Can Progress on Diversity Be Union-Made?

Staring at the wall of glass clawing its way up the unfinished facade of the Winthrop Center in downtown Boston — 53 floors of commercial and residential space soaring 690 feet — Travis Watson isn’t interested in the grandeur of the thing. He wants to know who’s working on it.

“It doesn’t pass the eye test,” he scoffs: In a city whose non-Hispanic white population has dwindled to 45 percent, it’s hard to see Black and brown faces on the site.

He has more than his eyesight to go by. In 2018, Mayor Martin J. Walsh — now President Biden’s labor secretary — appointed Mr. Watson to lead the Boston Employment Commission, the body created to monitor compliance with the Boston Residents Jobs Policy. The policy mandates giving a minimum share of work to city residents, women and people of color on large private construction projects and those that are publicly funded.

The latest version of the ordinance, from 2017, requires that Asian, Black and Latino workers get at least 40 percent of the work hours on sanctioned projects to better reflect the city’s demographics. (It also mandates that 51 percent of the hours go to city residents and 12 percent to women.) Mr. Watson complains that while many projects fail to meet the benchmarks, nobody is penalized.

When the commission reviewed the Winthrop Center project in mid-September, when it was roughly halfway done, only 32 percent of the hours worked had gone to people of color. Other downtown projects have similar shortfalls. In September, even a project to renovate City Hall — the building where the targets were written and the Employment Commission meets — was shy of the mark.

“We should be going higher,” Mr. Watson said. “This is a floor.”

Boston is one of the nation’s most solidly Democratic cities. It just elected Michelle Wu, an outspoken progressive, as mayor by a resounding margin. She campaigned heavily on a promise to expand opportunities for minority businesses and to empower workers and communities of color with the sort of policy proposals that led to the creation of the Employment Commission — proposals aimed at ensuring that lucrative opportunities are fairly distributed. But the projects underway in Boston show how much harder it is to deliver on goals of racial equity than to set them.

In Boston and beyond, building is one of the last American industries offering good jobs to workers without a college degree. The prospect of trillions of dollars of new federal funding for infrastructure projects under Mr. Biden’s Build Back Better program is raising hopes that roads, bridges, railways, wind farms, electric grids and water mains could provide millions of good construction jobs for a generation or more.

What infuriates Mr. Watson is that, as he views it, unions for the building trades are the main impediment keeping people of color from building sites. He recalls one of his appearances before Boston’s City Council: “A councilor got up to say this is a union city,” he said. “For me, he was saying this is a white city, a city for white workers.”

This tension has opened an uncomfortable rift between elements of the nation’s traditional Democratic coalition. Prominent advocates of racial equity push for Black and Hispanic contractors, whose operations are often small and nonunion but hire a lot of workers of color.

Unions push back against the charges, sometimes forcefully, arguing that the growing number of apprentices of color indicates an embrace of diversity. In the first three months of this year, for example, nearly 30 percent of apprentices across the building trades in Massachusetts were nonwhite, up from 24 percent six years earlier.

The unions also contend that nonunion contractors and their allies are cynically using a discussion of racial diversity to exploit workers.

“The most vocal critics of our vigorous, intentional and ongoing efforts to improve our diversity, equity, and inclusion practices are often directly employed, funded, or formally aligned with nonunion special interest groups,” Renee Dozier, business agent of a Boston area local of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said in a statement. Many critics, she added, “have a direct profit motive to see wage and safety conditions watered down in one of America’s most dangerous industries, construction.”

Mr. Watson shrugs off such criticism.

The 38-year-old son of a white mother and a Black father, a graduate of Brandeis University with a major in African and African American studies, Mr. Watson is a former community organizer in the predominantly Black neighborhood of Roxbury and North Dorchester, south of downtown.

He is employed as a director of racial equity and community engagement at the Massachusetts Housing Investment Corporation, a nonprofit group that offers financing for affordable housing and other community projects.

He is deeply frustrated by what he views as the naked discrimination barring Black and Latino workers from the high-paying construction jobs that offer a path into the middle class. He is exasperated that unions generally won’t disclose the racial and ethnic mix of the workers in their halls — aside from apprentices, which they are obliged to report — and suggests that it is because the numbers would show their lack of diversity.

He also grew frustrated by the inability of the Employment Commission to do anything about all this. As the law stands, he noted, contractors must only go through the motions to prove they are making an honest effort to comply.

By last month, he had had enough. He resigned.

Travis Watson, who resigned as the head of the Boston Employment Commission, views unions as the primary obstacle keeping people of color from building sites.

The Pipeline Issue

Unions for the building trades — laborers and electricians, plumbers and metalworkers — are largely to thank for ensuring that construction work is a middle-class job. The unions have bargained successfully for decent wages, and for health and pension benefits. They train workers and monitor safety conditions on building sites.

Gatekeeping is also one of their functions, particularly in a union-friendly city like Boston. Unions run apprenticeships, which confer and certify the requisite skills, controlling the pipeline of workers into the profession.

Who gets a job at downtown projects like the Winthrop Center or the City Hall renovation, where large unionized contractors and subcontractors do a vast majority of the work, is often decided in the union hall, which handles calls from contractors and makes assignments from a list of out-of-work journeymen and women.

City data suggests that workers of color got 38 percent of the hours on projects subject to the ordinance last year. This year, between April and September, the share actually hit the target of 40 percent, it said. But there’s a stark difference in the jobs that whites and nonwhites get: Minority workers in 2020 did 76 percent of the work removing asbestos, where the mandated base wage set for projects like the City Hall renovation is usually around $40 an hour. By contrast, they got only 22 percent of the plumber hours, which pay around $60.

“The pipeline issue is a real one, and I do think there’s a lack of diversity in the pipeline,” said Celina Barrios-Millner, the chief of equity and inclusion in Boston’s departing city government. “Any time you see outcomes that are so skewed, you have to understand there is discrimination somewhere down the line.”

Some union officials acknowledge the issue. When the City Hall project came up for discussion at the Boston Employment Commission in May, Commissioner Charles Cofield, an organizer for the North Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters, which covers New York and New England, argued that “the main part of the pressure needs to go to the people supplying the manpower.” That means the business agents at the union locals.

Elmer Castillo, an immigrant from Honduras who rose to be vice president of Local 723 of the carpenters’ union for a couple of years, has long experience with the ways of the building trades unions. “Unions are good if you know how to work with them,” he said. But equality of opportunity between white and minority workers? Mr. Castillo says, “That doesn’t exist.”

Workers are supposed to be selected for a job based largely on how long they’ve been unemployed. But nepotism rules in the union hall, Mr. Castillo contends. Business agents trade favors with contractors. They will place their sons, cousins and nephews in the good jobs, and they will make sure that those sons, cousins and nephews follow them up the union ranks.

“This builds a chain that never ends, a chain of whites,” Mr. Castillo said. “One will never have the opportunity to achieve what they achieve.”

Craig Ransom, now the business manager at Local 346 of the carpenters’ union, offers his career as an example of the glass ceiling Black workers face. After rising to business manager at Local 723, he got stuck — blocked from what he says would be his natural progression to regional manager. “Unions are good for people that look like me,” Mr. Ransom said. “But at the very top level, there is no one that looks like me.”

The conflict between white insiders and Black or Hispanic outsiders clamoring for an opportunity has bedeviled unions since the dawn of the labor movement. Even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended officially sanctioned discrimination, race often trumped class solidarity. Many unions discriminated against workers of color, and many employers turned to workers of color to cross union picket lines.

A few years later, President Richard M. Nixon leaned into the conflict between unions and African Americans, embracing the so-called Philadelphia Plan, which required federal contractors to prove they were hiring minority workers to match the ethnic composition of the area where work was being done. It would create “a political dilemma for the labor union leaders and civil rights groups,” said John Ehrlichman, a Nixon adviser, driving a wedge between two pillars of Democratic politics.

“Unions are good for people that look like me,” said Craig Ransom, the business manager at Local 346 of the carpenters’ union. “But at the very top level, there is no one that looks like me.”

Labor unions have come a long way since then. One reason is that far more workers of color are in the labor force, and many unions want to organize them, including the Service Employees International Union and UNITE HERE, which covers leisure and hospitality workers.

The other reason is that organized labor doesn’t have the clout it once had. “The old bastions of exclusion with strong seniority systems that favored white workers have been decimated,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, a historian of labor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported fewer than 100 racial-discrimination complaints against unions, about one-third the number brought a decade before. “They don’t have the power they used to have in being involved in hiring,” said Gwendolyn Young Reams, the commission’s acting general counsel.

Unions in the building trades remain something of an exception. They are strong, compared with other unions, and retain control over training and hiring, especially in public projects and the large, more heavily regulated construction in union-friendly urban areas. Nearly 13 percent of construction workers are unionized, about double the overall rate across private industries.

‘Driving the Ship’

Maven Construction is not a union contractor. It is an open shop, meaning it has not signed a deal to employ only union workers. Its founder and chief executive, JocCole Burton, a Black woman, knows that limits the kind of work she can do. But she also understands the cost of signing up with the unions.

“Every single college or university in the region, every hospital and all public work requires union labor,” said Ms. Burton, who founded Maven in Atlanta and moved it to Boston four years ago. “Anything that is downtown and most work in the Boston metro is going to require union labor.”

The exception is affordable-housing projects, which bring in nonunion contractors to keep costs down, Ms. Burton said. Still, open-shop contractors are mostly limited to smaller projects. “The largest project we’ve done is $35 million,” she said, with jobs worth $5 million to $10 million more typical.

She is seeking to make Maven a “signatory” contractor, to have a shot at more lucrative work. But the arrangement is expensive: The benefits and other obligations add up, and they are hard to afford if you don’t have a steady stream of big projects.

More problematic for Ms. Burton is that she expects unions to provide few workers of color. “The unions are in the business of making sure that the union halls get all the work, but they don’t have enough Black and brown bodies in their halls,” she said.

Ms. Burton says she is shocked by what she sees as overt discrimination in such a liberal city. “The racism experienced 50 years ago in Atlanta is the same we see in Boston today,” she said. “It’s subtle — not as overt — but it is the same.” A crucial problem, she argues, “is the unions are driving the ship when it comes to equity.”

Union officials contend that much of the criticism is unfair. A report from Local 103 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers noted that while people of color made up only 4 percent of retired electricians drawing a pension in the last five years, they accounted for almost 30 percent of their apprentices, a testament to how much it has evolved.

“There is no denying that unions in many industries, including construction, just like corporations in many industries, have a troubling past when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion,” said Ms. Dozier, the business agent for Local 103. “But we are doing more every day to increase the diversity of our membership than almost any other industry — and frankly, it is unethical of the nonunion lobbyists and their mouthpieces to try and turn that important work into an excuse to further their own exploitative practices.”

The site of the City Hall renovation project. In Boston and beyond, building is one of the last American industries offering good jobs to workers without a college degree.

Mark Erlich, who retired in 2017 as executive secretary-treasurer of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters and is now a research fellow with the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, argues that construction unions have become more welcoming to nonwhites in the last few decades.

Mr. Erlich is one of the authors of a book addressing the history of racial exclusion in the building trades. He notes that the original Boston Residents Jobs Policy in 1983 came out of the fight by Black workers for jobs on building sites. But it had to include residents and women to gain white political support and overcome the opposition of union leadership.

“There is a legacy of racism, which by no means has been eliminated,” Mr. Erlich said. “I respect folks in the community that complain that things are not changing fast enough. And they are not changing fast enough.” Still, he argues, unions realize that “they need to become less homogeneous and reflect the demographics of the city.”

And he warns that the nonunion contractors that will hire workers of color do not generally provide training or a career path, as unions do. The work is often more dangerous, he says, and it pays nothing like the wages in union shops.

The Limits of Patience

Workers of color who make it into the unions acknowledge the opportunities that membership provides. On a sunny October afternoon in Dorchester, a roomful of apprentices and journeymen and women, assembled by Local 103 to talk to a reporter, lauded the union’s efforts to broaden its ranks and called for patience.

“Diversity doesn’t happen overnight,” said Sam Quaratiello, a recent graduate of the apprenticeship program who is of Asian descent. Walter Cowhan, a Black journeyman, argued that the union had become far more diverse in his 20 years of experience. Still, he said, if workers of color are to become more prominent on job sites, training is essential. “If you don’t prepare the work force, directly bringing in Black and brown workers could undermine the whole process,” he said.

But among some of those pushing for racial equity, patience is wearing thin. Mr. Watson offered the words of the Black author and activist James Baldwin: “You’ve always told me it takes time,” Mr. Baldwin said in the 1989 documentary “The Price of a Ticket.” “How much time do you want, for your progress?”

The building unions are “huge obstacles” to that progress, said Angela Williams-Mitchell, who heads the Boston Jobs Coalition, a community organization dedicated to increasing opportunities for people of color. “They do not open their doors to create access for communities that have historically been excluded.”

If they are so committed to diversity, she says, why do unions refuse to provide data on the share of minority journeymen and women, even as they disclose the racial and ethnic breakdown of apprentices? “Break it down for us so we know what needs to be done,” she urges.

Unions remain essential to maintain construction’s track record of lifting workers up, Mr. Erlich says. He recalls one of Mr. Watson’s heroes, the late Chuck Turner, a community activist who fought to increase Black employment in the building trades. “He was the ultimate radical — his attitude was, let’s drive the unions into the sea,” Mr. Erlich said. “But he came around to the position that without unions, construction would become a low-wage job.”

Mr. Watson, in fact, agrees. “Unions are great,” he said. “But they have to give us an opportunity.”

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