By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
It was a surreal sight. Three young Black men were standing idly on a South Los Angeles street corner. Directly across from them was a street construction project. Not one of the workers on the site were African American. The site was on a street corner in what’s still a predominantly Black neighborhood. With the proliferation of street construction in Los Angeles, this same sight can be seen countless times, at countless locations every day on the city’s streets. That is young Black men idling on streets while construction projects bustle with non-Black workers. How to explain this?
There are lots of stock answers. Take your pick, Blacks are: A. too lazy. B. using weed or dope C. unwilling to apply, to take classes, to pay union dues, or to join unions D. possess criminal records E. won’t work for low pay. These answers dump the burden for the invisibility of Black men and women on street construction projects squarely back on Blacks. It’s vicious victim blaming with a vengeance.
All these answers are dead wrong. The reasons for Black invisibility at street construction sites in L.A. are racist exclusion, cheap labor, and the refusal of L.A. city and county officials to enforce anti-discrimination labor laws. But most importantly, the reason is racist exclusion. The starting point is the unions. The long history of racial closed doors toward African Americans in the trades is well-known and documented. Construction being at the top of the list. These are the plum paying and plum benefit jobs in the construction industry. They have long been jealously guarded as the sole preserve of blue-collar whites.
The only change in recent years is the willingness to crack the door open at the low pay and benefit end for Latino and other foreign workers. They have been a ready, willing, and endless pool of relatively inexpensive labor to do the hardest, grittiest, manual labor.
The unions for decades erected open and hidden dodges to bar Blacks. They included closed shops, hiring based on family insider contacts and preferences, lengthy, costly, often inaccessible apprenticeship programs and training programs that exclude Blacks.
Cities and Counties have tried to break down the racial barriers with a sea of requirements to promote diversity, such as the mandate to hire a certain percentage of persons from the geographical areas of the construction projects. This has made a small dent in the rigid exclusion barrier, but only a small dent.
Contractors have an endless array of dodges to skirt these requirements. They include: Hiring offices far removed from the areas of the project, reliance on friends and relatives for referrals, little to no public disclosure of hiring opportunities, and token if any outreach programs within the communities where the street construction projects are.
Unions and contractors have gotten a huge boost from court rulings that bar work force racial quotas, and specific timetables for bringing a construction crews workforce up to standards of that represent the ethnic mix in a community. These contractors also know the labyrinthine requirements of the contract bidding process, and have the financial wherewithal such as bonding, insurance, and certification required to snag the lucrative contracts. These same strict requirements on the bidding process slam the doors for many small Black and medium sized African American contractors.
Once the bid is accepted, contractors, move quickly to recycle workers and sub-contractors –skilled and non-skilled, that they have used on prior projects. They can do this while claiming color-blind hiring through clauses in many construction contracts that give employers the absolute right to reject any applicant for employment without citing any reason. In one labor contract the wording is: “The employer shall have the right to reject any applicant for employment.” This is a huge loophole that contractors hide behind when confronted with the charge of racism and a lily-white workforce all the while loudly proclaiming their adherence to equal opportunity, and non-discrimination policies. This perpetuates the insular, good ole boy (and occasionally girl) network to exclude African American workers on these sites.
There have been protests, sit-ins and shut down protests by civil rights groups and Black labor advocacy organizations at the various sites. There have been countless demands that city and county officials rigorously require full publicly disclosed bidding on street construction projects, vigorously enforce monitoring and compliance with workforce diversity requirements as a requisite for the awarding of contracts, and totally open and promote training and apprenticeship programs.
Where this is done, there has been some improvement in the number of Blacks on major construction projects in both skilled and non-skilled positions. However, the resistance and the sneaky dodges that contractors and unions employ haven’t ended. That must end. This is the only thing that will ensure that the sight I and others see daily of Blacks standing idle on corners while others work on construction projects right in front of them will end.
Photo credit: cnn.com