The construction industry pledges to eliminate racism, but without a plan

Jul 14 '20 | By Ray

The voices of Black workers are being amplified as the recent protest across the U.S. against state sponsored police murders of unarmed black people and racial injustice have spilled into the labor conversation, and the lack of black men earning a living wage in the construction industry specifically.

As a result, construction firms and union halls across the country are responding to this heightened awareness of employment discrimination with statements calling for an end to racism in the construction industry. Some firms have even introduced new programs to attract and retain diverse team members, but not any specific to the black community.

Driving this wellspring of worker activism: pledges by construction firms large and small that in the past have done little to balance the economic scales for Black tradesmen or to eradicate toxic work environments that have notoriously plagued the industry.

Turner Construction, one of the largest construction firms in the U.S. has posted messages of support for diversity and eliminating racism in the industry on its websites and on social media. “Our Black community, especially, is hurting right now… At Turner, racism and discrimination of any kind, in our offices and on our project sites is not and will not be tolerated. We work hard to create a diverse and inclusive culture. In view of the injustices that continue to occur in the communities where we live and work, it is clear we all must do more." wrote Turner CEO Peter Davoren. CLICK THE LINK TO READ TURNER'S FULL LETTER

And In the home city of George Flyod, Daniel L. Johnson, CEO, and David C. Mortenson, chairman, of Minneapolis-based Mortenson, signed a statement from 29 Minnesota-based companies calling for an end to racial inequities in the construction industry.

Hundreds of other construction firms, many of whom compete for public works projects through the implementation of ‘Project Labor Agreements’ (PLA), have also joined together to form outreach programs, so-called sensitivity training, and hard hat stickers showing their pledge to ensure their workplaces are free from racism, harassment, hazing and bullying.

Despite driving high-profile initiatives, these types of PR stunts are basically the same ole construction industry tough talk, without any bite. “The only jobs being made available to locals and minorities are the laborers jobs…The higher paying and higher skilled jobs are just not available.” President and CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, John Harmon.

John Harmon, also said,“From my personal experience and the research I have seen, PLAs have had no favorable impact on employment and contracts for minorities and women in construction…In most urban cities in New Jersey, the elected Democratic officials’ campaigns are overwhelmingly funded by unions who promote project labor agreements under the pretense that they will create jobs and contracts for minority and women. But in reality, the real winners are the elected official and the unions. No jobs, no contracts..."

Being called out are construction firms and construction labor unions that are publicly throwing their support behind the Black Lives Matter movement , and other social causes while continuing the status quo of not hiring black men, and guaranteeing them union protection.

At the same time, many construction firms have been criticized for relegating workers, many of them black people, to low pay and harsh working conditions.

“Black Job Matters was organized because outside developers come into our communities with promises to hire local contractors and local workers, but inevitably fail to keep their promises forcing Black and minority workers to watch on the sideline as others benefit instead,” said Elder Reginald Benjamin, founder of Black Jobs Matter “We are left out of the rewards of rebuilding our own communities.”

On June 25th the organization under the Black Jobs Matter banner, were protesting Park East Construction Corp.,  a New York state Contractor, who has avoided hiring local black workers from the local community. Black workers are particularly angry because the $46 million put aside for the Park East construction project comes from local taxes.

Black tradesmen and tradeswomen are not being treated with proper dignity, and are not being promoted fairly in the field and in the trailer. And in many cases there is no black leadership within the these companies and or union halls at all, resulting in black tradespeople having no place to express this type of discrimination without taking legal steps.

Industry leaders should affirm that they stand behind the anti-discrimination policies, and will continue to operate in accordance with U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC] guidelines and regulations, or they may not be prepared to address the implication that has on their bottom line.

Even as the drum beat of change is approaching, not one major construction firm in the U.S. has introduced any proposal that specifically addresses the lack of black workers in the craft trades, or any initiative to attract new black apprentice. Currently black tradesmen make up approximately only 3% of the craft trade industry, and only 6% of the construction industry that their forefathers built with skill for over 400 years.

The fact that black workers are significantly underrepresented in all crafts of construction union shops and non-union shops is a systemic racial issue, this injustice has been persistent over the past decades and there appears to be no type of improvement coming within the next ten years unless the industry make drastic changes.


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