Commentary: Local Unions Proposal Will Shut Out Black, Contractors, Workers in Oakland Construction Projects

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The City of Oakland tried to sell an audience of primarily Black residents and a handful of Black contractors on establishing a Project Labor Agreement on all construction projects over $1 million at a meeting hosted by the Office of the Administrator Office of Contract Compliance on July 25, 2019.

The proposed PLA is being sponsored by the Alameda County Building Trades Council (ACBTC), which is the umbrella organization for all unions operating in the county.

ACBTC’s actions will result in insuring work for their membership while it effectively locks out Black contractors who are not dues-paying members of a local. Since Black contractors won’t get contracts on projects funded and subsidized by the city, whether by design or not, neither will Black men and women get opportunities to work.

Of the approximately 120 people in attendance, 80 were Black people seeking employment in the construction industry. There were three Black developers and eight Black construction sub- contractors. The City staff told the Black unemployed residents if they joined the union the chances they would get a good-paying job would be greatly increased. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In the real world people cannot just join a local. You have to have a sponsor (a firm that recommends you). You must be employed by the sponsor, that means you must have a job first before you are eligible to join a union local.  In order to be in the construction industry you must go through an apprenticeship program and there are NO apprenticeship programs in Oakland, I repeat there are no apprenticeship program in Oakland. The last apprenticeship program in Oakland was the Skill Center on San Pablo avenue in the ’80s. It closed in the ’90s.

Elaine Brown, developer of affordable housing in West Oakland asked the staff if the PLA would apply to all Oakland projects and staff replied that the proposed PLA would only apply to projects that had a City of Oakland subsidy of some form, either land or money.

Another participant asked if all the projects using large building cranes in downtown Oakland would be subject to the PLA and staff replied that because the projects are privately financed the City has no control over who the hire. No local business participation requirement and no local hire requirements on these projects.

Robert Browning, a member of the East Bay Small Business Council and small black contractor, stated that ACBTC has been asked for 10 years to provide a breakdown by its 37 locals of the number of Oakland residents who are ethnic minorities. According to Browning, 20 locals have no Black members and the remaining 17 locals have less than 10 percent Black Oakland workers.

Browning also said that unions have abandoned training Oakland Blacks in construction and moved their training facilities to Sacramento, Concord, Benicia, Pleasanton and San Jose, well out of reach for Oakland residents. Until the unions  start recruiting, training, and placing Oakland Black residents in jobs the unions don’t deserve special privileges, Browning said.

The reality of the proposed PLA is further complicated by the ill-conceived Surplus Public Lands policy that staff is circulating around the City and due for consideration by the City Council in September. This effort by City Councilmember Dan Kalb is a concept of designing a program to sell public land for the highest and best use.

The City should delay consideration of a city wide PLA until the City Disparity Study currently being conducted is released and shape the Surplus Land Policy based on the finding of the study.

There were no council members present at the July 25 meeting, and, to date, very few of the Council members have been actively engaged in the community outreach efforts.

Deborah Flynn, director of the Department of Equity and Race said that the “the Council is looking for (public) input before they decide whether to mandate a PLA and what elements should be included.”

The City will host another PLA outreach meeting at the West Oakland Senior Center in August. Some City Council members should be present. The Oakland Black Contractors should have their voices heard.

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