Still, A Struggle For Minorities In Craft Unions

Posted: January 19, 1986

In 1969, when the federal government issued the landmark Philadelphia Plan, Nathaniel Brown was one of the first blacks to make it into Plumbers Local 690, a union that had 2,335 members.

But once in, court records show, he was transferred from one construction site to another just so contractors could create the appearance of compliance with the federal guidelines, which state that they must give minorities a certain minimum percentage of work hours.

Then, in 1972, Brown was suspended from his union without prior notice for violating the local's policy against facial hair. He had a mustache.

For a while, Brown worked at odd jobs in the Philadelphia area - "anything I could get" - and then he moved to Arizona to work as a laborer, maintenance man and salesman because he felt blackballed here.

In 1975, he and two other black construction workers sued the federal government for failing to enforce the Philadelphia Plan. They lost on a technicality four years ago, but the judge agreed that the Labor Department had done precious little to see that the plan was carried out.

Today, Brown is back in Philadelphia and unemployed. And he is still incredulous about his experience with the Philadelphia Plan. "It's almost like one of those farces you see on television," he said.

Brown's failed attempt to get a well-paying job as a union plumber, despite the landmark federal order 17 years ago, illustrates how blacks still must struggle to get jobs in the local construction industry.

In 1984 alone, if the Philadelphia Plan were being strictly enforced, minorities and women employed in the skilled building trades in the Philadelphia area would have worked 677,000 hours more than they did and earned about $10.2 million more in wages, according to an analysis by The Inquirer of Labor Department data.

The hourly shortfalls amounted to enough work to keep nearly 500 men and women employed for a year, each earning $23,500.

The shortages occurred despite the fact that minorities - if not women - have increased their ranks modestly in local building trade unions from the levels of the late 1960s. Since then, the federal government also says it has improved its monitoring of contractor hiring practices.

"We don't swallow a whole lot of smoke that the contractors used to blow at us," said Robert B. Greaux, assistant regional administrator of the Labor Department's Office of Federal Contract Compliance (OFCCP), which administers the program in the Philadelphia area. "We're past that stage."

However, the agency has not invoked the one tool that it has to ensure compliance. It has not debarred a single contractor in at least the last five years, an action that it is authorized to take in cases of consistent noncompliance and one that prevents a firm from getting further government work.

The Inquirer's analysis of OFCCP statistics and interviews over six months with scores of people active in the industry - workers, union officials, contractors, civil rights advocates, economists and others - indicate that the construction industry still has far to go to meet the goals established under the Philadelphia Plan.

The federal regulations, which now apply to all trades, not just the original six under the plan, call for area firms holding more than $10,000 worth of federal contracts to target 17.3 percent of the hours worked in each craft for minorities and 6.9 percent for women.

The percentages are intended to be realistic goals based on demographic data, labor-force participation rates and the availability of minority and female construction workers in the eight-county Philadelphia area, covering five counties in Pennsylvania and three in New Jersey.

A key assumption behind the goals is that government pressure on the contractors would force the white-dominated labor unions, which in the past acted like medieval guilds passing jobs down from father to son, to begin enrolling and training minorities and women.

But data assembled by The Inquirer found that during 1984, contractors reported that minority tile-setters got just 3 percent of the hours worked in their craft; steamfitters, 6 percent; painters, 6 percent; sprinkler fitters, 7 percent; sheetmetal workers, 7 percent; bricklayers, 8 percent; plumbers, 9 percent; carpenters, 11 percent; electricians, 12 percent; elevator constructors, 16 percent; and operating engineers, 16 percent.

Contractors reported that minority laborers and cement masons exceeded the federal goals, receiving 43 percent and 30 percent of the hours, respectively. But minorities have long been concentrated in those trades - and have complained that they couldn't move up into more skilled and higher-paying crafts.

Among the 15 trades analyzed by The Inquirer, the only other crafts that contractors said surpassed the federal hiring targets were the glaziers, where minorities got 21 percent of the hours worked, and the ironworkers, where minorities got 26 percent of the hours.

All the statistics are the result of self-reporting by the contractors, and many economists consider them inflated.

In the case of the ironworkers, for instance, 100 Philadelphia-area contractors who employ workers from Local 401, the major Philadelphia-area local, recently submitted figures as part of a federal court case. The figures showed a total minority employment of 11.4 percent.

In all of the trades examined, women got no more than 3 percent of the hours in any one craft. In five crafts - cement masons, glaziers, ironworkers, operating engineers and sprinkler fitters - contractors reported no hours worked by women.

Overall, figures for the 15 crafts analyzed by The Inquirer demonstrate hourly shortfalls that resulted in a wage loss of $4.4 million for minorities and $5.8 million for women in one year alone, based on prevailing wage rates in 1984. Those rates ranged from $12.49 an hour for laborers to $18.73 an hour for plumbers.

To calculate the employment shortages, The Inquirer used a computer to analyze 3,672 monthly reports submitted during 1984 to the OFCCP by more than 500 federal construction contractors in the eight-county region.

It obtained the reports by filing a request under the federal Freedom of Information Act after regional OFCCP officials said they had abandoned a similar analysis several years ago. The officials said that their computerized tabulation, which was done by an outside consulting firm, did not produce reliable results.

In releasing the reports, the OFCCP expunged the names of individual firms, making it impossible to discern consistent violators or to evaluate the performance of union contractors versus nonunion companies. As a group, however, the contractors fell far below the target goals.

Despite the lackluster performance, OFCCP officials maintain that most contractors are making a "good-faith effort" to meet the goals, the only requirement for contractors to be in compliance with the federal regulations.

"It's gratifying to me to see that some of the trades have reached or exceeded the goal," Greaux said when given the statistics tabulated by The Inquirer. "I would imagine it's a remarkable improvement over 20 years ago." However, he said the agency had no statistics to compare the performance with that of previous years.

Ernest E. Jones, executive director of the Philadelphia Urban Coalition, a community group that is now monitoring affirmative-action hiring at several local construction sites, called the figures "tragically low" and an indication of continued race and sex discrimination in the construction industry.

"Given an area like Philadelphia, with a 39 percent black population, the numbers should not be that low," Jones said. "There is an active, ongoing effort to exclude minorities and women from the trades."


Despite the Philadelphia Plan, which was imposed on Philadelphia-area federal contractors in 1969 under an executive order issued earlier by President Lyndon B. Johnson, minorities and women have had difficulty entering the unions that supply workers to the vast majority of commercial construction contractors in the Philadelphia area.

Unionists, even those who are critical of the trades, say the barriers to entry typically stem not so much from overt discrimination as from nepotism and favoritism, forces that have long governed who is admitted into union apprenticeship programs.

Those same forces also tend to determine who is referred from union hiring

halls - centralized places where workers go to get work - to steady jobs.

"The whole union itself is prejudiced," said one black electrician who requested that his name not be used. "If you are not in the club - black or white - you are out. If you don't know anybody who's a relative or a friend, your chances of getting a job are slim."

Such exclusionary practices, like those of building trade unions in other Northern cities, have deep roots in Philadelphia's ethnic history.

For more than 100 years, the structural ironworkers have been dominated by workers of Irish descent, the carpenters by those of German extraction, the stonemasons by those of Italian heritage, and so forth.

Even within a particular craft, ethnic lines may be further broken down to particular families working in certain specialty areas.

In the beginning, there was good reason for the exclusionary practices, according to historians.

"When the Irish began immigrating in the 1830s, the native Americans (Yankees) had the corner on the crafts," said Dennis Clark, executive director of the Samuel S. Fels Fund and a Philadelphia historian. "They had to push into these trades. That was made easier by the tremendous dynamic of the economy from the 1870s to World War I."

Clark said the tight fraternal bonds formed in the building trade unions were in part a response to the city's early anti-union sentiment. "These affinities were formed at a time when you were a renegade if you were in a union," he said. "The degree of militancy of the anti-union forces in Philadelphia was very powerful."

Even today, union officials talk about the "politics of entry" that have prevailed in their crafts.

"You know how I got into the union?" confessed Patrick Gillespie, a card- carrying operating engineer and business manager of the 60,000-member Building and Construction Trades Council of Philadelphia. "I lied. I had to be someone's nephew. A 19-year-old black couldn't do that."

Such nepotism, of course, not only ensured jobs for relatives and buddies, but also restricted the labor supply, keeping wages up, and it ensured that the men who built the bridges and roads and buildings of Philadelphia would remain in firm political control of their unions for years to come.

"We are the custodians of the system," said Gillespie, sitting in his Northeast Philadelphia office full of memorabilia from the building trades' struggles on picket lines and at construction sites over the last decade. ''We control the ebb and flow of entrants. But justice says our control has to be applied evenly."

Gillespie and other union officials say that today - after more than 15 years of the Philadelphia Plan, court orders, civil rights legislation and stepped-up competition from nonunion contractors - the traditional politics of entry are changing.

"Every union with an apprenticeship program is actively recruiting in every community," Gillespie said. He said many unions, such as the carpenters, now advertise their apprenticeship tests in community newspapers. ''That would have been unheard of in the 1960s," he said.

Of course, the unions' ability to recruit new members is dependent on the ups and downs of the economy, and construction has suffered through several crippling recessions over the last two decades. Still, minorities and women are not getting their targeted share of the apprenticeship slots in most of the unions, whatever the condition of the economy.

Under regulations set by the Labor Department's Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training, apprenticeship programs in the Philadelphia area are to target 20 percent of their openings for minorities and 20 percent for women.

But of the 6,216 workers admitted to local apprenticeship programs in the local construction industry between 1980 and June 1985, only 8.7 percent were minorities and 4.3 percent were women, according to statistics compiled by the apprenticeship bureau.

What's more, minorities and women are dropping out, flunking or leaving the apprenticeship programs at much higher rates than white males, data show. The so-called cancellation rate for minorities and women is about 50 percent, compared with a cancellation rate of about 33 percent for white men.

The bureau's figures cover apprenticeship programs operated jointly by unions and contractors, including nonunion contractors, in 10 counties of eastern Pennsylvania. Most of the programs are in the Philadelphia area.

"I don't really have an answer as to why they are not meeting their goals," said John Hunt, area director of the apprenticeship bureau's Philadelphia office. "It may be recruitment, it may be a lack of applicants. In some organizations, there has been a concerted effort. Others have done very little, obviously."

Asked about the high dropout rate, Robert Colflesh, secretary-treasurer of ceramic tile installers Local 6, which has six minorities and one woman among its 290 members, said, "To be blunt, we've had quite a few blacks apply over the years. At least half of them never followed through with their interviews.

''The other half were not qualified for a myriad of reasons or else they didn't stick it out in the program. Many of them just plain don't know what it is to go to work."

James Mackin, business manager of Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said the union has particular trouble keeping women in its four-year apprenticeship program. It now counts 12 women among the 1,400 members of the union's construction division.

"Once they are accepted into the apprenticeship program, they begin dropping by the wayside," Mackin said. "Some of them have problems with their insides. They try to pick up big loads and they strain themselves."

But many minorities and women cite a litany of different reasons why they have had trouble in the apprenticeship programs. The reasons range from ones as basic as not being able to afford a car to get to construction sites and apprenticeship classes, to ones as insidious as the refusal of some white journeymen to provide adequate on-the-job training.

Albert Watson was one of the 35 minorities admitted under a court decree into the apprenticeship program of Ironworkers Local 401 in 1982. But a year later, he had become one of the 17 minorities who had left the program. During the same period, just two of the 16 whites in the class had dropped out.

"I really wanted it hard, I really did," Watson, 40, said of his desire to become an ironworker. "I thought I'd be set for life once I got there. It was my dreams come true."

But after being admitted to the apprenticeship program, Watson discovered he had to take his classroom work at the union's school in Montgomery County and, at the time, he couldn't afford a car. "I would have never made it through the program," he said.

Instead, Watson ended up working as a night repairman for the city Water Department, where he now earns $8.45 an hour, less than half of what he would earn as an ironworker.

Other minorities and women who have gone through union apprenticeship progams complain that they received poor training from journey workers, most of whom are white males.

Chris Williams, for instance, said he and many other blacks never received adequate on-the-job instruction when they went through the ironworker apprenticeship program more than a decade ago. As a result, he is still trying to upgrade his skills and scrambling to get choice jobs.

"They made sure everyone made it, but they didn't teach us anything," he recalled. "I couldn't burn or weld. I got jobs but they weren't good jobs, like bolting up. When I finished my apprenticeship, I was lost."

Terry Falbo, 27, encountered the same problems three years ago when she was admitted into the apprenticeship program of Steamfitters Local 420, the only woman in a class of 20.

At a local oil refinery, she was assigned to drive a truck rather than work with pipe. For seven months, she did nothing but work on plastic pipe - a relatively easy job that develops few skills - and she spent five months doing one repetitive task - cutting steel pipe with a torch.

"For a long while, I was not getting adequate training from men on the job and the jobs I had were very repetitive," Falbo said. She maintained that most new male members got better instruction.

Despite the problems, minority union membership has risen over the last decade. In 1969, total minority membership in the half-dozen unions targeted in the Philadelphia Plan was 1.6 percent. Today, some of those same unions, such as the electrical workers, say minority membership has risen to as much as 18 percent.

However, neither union officials nor government officials will release the official membership figures that they are required to submit to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The Philadelphia Human Relations Commission, citing the confidential figures made available to them by federal officials, reported in October that minority membership in seven local craft unions was just 6.6 percent in 1984. The commission refused to identify the unions.

By all accounts, the number of women in the building trade unions is even more minuscule.

Tradeswomen of Philadelphia, an advocacy group composed of female construction workers, estimates that there are no more than 100 women among the 60,000 members now on the rolls of local craft unions. The numbers are so few that the group talks about "sightings" of its members at various construction projects, as if they were as rare as bald eagles.


The low representation of minorities and women in the unions raises the question of whether federal construction contractors have an adequate supply of workers to meet the government's affirmative action hiring goals, even if they made a good-faith effort to do so.

In some trades, there may be shortages. But even so, many minorities and women who were interviewed by The Inquirer reported long periods of unemployment at a time when the contractors were falling far short of the federal goals in their craft.

Steamfitter Michael Kessler, 42, was typical of those interviewed. "In 1984, the work was terrible," said Kessler, one of an estimated 50 to 60 black journey workers in his 3,500-member union. During the first half of 1985, he said, he worked only seven weeks.

Kessler, who can earn as much as $20 an hour when he is working, said contractors turned him down for jobs on the city's Gallery II project, even though statistics show that the project did not meet the affirmative action targets in his craft.

Kessler said most of his steady jobs in recent years have all been out of town - places like South Jersey, Pottstown and Atlantic City. "You wonder why I can't work right in the town where I live?"

Despite such questions, which are raised by many minority and female workers, union contractors say shortages of minorities in some crafts - and a dearth of women in all crafts - have hampered their ability to meet the federal affirmative action goals.

But except for sponsoring an annual "career day" targeted at area high school youth, the contractors' trade association has established no special program to recruit minorities and women into the building trades. That is basically the unions' responsibility, its officials say.

"Honestly, it runs against my personal grain to extend favoritism to anybody," said Walter P. Palmer Jr., executive director of the General Building Contractors Association, which represents 78 general contractors and 150 subcontractors that employ unionized workers in the Philadelphia area.

Instead, the association has tried to boost minority and female employment in the industry by promoting minority-owned and female-owned construction firms. The assumption is that these firms will tend to employ higher percentages of minority and female workers.

But currently, most of these companies are small enterprises that employ only a fraction of the total building trade work force. Some have been found to have poor track records in affirmative action hiring, and others are fronts for enterprises that are actually owned and operated by white males.

The Rev. Henry Nichols, minister at Janes United Methodist Church and a driving force behind affirmation action hiring for construction of Temple University's new hospital, said the project has shown that minority entrepreneurship is no guarantee of a minority work force.

"We found that women will not hire women and minorities will not hire minorities," he said. "I was shocked."

Representatives of nonunion contractors believe that they are employing proportionately more minorities and women than are union firms, although they do not have definitive statistics.

Yet they, too, point to a dearth of qualified minorities and women as reasons why the federal affirmative action goals have not been met.

"We have for years tried to recruit minorities and women," said Benjamin B. Dyess, executive director of the Associated Building and Contractors Inc., which represents nonunion firms in the Philadelphia area. "It's sometimes difficult to recruit anyone who has the educational background."


Whatever efforts are being made by the contractors and the unions, however, the federal government has done what almost everyone agrees is very little to enforce its own affirmative action hiring goals in the construction industry.

"There's no pressure on the industry, and there hasn't been for years," said John Dent, a black operating engineer who now works as an affirmative action consultant in Philadelphia. "Contractors and unions have enjoyed operations without any governmental pressure."

In a 1982 ruling stemming from a class-action lawsuit filed by Nathaniel Brown and two other black Philadelphians, U.S. District Judge Raymond J. Broderick found that lax federal enforcement was among the reasons why minority construction workers had lost nearly one million hours of work due them under the Philadelphia Plan.

"The evidence presented at trial shows that the Department of Labor has accomplished little by way of implementing the Philadelphia Plan," the judge ruled.

Despite his stinging criticism, however, Broderick said he could not order the department to be more aggressive in its enforcement because of the stringent legal requirements of the court order being sought by the plaintiffs. Such an order would have required the plaintiffs to prove that the Labor Department had failed to take any steps at all to implement the Philadelphia Plan.

Today, officials in the regional office of the OFCCP maintain that they have improved their monitoring efforts since the court finding. Officials say they check a sample of the affirmative action reports given them by more than 500 construction contractors every year.

Officials say that between January 1983 and last March, they reviewed reports submitted by 128 contractors. Of those, 71 were found to be making a ''good-faith effort" to comply with the hiring guidelines, and the 57 others signed so-called conciliation agreements with the OFCCP pledging to meet certain goals.

However, officials said they had no statistics on how many of the 57 contractors had actually improved their performance in hiring minority and female workers as a result of the agreements.

Although the agency has the power to debar contractors, such a step would only be self-defeating, according to James E. Sykes, who until recently was the acting regional administrator overseeing the OFCCP's Philadelphia-are a operations. "If the bottom line is employment opportunity," Sykes said, ''how does a debarred contractor provide opportunities for anybody?"

But the Labor Department's own Office of the Inspector General recently issued a report that is highly critical of the OFCCP's lack of enforcement in the construction industry nationwide.

The Dec. 10 report concluded that the agency's record-keeping and evaluation were so inadequate that no one can determine whether the federal hiring goals are being met.

"There is no such thing as diligence in enforcing the regulations," said a former high-level Labor Department consultant, who asked that his name not be used. "They are in a Catch-22 situation. They do not have the manpower nor do they have the support from above to do anything. It's a farce."

Indeed, the OFCCP, under the Reagan administration, has less support from above than ever.

Attorney General Edwin Meese 3d has asked the President to rescind the numerical hiring goals affecting the construction industry and other federal contractors. In a speech last fall at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., Meese contended that "counting by race is a form of racism."

Meese's recommendations have met a torrent of criticism from key business groups as well as the AFL-CIO.

But even if Reagan decides to maintain affirmative action goals for federal contractors, civil rights advocates in Philadelphia say the program will not ensure that minorities and women make significant inroads into the local construction work force.

In the absence of a strong federal program, they are now turning to local government for help.


Under an ordinance introduced into City Council in June, city residents would have to receive 45 to 50 percent of the hours worked on all city-funded construction projects worth more than $1 million and subcontracts worth more than $25,000.

The ordinance, introduced by Councilman David Cohen, would also require that minorities get 25 percent to 30 percent of the hours worked in each trade and that women get from 5 to 8 percent of the hours in each craft.

The numerical goals would be phased in over the next four years. If local contractors did not meet them, the city could stop its payments for a particular project.

The proposal comes at a time when construction is on a roll in the Philadelphia area, with more than $3 billion in commercial construction projects either under way or about to begin in Center City alone.

"People are building, and our members are getting a good share of that market," said Palmer, who heads the union contractor association. "As the market grows our labor force will grow, and everyone is going to benefit."

Minorities and women, however, said they aren't so sure they will share in the hundreds of new construction jobs now opening up in Center City unless they have the proposed city ordinance to protect them.

Deborah Tucker, an outspoken proponent of the ordinance, is one of six women in the 2,500-member Plumbers Local 690. She said she was shut out of local construction jobs in 1984 and forced to work in Atlantic City for most of the year.

"I could take it if they said, 'Look, kid, we just don't have the jobs.' But it's really hard to believe they can't find jobs for six women, except to send them to Atlantic City," Tucker said.

But the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, construction contractors and the building trade unions are lobbying hard against the measure, which is now languishing in Council's Rules Committee. The chamber calls the measure an "administrative juggernaut" that would stymie economic development, while labor leaders say it represents an effort to bust the unions by bringing in nonunion workers.

Labor leaders say that to be for the bill is to be against unions. Charles W. Robinson, however, is among the many minority construction workers who are staunch supporters of the bill yet remain fiercely loyal to their unions, despite what they regard as the construction industry's failure to give them a fair share of the work.

In 1983, during his first year as an ironworker apprentice in Local 401, Robinson worked just three weeks. In 1984, he was employed for just six weeks. By comparison, court records show that the average white worker in the same apprenticeship class got more than three times as much work.

Last year, as the result of an affirmative action agreement negotiated with one ironwork contractor, Robinson finally landed a steady job at $13.40 an hour.

But on June 18, while working on a Center City construction project, he was sidelined with an injury.

Today, Robinson, 39, is awaiting the outcome of his workers's compensation claim. He said he feels abandoned by his union, which he faults for not backing his claim, and by his employer, who is challenging his claim. Still, he is determined to graduate from the apprenticeship program of Ironworkers Local 401.

Every Wednesday and Thursday, from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., Robinson attends apprenticeship class at the union's school in Bensalem Township. To get there

from his North Philadelphia home, he takes the trolley, the subway and the train and then walks three miles.

"I'm a union man," Robinson said. "The history of this country has proved that union work is better. That's what keeps me going."

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