Giving Compass' Take:
- Travis Watson exposes how white men have designed construction unions to intimidate and irritate prospective Black members, upholding structural racism and the racial wealth gap.
- What systemic change needs to take place to close the racial wealth gap? How can unions actively include Black communities in efforts to bolster diversity, equity, and inclusion?
- Learn about an intersectional approach to dismantling racist structures.
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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.
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.
Read the full article about racism in construction unions by Travis Watson at Stanford Social Innovation Review.