Unions & Racism: An Age-Old, Institutional Problem Continues Unabated

It is rather ironic that, last week, union bosses used the anniversary Rev. Martin Luther King’s assassination to try to drum up support for the union cause. You see, even after all these years, racism and discrimination within the walls of the House of Labor is still very real. As noted by UnionFacts.com, since 2000, there have been over 4,200 complaints filed against unions for racial discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. In some cities, it is a bigger problem than in others. However, the one area where union racism seems to rear its ugly head the most often is with the construction trade unions, where African Americans are often excluded from work.


Systemic racism in the building trades has been built into the construction industry as Harry Alford, President & CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, has noted.

Due to the Jim Crow laws of the South, there were many Black southern craftsmen who would travel to perform their skills.  Many would go to places like New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, etc. and would out compete local white contractors who could not perform as well as they did and could not settle for their affordable pricing.  It was because of this, that construction unions in the North were formed to block out Black crews from coming into communities and providing a better service for a cheaper price.  Soon after the unions were formed they set in motion the Davis-Bacon Act (named for two New York congressmen).  This act set up arbitrary labor wage scales so that Black craftsmen could no longer under price their white counter parts.  They all had to pay a certain price, prevailing wage, at a minimum and competition became no more.  With the price competition out of the way, the whites moved in through political favor and blatant racism.  This would be followed with Project Labor Agreements which meant some projects would be declared “Union Only”.  With the construction unions discriminating against Blacks, PLO’s [sic] would also mean “Whites Only”.

This exclusionary racial system is still prevalent today and has been the subject of much controversy in the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia.


A January 2008 review of trade unionists working on $500-million worth of Philly public projects during the preceding five years conducted by then Inquirer columnist Tom Ferrick concluded, “these well paid union jobs … remain all-male, nearly all-white and the majority live in the suburbs.”

The source of this current suburban give-away by Mayor Nutter is a thing called a Project Labor Agreement (PLA).

PLAs are contractual arrangements giving construction trade unions control over jobs, generally on public works projects. PLAs require all companies receiving contracts for those projects to hire union workers.

PLA’s have an ugly history of working against the inclusion of minority workers and minority contractors.

The exclusion comes from the legacy of aggressive job discrimination in too many trade unions … race discrimination by the large white construction firms that generally get public works contracts abet both actively and passively.


Plus, PLAs raise the costs of public works project.

PLAs raise costs by requiring the payment of union wage rates plus contributions to unions’ pension funds, health funds and other miscellaneous administrative fees that tack on upwards of 18 percent to a project’s labor costs.


PLAs make little sense for minorities historically excluded from the lucrative construction which is why PLAs are opposed by the National Black Chamber of Commerce, the Latin Builders Association, the U.S. Pan-Asian Chamber of Commerce, the American-Asian Contractors Association and Women Construction Owners and Executives, USA.

“The execution of project labor agreements [are] disadvantageous to minority-owned construction companies and their desire to employ minority workers,” Anthony W. Robinson, president of the Minority Business Enterprise Legal Defense and Education Fund stated during Capitol Hill testimony last September.


While one Philadelphia-area local has had a more than 30-year history of discriminatory practices, in 2007, the controversy erupted again when a hangman’s noose was discovered on Philadelphia’s union-only Comcast construction project. The incident prompted construction workers and city officials to rally in anger, calling for the city’s construction industry to be more racially balanced.

“Let’s also be clear that the kind of racial harassment that Paul Solomon experienced is not limited to just him,” demonstration leader A. Bruce Crawley, former head of the African American Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement. “In fact, we’ve been informed that racial discrimination and harassment against black workers and businesses take place at virtually every construction site in this city.”

Rather than union bosses addressing the problem of racism, however, the offender continued working, while the victim had to go find other work.

Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown asked him [Pat Gillepsie, Business Manager of Philadelphia’s Building and Construction Trades Council] what happened to the white construction worker accused of displaying a noose at the Comcast Tower construction site and to the black worker who complained about it.

“That really set people off,” Councilman W. Wilson Goode recalled. “She asked what happened to that guy, if he was still working, and he said, ‘Of course he’s working. He’s a skilled tradesman.’

“His response about the black worker was essentially that he has to get his own job.”


Across the country, in California, the exclusion of minorities has led to the Aboriginal Blackmen United pushing back at the IBEW for solar-panel work.

Now, in Las Vagas, it is not necessarily the workers themselves who are creating a ruckus over racist unions, but the minority owners of businesses.

In an economy like ours, jobs are hard to come by. However, one group of struggling business owners claims that in its case the economy is not blame.

The group has filed a lawsuit against Laborers’ International Local No 872 for racial discrimination, breach of contract, and misleading business practices.

The group, made up of several African American business owners, claims the union blocked them from getting work.

Group members say they are either out of business or close to it and blame racial discrimination.

“We asked everyone to come because we’re filing a racial discrimination lawsuit against Local 872,” said Gene Collins.

Collins is leading the effort against Local 872 and its business manager, Tommy White. Collins and several African American-owned construction cleaning businesses claim the union is purposely keeping them from getting work because of their race.

“What did occur is we got put on a list,” said Collins. “Phone calls [were] made to general contractors saying that we were not in compliance with Local 872 and therefore they cannot do business with us.”

Laborers’ local 872’s business manager, Tommy White, denied the group’s assertions, claiming that the black business owners are playing the race card.


“By flipping through this, I truly believe it’s frivolous; there’s no merit to it,” said White.

White says the union never sought out the companies in the lawsuit and that there would not have been any benefit in doing so.


“I think it’s an action by several contractors that just have poor business practices,” White continued. “This is what I would refer to as using the minority card; using the fact you’re a minority to make big ruckus against Tommy White, against 872, when it’s going to come out that this is just a bunch of lies.”

Were the most recent allegations of discrimination in Las Vegas an isolated case, one might possibly believe the union boss out of hand. However, with a history of union racism prevalent among construction trade unions, it is not without reason to believe that the business owners have a legitimate case.

Union bosses [most of whom are white] are trying to lay claim to Reverend King’s legacy. Yet, racism is still very prevalent in certain unions. Given this, minorities might want to consider whose interests are really being served by pairing Reverend King with today’s union bosses—and who will ultimately lose if that King’s legacy is given up.

[Emphasis added throughout.]

“I bring reason to your ears, and, in language as plain as ABC, hold up truth to your eyes.” Thomas Paine, December 23, 1776


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