating community outreach meetings, the council has also asked the city’s Department of Race and Equity to look at the disparate impacts and make suggestions to reduce inequities.
“When we do racial equity work, we always look at disparities…to work toward closing those disparities,” in order to reduce the high level of unemployment among African Americans and underemployment among Latinos, said Darlene Flynn, director of the Department of Race and Equity in an interview with the Oakland Post.
Underscoring the importance of the community engagement meetings, Flynn said that “in evaluating how an agreement might be written to produce more equitable outcomes, we need to look at the barriers, and it’s best to talk to those who are closest to the challenges.”
“This kind of community conversation helps us to not make assumptions about what the problems are,” but to proceed based on facts and data, she said.
“These are questions that need to be asked and answered,” said Flynn.
Agreeing, City of Oakland Employment Services Supervisor Jonothan Dumas said, “In these meetings, we are trying to find out who has been affected, what their experiences have been, who might benefit and whether they ran into barriers that have resulted in the disparities that we see, looking at how we can incorporate ways to offset these barriers.”
Some of the questions the city wants to address:
- Should a defined percentage of the hours on city projects go to local workers (such as 50 percent)?
- Should there be a requirement to hire the formerly incarcerated?
- Should some of the jobs be reserved for people who live in certain Oakland zip codes?
- What should be the requirements for hiring local apprentices?
- Should there be funding for training and removing barriers to employment?
About 100 people, including African American contractors and construction workers, attended the first outreach meeting last Thursday in East Oakland. Many were concerned that a PLA would exclude them from job opportunities on city projects.
Speaking at the meeting, African American contractor Eddie Dillard said, “A Project Labor Agreements benefits white contractors. Ninety percent of Black contractors are non-union.”
Union training programs are not located in Oakland but in outlying areas, like Benicia and San Jose, he said. “We have been asking the unions for 10 years how many African American members they have, but they have refused” to release the data, he said.
Most of those locals “have zero Blacks in them,” he said.
The next community engagement meeting will be held Saturday, Aug. 10, 10 a.m. to noon, at the West Oakland Youth Center, 3233 Market St. in Oakland.