State of the unions: Construction a tough trade to break into for minorities, women

State of the unions: Construction a tough trade to break into for minorities, women

Editor's note: This report is part of a joint project of The News-Gazette and the University of Illinois Department of Journalism, in an ongoing examination of poverty and its related issues in Champaign County. The project is funded by the Marajen Stevick Foundation, a News-Gazette foundation; a matching grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a journalism foundation based in Miami; and contributions from the UI. The project also has a website for this and other material, including user-generated content.

The next time you drive past a construction site, take a close look at the workers. Besides the hard hats and the steel-toed boots, you might notice that they have something else in common: Virtually all are white males.

Statistics verify these drive-by observations. The local bricklayers union, which represents 65 downstate counties including the East St. Louis area, has 1,309 members. That total includes two females and 35 African-American men, making the organization about 2.7 percent black. The plumbers and pipefitters union local, which encompasses Champaign County and most of the seven surrounding counties, has about 450 members, including six females and 16 African-American men – making it about 3.6 percent minority. By contrast, the overall population of Champaign County is more than 25 percent minority, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Other local unions didn't respond to requests for demographic information, but, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, half of the specific trades nationwide have workforce populations that are at least 90 percent white.

These jobs have attractive hourly wages – locally, they're $29 for bricklayers, $31 for carpenters, $35 for electricians, and as much as $37 for plumbers and pipefitters – and few of the kinds of barriers that would keep disadvantaged workers out. Applicants for construction trade unions need only a high school transcript or a General Equivalency Diploma. Once admitted to the union, apprentices begin drawing a paycheck almost immediately, earning $14 per hour or more while they're being trained.

So what could account for the racial disparity? Union officials said one factor is the fact that the predominantly white rural schools, such as Rantoul Township High School, offer vocational education courses like "shop class," while the larger, more diverse districts do not.

"We get criticized a lot for not having enough minorities on our projects, but yet Champaign and Urbana don't have building trades in their school systems, so there's no exposure to it," said Dan McCall, president of the East Central Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council.

Kevin Sage, training director for the local plumbers and pipefitters union, offered the same explanation.

"You go to the smaller schools that are just outside the cities, and they still have shop classes, they still have welding, they still have agriculture classes, and those kids, they know how to use their hands, they know they have a skill, and they're looking for somewhere they can go to make a living at doing that. It's a natural fit for them to come into a union," Sage said. "You go into a city, you have a higher minority population, but they don't know that they can do this stuff."

But McCall attended Champaign Central High School, which didn't have shop class, and he joined the bricklayers union almost immediately upon graduation. His exposure to the construction industry did not come through school but at home.

"I got into the trade because my dad, my uncle and my grandpa were all bricklayers, and it became the family tradition for me," he said. "It was talked a lot at the kitchen table when I was growing up, even at family reunions."

McCall's story is typical of many construction workers. John Doren, who worked almost 40 years for Laborers' Local 703, chose to join this union of so-called "unskilled laborers" because it was his only choice.

"My father was a Laborer, my older brother was also a Laborer, and most of the other unions, their membership was restricted to sons of members in good standing or other special cases," Doren said.

Before the expansion of federal civil rights legislation in the 1960s, Local 703 was also the only union that accepted African-Americans.

"Black people weren't welcome in other trades, you know, such as carpenters, electricians, bricklayers. There was only one other trade that had black members, and that was the plasterers," said Doren, who is white. As the name implies, Laborers did the most physically demanding – and often the most dangerous – work. If a job required a man to bend over with a shovel, that was a task for a Laborer. They also assisted masons by carrying or hoisting loads of brick, stone, block or mortar to the bricklayers, who were paid considerably more to stack the bricks to create a wall.

When the federal government required trade unions to open their membership, some unions instituted written entrance exams. Several local unions still do (carpenters, sheet-metal workers, electricians, ironworkers, plumbers and pipefitters), but the bricklayers recently dropped the written exam because only about 20 percent of applicants could pass it, McCall said.

About 10 years ago, the Laborers union added a written exam.

All the trade unions now require applicants to undergo an interview, usually before a six-person panel made up of other union members and contractors. Because membership is mainly white, these interview panels are often completely white, which some people see as a possible barrier for African-American applicants.

Percy Gordon, who joined Laborers' Local 703 long before any entrance exam was required, has asked union leadership to reconsider how the panel members are chosen. "If you reverse the panel and make it all African-American, and had young white kids come in an interview with an all-black panel ... think about how intimidated they may be," he said.

The pattern of racial disparity pervades every level of the industry, in large part because a common route to becoming a contractor or sub-contractor is to have experience as a construction worker. For decades, federal and state governments have set "goals" to encourage public entities to use contractors who include minority-owned construction services and suppliers, unless the contractor can prove that no relevant minority sub-contractors are available.

Still, even agencies that make good-faith efforts can't always meet the goals. For example, the University of Illinois has a reputation among the hard-hat workers as an institution serious about minority workforce goals. Yet an analysis of payroll records for the construction of the Activities and Recreation Center, known as the ARC, completed in 2009, shows that minority workers put in less than 8 percent of the man-hours involved in the project, and most of those hours were in the lower-paying trades. Females were used for less than 2 percent of the work.

The Illinois Legislature has strengthened requirements for meeting those goals by enacting Senate Bill 351, which requires general contractors who bid on state-funded projects to include minority and female-owned subcontractors in their original proposals instead of merely promising to add them after winning the bid, as they had traditionally done. A team of compliance officers has been traveling around the state presenting half-day seminars to help contractors understand the new process. In their travels, they have come across a six-page memo that has allegedly been circulating among contractors, explaining in detail how to circumvent minority goals.

Titled "How to evade affirmative action programs for minority contractors (or how to drive compliance officers off their rockers)," the unsigned document appears to be the work of someone intimately familiar with the business. The copy obtained by Jesse Martinez, administrator of the Capital Development Board's office of fair employment practices, has faded edges suggesting that it has been photocopied repeatedly.

"I've always known about that type of activity. I've known about it just because of the experiences I go through, but I'd never seen it written in a formal document like that, which was kind of surprising," Martinez said. "Looking back, I'm like, 'You know, now I understand some of the (bid) submittals I've gotten.' Now it makes sense."

In Urbana, Todd Rent, the city's human relations officer, faces the same challenge of trying to encourage construction contractors to include minorities and females, and said he sometimes has to remind vendors why these goals exist.

"Because they're using taxpayer money ... the city council of Urbana, for years now, has wanted to make sure that that money is distributed in a way that at least somewhat reflects the diversity of our community, so that many people and different people particularly those who have been disadvantaged in the past in contracting – have the opportunity to benefit from some of those jobs," he said.

"Look – you're taking public funds. Public funds come from an absolutely general cross-section of the community. They come from everyone," Rent said. "Everyone should probably benefit from those opportunities."

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