During the apex of U.S. construction black tradesmen were ultimately locked out

Apr 14 '19 | By Ray

The construction industry has provided outstanding opportunities for blue collar workers in the United States, but those benefits has been largely restricted to white men and their families. After World War II, home ownership along with Social Security, became one of the few entitlements that allowed people to feel “American”. As numerous studies have shown, the racial exclusivity of the post-World War II federal subsidies for home ownership, combined with the lack of fair housing laws, disproportionately benefited white families. The resulting level of wealth accumulation from the 1940’s to the 1960’s ensured that the middle class would remain predominantly white and suburban.

Post World War II also marked a time when federal government construction spending was at an apex, during which the building trade unions used racially motivated tactics to restrict black workers from taking part in the booming industry. Construction industry unionization was at its apex in 1940-1960, in fact, during this period half of all construction jobs were union controlled, and in many cities outside of the Southern U.S. labor unions wielded tremendous power. During the this time Federal & local laws were passed that required government contractors to pay “prevailing wages”, which provided unions extraordinary leverage to organize the construction industry. These laws and organizing efforts ensured that  the majority white construction labor poolwould receive a fair share of profits from the construction boom.

Thus, although the construction industry literally paved the way for the emergence of a postwar economy, black workers, tradesmen, and craftsmen remained largely trapped in industrial jobs that provided lower wages, and very few opportunities to move up the ranks into management. In fact, during the period between 1940-1965 black unemployment increased rather than decreased, even during the heyday of the postwar economic  boom, because of the segregation of blacks into low and semiskilled jobs. Due to de-industrialization in the inner-city black workers were made vulnerable to layoffs, as factories were relocated to the suburbs.

It was in this context that black activists of the 1960’s, in mostly northern U.S. cities, frustrated with the glacial pace of post-World War II racial liberalism and the slow pace of politically established civil rights leaders, built a large blue-collar grassroots movement, to confront institutionalized racism in the construction industry through large scale protest. They were led by a combination of black youth, community activists, and black construction workers who did not fit neatly into the standard civil rights, black power, and labor movements. Their mobilizations gave everyday people the means to put forward their own vision to confront the construction industry and the so-called urban crisis.

Although, the black struggle for inclusion in the northern building trades unions and the construction industry began long before the rise of direct action protest during the 1960’s. During the first half of 20th century, black tradesmen in the United States were restricted to the low-skill “trowel trades” of the construction industry. Even though black tradesmen earned good wages hauling materials, excavating rock, and performing other low-end construction work, this type of work, and even construction jobs that required specialized skills, were rarely permanent and always physically taxing and dangerous. When black laborers were no longer needed at a jobsite they were laid off. With no union protection or job placement assistance, black tradesmen wandered from site to site, city to city, in search of work, much like today. Black tradesmen in the postwar era found it almost impossible to advance to positions that required more skills and paid higher wages. Unlike many whites, they could not use construction work to climb the economic and social ladder into the U.S. middle class.

When black tradesmen attempted to join construction labor unions it proved fruitless, and almost impossible. In New York City for example, the industry was almost entirely white. Some union locals made no attempt to cover up their exclusion of black tradesmen. Local 3 of the electrical workers outright refused to admit black tradesmen. Plumbers Local 2 enforced racial exclusiveness by not issuing licenses to black tradesmen who had gained experience or completed apprentice programs in other states. Sheet Metal Workers Local 28 was strictly a father-son local with no black members at all. The Carpenters union had more black members than other trades, but their union halls segregated members as well. After World War 1, black carpenters were assigned to Local 1888 in Harlem, and relegated black carpenters to jobs in Harlem only, limiting the number of jobsites available to them. As a result, black membership in Local 1888 fell from 440 carpenters in 1926 to only 65 in 1935.

In other instances’ some unions had no black members, or only  a token number: Local 1  Plumbers 3,000 members total and only 9 blacks; Local 2 Plumbers and Steamfitters had 4,100 members total and only 16 blacks; Local 28 Sheet Metal Workers had no black tradesmen among its 3,300 members. In the 1960’s only the 42 Carpenters and Joiners locals had a sizable number of black members; out of 34,000 members, 5,000 were black/African-American. At a time when the construction industry was booming due to government-funded building projects, unions excluded black tradesmen from lucrative jobs, denied them access to apprenticeship programs, and barred them from advancement in one of the most promising labor markets for unskilled men with little or no specialized education.


White construction foremen usually hired black tradesmen only when they were behind schedule. Even highly skilled black tradesmen would in most cases find themselves hired to perform the worst jobs, and provided the least pay, often in a temporary position as a “chipper”. Chippers operated a pneumatic hammer that broke concrete, which was one of the most basic, dangerous, and unhealthy jobs at a construction site. Men working as chippers for long years did not live long; many developed ‘silicosis’ from breathing in dust from the machines and spending hours in deep holes with little or no ventilation.

Whenever black tradesmen would ask for permanent or more skilled labor positions, foremen and unions would give them the run-around, they’d say: ‘Do you have a union membership card/book?’ If the answer was no, they’d say, ‘Go get a union membership card/book and we’ll give you a job.’ When the black tradesman would go to the union hall and ask to become a member, they’d say, ‘Listen, if you get a job, we’ll grant you membership.’

As a result of this open and outright discrimination, black tradesmen formed independent worker associations that served as parallel labor organizations, not unlike those found among black craftsmen in other segregated industries in the early 20th century. Over time black tradesmen sought greater control of their work through state and local licensing to become independent construction contractors.

This ongoing struggle to empower black tradesmen & women is still prevalent today, and although black tradesmen organized to desegregate the construction industry, and make affirmative action politically possible, much work still must be done to ensure equality. Much pressure must still be applied from all races of people to make sure building trade unions don’t lose sight of their role in this system: to champion the cause of all workers. 


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