National Black Chamber of Commerce Blasts Lack of Diversity in Construction Trade Unions

2 July 29, 2013  Featured, Federal Construction, State & Local Construction

Earlier this month, the National Black Chamber of Commerce penned an open letter to U.S. Representative Marica Fudge, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, claiming construction unions have “consistently discriminated against Black workers and contractors” and are “a prime contributor to Black unemployment”  (“Strange Bedfellows – Unions and Black Politicians“):

“We are very disturbed that elected officials as well as civil rights organizations have this cordial relationship with construction unions. Construction unions have consistently discriminated against Black workers and contractors. 98% of all Black construction firms are nonunion. There is a reason- if they join a union the union will manage their employees and thus never hire them for work. The end result is the business being void of any Black workers and the former Black employees will soon be unemployed.”

The letter, which ran in dozens of independent newspapers across the country, cites a historical lack of diversity in Philadelphia’s construction unions and pivots to an example of a Democrat-supported policy harming local minority contractors and construction workers:

“Philadelphia came under so much pressure from the Black community that Mayor Nutter and the City Council canceled all of their Project Labor Agreements (PLA’s are union only projects). Shortly thereafter, Mayor Nutter was ordered to reinstate them by the construction unions. He complied and, once again, betrayed the Black, Hispanic, Asian and women construction workers and the minority contingent of contractors.”

Previously, covered Philly’s problems with a lack of diversity in construction unions (see relevant packet of articles here) and its connection to anti-competitive policies handing unions a labor monopoly to build taxpayer-funded construction projects via union-favoring PLAs.

However, a new piece by Axis Philly investigative journalist Tom Ferrick, Jr., dives into this issue again with updated data.

Ferrick’s research found Philly construction trade unions are still dominated by non-local white males and unions have failed to diversify despite promises of reform (“Despite pledges to diversify, building trades still mostly white males,” 7/10/13) (archived link):

“Here is a snapshot of the makeup of the union members in the building trades in Philadelphia as of the end of 2007: 99 percent were male, 74 percent were white and 70 percent lived in the suburbs.

Not exactly a diverse workforce.

City Council and Mayor Michael Nutter certainly didn’t think so. “Economic apartheid,” the mayor called it. In a get-tough mood, City Council passed resolutions requiring that 50 percent of the workers on the soon-to-rise $760 million expansion of the Pennsylvania Convention Center be non-whites and women.

Meanwhile, Nutter convened a blue-ribbon advisory commission on construction industry diversity. It issued a report in March 2009 that outlined steps to address the long standing (as in 50-year-old ) issue of non-whites being shut out of jobs as union carpenters, electrician, bricklayers, plumbers, etc.

Now, let’s zoom ahead five years and offer this snapshot of union members in the building trades as of the end of 2012: 99 percent were male, 76 percent were white and 67 percent lived in the suburbs.

Not much difference, not much at all.”


union-breakdown-Philly 2008-2012

Ferrick contrasts the demographics of union and nonunion construction workers building local projects:

“The reality is that there are plenty of African Americans, Hispanics and Asians who work in the building trades, just not as members of the unions. For instance, OHCD also keeps data on projects that are not prevailing wage — these tend to be smaller projects that use non-union workers.

There were 1,834 workers who spent time at these 17 projects.

Ninety-nine percent were male, 37 percent were non-white and 54 percent lived inside the city. In every category except women, there were higher numbers than at the union-only projects.”

The article explores reasons for this lack of diversity in construction trade unions and tries to determine if PLAs have harmed or helped the problem (more data on PLA and non-PLA projects is needed before making a fair judgement, but it’s puzzling that this data isn’t available, especially from construction trade unions).

Key takeaway:

“To summarize, for the most part the building trade unions remain overwhelmingly white and male, and the majority of those members do not live in the city. The fact that these unions can maintain their virtual monopoly over construction jobs in Philadelphia is a testament to their ongoing political clout.”

The National Black Chamber of Commerce maintains this same story is playing out in major cities across the country and that black politicians at the local, state and federal levels are selling out their minority constituents by aligning themselves with the construction trade unions and their anti-minority economic policies.

Read the full letter from the National Black Chamber of Commerce after the jump and be sure to read Tom Ferrick’s piece.

Update: On July 30, Tom Ferrick and Pat Gillespie, Business Manager of Philadelphia’s Building and Trades Council, engaged in an hour debate on WHY’s radio program about the pros and cons of construction trade unions in Philadelphia. Give it a listen here.

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2 Responses to National Black Chamber of Commerce Blasts Lack of Diversity in Construction Trade Unions

Joshua c matthews August 5, 2013 at 9:24 pm

I was a union contractor for 20 years, had over 100 employee doing about 14 m in sales. I did not like there practice of not educating Blacks so I try to get out .it cost me about $500,000 in legal feeds and interest. I hade to file chapter 11 in order to pull through. I now have a small crew but still in business in Baltimore Md..

Andy Conlin August 19, 2013 at 3:48 pm

Joshua, sad story. Glad to hear you pulled through. Good luck.

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