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From the January-February 2008 issue of Union Democracy Review #171
Black and white can unite vs. construction discrimination
By Herman Benson
The following was stimulated by an interesting article on black labor in the fall issue of Democratic Left:
Bill Fletcher writes, "Black labor must not only speak for the Black worker but Black labor must be the voice speaking on behalf of all workers." I'd like to suggest one area in which this excellent principle could be put into actual practice, namely, in the construction trades where, I am convinced, black and white cooperation could lead to progressive reform for all. I realize that this idea may seem strange because, as we all know, blacks have suffered egregious discrimination, above all in construction and still do. Nevertheless, blacks have managed to win a secure foothold in many construction trades and should be able to count upon moral and material support from the many blacks who have already gained important points of power in the wider labor movement, in both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win.
I refer to those blacks who have already won entry into construction unions as full book members. But becoming a member of a union in construction does not, definitely not, guarantee fair treatment in access to work. Job discrimination is widespread in construction. Unlike manufacturing, for example, where a union contract provides a measure of job security through seniority rights, construction offers no seniority protection because jobs are temporary. Even while building a road, digging a trench, or putting up a house, a construction worker wonders where the next job will comes from when this one is over. At that point, he (sometimes she) must apply for work once again, to a contractor or at the hiring hall. At that point, almost all construction workers are vulnerable. At that point, black construction workers, especially black women, face the danger of discrimination most acutely; but the reality is that all construction workers face a similar danger, whites less than blacks, but they face it nevertheless. This is one of those big facts about construction that never reaches outsiders but is common coin to insiders.
Almost every construction contract, with rare exceptions, gives employers the unilateral, unchallengeable right to reject any applicant for employment without citing any reason. In the IBEW, construction contracts read bluntly: "The employer shall have the right to reject any applicant for employment."
It is against the law to discriminate openly on grounds of race, sex etc, but it is not against the union contract to discriminate without citing any reason whatsoever. And so employers can, and do, use this provision to circumvent the law by turning away blacks and women. But employers also use their right to reject to discriminate against active union members regardless of race or sex. They don't want union-builders on their projects; they don't want workers who insist that contracts be honored, that health and safety standards be obeyed. They circulate lists of so-called troublemakers and freeze them out of work. Here is an area where whites and blacks, with a common interest in combating discrimination, could find the basis for united action.
This arbitrary right to reject is a powerful weapon for employers; it is a form of anti-union discrimination that is a serious problem for construction unions. Responsible leaders of construction locals know how serious it is. At the convention of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in 2001, delegates voted to direct their international officers to eliminate the offending clause and make rejections subject to "good cause," which would give the victims recourse through the grievance procedure. But no action was taken. At the 2006 convention, the delegates restated their position. So far, no progress. We can understand why international officers are reluctant to press the issue; contractors will surely resist any change; the uncontrolled right to reject gives them a whip hand over shop stewards and outspoken unionists. But delegates to IBEW conventions are the business managers, the business agents, the executive board members, and the local leaders who confront employers every day. They know how deadly the right to reject can be. For black workers, who face discrimination in so many ways, this is one area where the battle against discrimination is in the interests of all. In this case, the common cause of blacks and whites is no radical's dream but a down-to-earth necessity.
The campaign against the employers' right to reject is only half the battle. In some construction unions, incumbent officers use their control over hiring halls as a source of patronage to entrench themselves in power. By parceling out the secure, long lasting, lucrative jobs to their favored supporters, they build their political machine. In such cases, a tiny minority of privileged characters get the best jobs while others take whatever is left. The majority knows they are bedeviled by favoritism and discrimination. A privileged minority, maybe 5%, are the beneficiaries. As always, blacks are the worst victims; but all, black and white, suffer under the system.
A fair hiring system in the construction trades is in the common interests of all, or almost all. Without it, members' rights will never be secure, not at work and not in the union. The need is for a campaign to end the employers' arbitrary veto power over job assignments and for the strict enforcement of fair referral rules in the hiring halls. That kind of campaign would serve the needs of all now in construction: blacks, whites, women, minorities. Admittedly, it does not address the broader issue of discrimination against those who have never won a place in construction, but progress can come by building upon positions already won. Blacks and women are still a small minority in construction, but they have already won an important foothold. I think that, minority though they are, they could serve as a catalyst to make fair hiring a live issue in the construction trades, precisely because it involves a principle and practice that affects race and gender and yet transcends race and gender.
There has been little concern in the general public over any of the problems of construction workers, even though they die and are injured in excessive numbers on the job. But decent-minded people are learning to detest discrimination; and, increasingly, they give moral support to the call for equality. In oblique fashion, the issue has been raised in construction. Black unionists are a small minority in the trades; but they have a claim for support from the public and from their brothers and sisters who have already achieved strong bases in the larger labor movement.
Is it really possible? The construction trades an arena for black and white collaboration in the demand for a fair hiring system? Think about it.
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