(Illustration by Nyanza D)

Union construction jobs are not just good jobs, they are great jobs. They have a relatively low entry barrier and offer world-class training, great pay, and benefits that allow members to retire with dignity. However, what’s often overlooked is union construction’s racism, and that those great jobs, particularly leadership positions, are designed to remain filled by white men. 

Thanks to construction workers, activists, and journalists, there are countless documented examples of the widespread racism that Black people face in interactions with construction unions. From being called racist names to being administered tests designed to ensure their failure, a gamut of discriminatory practices make it difficult for Black workers to enter, remain, and grow in the industry.

This Is What Racism Looks Like

This Is What Racism Looks Like

This series aims to explain how racism operates within organizations and create conversation about racial justice, dignity, and belonging.

In an effort to understand the barriers to racial equity and inclusion in Boston union construction, I’ve spoken to dozens of union and non-union workers and activists about the industry’s racism. Some respondents rehearsed revisionist histories and pretended that racism within the trades has never existed. But others fully acknowledged the industry’s history of racism and wanted to collaborate on solutions towards equity and inclusion. “The building trades unions are committed to access to wages and benefits,” says Brian Doherty, secretary-treasurer/general agent for the Building & Construction Trades Council of Boston’s Metropolitan District, “but for a hundred years, it was for very few people, it wasn’t for everyone. The past is shameful.”

In order to create a more diverse and inclusive industry, and to avoid the same mistakes in the future, we first need to learn from this shameful past. Referencing historical examples—primarily found in researchers David A. Goldberg and Trevor Griffey’s Black Power at Work: Community Control, Affirmative Action, and the Construction Industry—I describe the six strategies that have made the process of joining a construction union as frustrating as possible for Black people. So frustrating and exhausting, in fact, that many Black people would rather give up trying, or not try at all. And, when a particular strategy fails to dissuade Black applicants, white union members resort to intimidation and erecting other barriers for entry, such as devising a racially biased entrance exam that projects racism as a kind of failure onto Black people. Other times it’s openly calling Black workers the “N-word” and explicitly telling them that they aren’t welcome into a construction union. I then turn to the case study of union construction in the Boston area to examine how racism manifests today.

6 Practices That Institutionalized Racism in Union Construction

The Catch 22 | White union construction workers often stymie prospective Black workers’ attempts to join a union by trapping them in a Catch-22: requiring the worker to have a job prior to being admitted into a union, but also requiring union membership before getting a construction job.

Former United Community Construction Workers activist Omar Cannon recalls Black workers being told by white union officers that they “had to be in the union to get a job.” However, the problem, Cannon explains, is that “you had to get a job to get in the union.” Former Army veteran and construction worker Gilbert Banks has told a similar story about treatment by foremen and unions:

“They’d say, ‘Have you got a (union membership) book?’ I’d say, ‘No.’ ‘Well,’ they said, ‘Go get a book and we’ll give you a job.’ And I’d go to the union and ask them for a book. They’d say, ‘Listen, if you get the job, we’ll give you a book.’ There was no way of fighting it.”

This no-win situation is not a coincidence. This Catch-22 is a form of structural racism intended to exclude people not already on the inside.

Stonewalling | Another strategy white union members use to frustrate Black workers into giving up their effort to join a union is intentionally refusing communication, ignoring, and silencing them. Stonewalling effectively blocks Black workers from jobs and from unions, even when those workers have superlative skills, training, and experience. For example, former member of the Congress of Racial Equity (CORE) and construction activist Oliver Leeds recalls how his work as an Army engineer wasn’t enough to even get considered for work and union acceptance:

“I was in the Corps of Engineers. And you know what we do? We worked to win the war. We built anything that could be built: bridges, tunnels, houses, officers’ quarters, Myers quarter, roads, and airstrips. We loaded and unloaded ships. We did anything in the way that involved work, construction work. You know, when I got back to the United States, after the war, I couldn’t get a job in construction, that there was no union that would let me in? And there was damn little that I couldn’t do in the way of construction work. They’ll take you and turn you into construction workers in the army, in a segregated army, and then when you get back into civilian life, you can’t get a construction job.”

These first two strategies—the Catch 22 and stonewalling—cloak the structural racism operating within unions by displacing the consequence onto the Black person: that they gave up, or that they got frustrated, rather than seeing the mechanisms at work that produced this outcome.

Biased Gatekeepers | Many construction unions place unemployed members “on the bench” while they wait to be sent to work by dispatchers, the union members who distribute the jobs. meaning they wait to be called for jobs. Dispatchers play a central role in access to jobs and, therefore, to union entry. However, by intentionally refusing to send Black workers to jobs, racially biased dispatchers play a pivotal role in keeping unions white.

In Boston, former construction worker Earl Quick recalls receiving his union book but never being assigned work. “White guys would come in and go right into the business agent’s office and they’d get work and me and the rest of the Black guys would just sit there,” he explains. “I never did work in Boston.” According to the former Northwest American Friends Service Committee Director Arthur Dye, “Some [Black] workers appeared at the hiring hall day after day for several months and were never dispatched. If they began to ask questions why they were not dispatched they would be sent out to jobs … a hundred miles or so away, only to find out that when they arrived at their destination there wasn’t a job. Or they would be dispatched to a job where there was considerable possibility for physical intimidation.”

Because this is a well-known practice, Black workers have often applied directly to employers, going around the union hiring halls. But in most cases, employers are required by union policy to hire only workers referred by union hiring hall dispatchers. And even when employers intentionally seek to diversify their employees and union contractors, dispatchers can thwart this effort. For example, when Robert Lucas, the president of the refrigeration contractor Lewis Refrigeration, who is a white man, called Local Union 32 and specifically asked for a Black plumber to be dispatched to his job, the dispatcher reportedly laughed and dismissed his request.

Discriminatory Testing | Some construction unions require that applicants pass a test for admittance. To keep their membership as white as possible, some local unions went so far as to pass white applicants regardless of how they scored, while failing nearly every Black applicant. Journalist Gary McMillan reported in the Boston Globe, that “in 1980, a federal court in Boston found that the oral section of the exam given by the Ironworkers was so subjective and so open to abuse that it had almost no bearing on ability to do the job. For some reason, the court also found, whites almost always passed the test but Blacks almost always failed.”

This blatant discriminatory testing enables the construction industry to remain an “old-boys club,” and barring entry to people of color keeps their ranks as white as possible going forward. Without equal access to unions, Black workers have been deprived of apprenticeship, mentorship, and other networking opportunities that are crucial to their professional advancement and success.

Explicit Racism | Some white construction workers take a more overtly racist and aggressive approach to keeping Black membership as low as possible. This strategy has been tactically employed through the use of racist language and putting Black workers in dangerous situations. In Seattle, Donald Kelly, a white apprentice in Local 86 recalls hearing, “We have no Negro apprentices, and we will never have no Negro apprentices … No Black [expletives] will ever work out of this union as long as I am business agent.

In Boston, Earl Quick had union men drop bolts on him and call him the N-word. As McMillan enumerated, “almost every Black construction worker interviewed by the Boston Globe in 1983 … has had ‘accidents’ on the job: boards or bolts dropped from above, a steel beam swing very close to his head, live wires left at his feet as he walked by.”

But these incidents of overt racism and aggression aren’t just relics of the past. Last year, places like Toronto, Las Vegas, and Portland, Oregon, have had incidents of nooses being left at construction sites. And this year, in Boston, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers International Vice President Mike Monahan referred to Black people as “colored.” And, in response to my critique about the lack of diversity in union construction, he emailed me with the following threatening message, which included a pointed reference to “sun down towns”:  

“Goodnight — what time does the sun set and rise in Falmouth? Make sure you lock the doors.”

Voter Suppression | And lastly, some unions go to great lengths to exclude Black people from participating in their elections. In Boston, for example, union construction limits the number of Black members through voter suppression. Voter suppression is as American as the second amendment, a tool used to maintain white power and silence Black voices for decades. For most of us, voter suppression manifests itself through draconian policies—things like making it more difficult to vote by mail, voter ID laws, and restricting access to early voting. But while many of the elected officials behind such policies are Republican lawmakers, the Greater Boston building trades unions have been taking a page from their book; one of Boston’s most extensive and ingrained systems of voter suppression resides within their halls.

First, let’s take a closer look at the Greater Boston building trades unions as a system:

  • The Greater Boston building trades union is a group of 20 construction unions operating in the Greater Boston area.
  • Each of the 20 construction unions is governed by their own elected officials/officers. 
  • Of these elected officials/officers, 100 percent of the senior leadership is white men.
  • The overwhelming majority of members that are responsible for recruiting new members, administering entrance exams, and conducting interviews are white men.
  • Not a single union will disclose the number of Black members they have or the number of union-signatory companies owned by Black people.

What does this have to do with voter suppression? By keeping Black membership low through exclusionary practices, the Greater Boston building trades unions control the total number of Black voters participating in union elections. This ensures that Black representation in union votes will never be sufficient to correct exclusionary or racist union policies. This also suffocates any possibility for progressive Black leadership to be elected to senior leadership positions. 

White union members have gone to extreme lengths to maintain their power and dominance in the construction industry. They have designed the entire system to benefit themselves and other white men, often in direct opposition to Black membership. While many of these examples occurred in the past, their roots took hold and are still manifest in today’s union construction industry, which helps white men keep unions—and especially their leadership—white.

Boston’s White Way

Today, Boston’s construction unions tolerate diversity, but only as long as it’s done on their terms. I refer to this insistence as the white way: superficial diversity efforts, led by white people, that fail for a variety of reasons—largely because they aren’t intended to work.

Some of Greater Boston’s construction unions, I’ve found through my research, are not even attempting to diversify their memberships. Those that do rely on in-house diversity initiatives like Building Pathways and Build a Life—both of which are led by white people. According to David Lopes, a longtime Black Boston construction worker, Building Pathways is “indoctrination, not training.” As he sees it, programs like these teach students that unions are the only pathway to family-sustaining wages and diversity in the construction industry. David’s point is that they present a skewed, one-sided version of the industry and fail to recognize that non-union construction, both historically and present-day, provides more opportunity for Black workers and Black businesses.

Building Pathways “learn and earn” model with its “long history of providing career ladders and pathways to the middle class” is geared towards and designed to provide that access to white people. Black people generally need not apply because the system is designed for them to fail. And while these programs have laudable missions, they lack strong relationships with Boston’s Black community and therefore fail to include the very people they claim to want to help.

The failure to include the Black community in a meaningful way, coupled with a lack of capacity, prevents these programs from diversifying unions in measurable ways. In other words, the few Black people that programs like these help each year isn’t nearly enough to create a union construction workforce reflective of Boston’s demographics.

The consequence of this so-called “diversity approach” is that zero Black people hold a senior leadership position within union construction in Boston, while unions claim ignorance—that they “don’t know” how many Black members they have—to avoid changing practices and policies to make unions more inclusive. When I have asked unions to start collecting demographic information in order to create inclusive policies, I have been told not only that they can’t but won’t collect this information.

This charade only hides Boston union construction’s failure to attract and retain Black members. No wonder that roughly 95 percent of Black-owned construction companies in Boston are not signed with a union. The city of Boston is around 25 percent Black but, based on what I’ve gathered speaking with construction workers and visiting construction sites, only about two to three percent of Boston’s union construction membership is Black. In Boston, the median net worth is $8 for Black people—in contrast to $248K for white people—and only 0.4 percent of available city-sponsored construction contracts were awarded to Black-owned businesses.

“If there’s a dysfunctional system and it keeps staying in place,” asserts former executive secretary-treasurer of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters Mark Erlich, “at some point it’s not dysfunctional because it’s functional for somebody. This current purgatory that we have has served many people extremely well.”

It’s clear who are the “many” being served by the dysfunctional and racist system that is the Greater Boston building trades unions. What’s happening within Boston’s union construction industry is what Boston Globe reporter Kimberly Atkins refers to as a phenomenon that pits “the increasingly jealous guard of the fragile white male power structure against the women and people of color who threaten it.” And while Greater Boston union construction’s leadership portrays that they are committed to social and economic justice—and some of their members are—far too many actively support an organizational structure designed to create and maintain white power. While construction trade unions were building some of the nation’s most impressive buildings, they were simultaneously building one of the nation’s most powerful and deeply entrenched systems of racism.

By shedding light on the history of racism within union construction, we can begin to make a dent in the racial wealth gap. According to Boston’s recently released disparity study, the city contracted $986 million in construction between 2014 and 2019. Of that $986 million, $3.8 million went to Black-owned companies. In comparison, one non-union project under construction in Boston is currently providing $3 million in contracts to Black-owned companies. Union construction offers tremendous opportunity for Black wealth creation, but this will only happen when construction unions practice what they preach by significantly increasing Black membership and the number of Black people within senior leadership, and when more than a handful of Black-owned companies are signatory to a union.