By Marc H. Morial, President, National Urban League
“If you live in America, you should be able to have bacon and eggs on Sunday morning. It means you can work. That you got a job.” Nate Smith, labor and civil rights leader who broke the color barrier in Pittsburgh’s construction industry
WASHINGTON - Harry Alford, President and CEO of the Black Chamber of Commerce recently reminded us that African Americans face an added barrier to finding good jobs in this struggling economy -- discrimination by construction unions. In a National Newspaper Publisher’s Association (NNPA) column, Alford said that construction unions “have fought affirmative action and have excluded Black hiring in a criminal fashion. Today it is still close to Jim Crow.”
The National Urban League was founded 100 years ago to open the doors of opportunity to African Americans workers who migrated north from the Jim Crow south in search of good jobs and a better life for their families. It has been a cruel irony that labor unions, created to protect and empower the dispossessed, have historically fought to keep Blacks out - none more egregiously than construction unions. Despite this opposition, today one in every five Black workers belongs to a union. These workers earn about 40 percent more than non-union workers. They are also more likely to have health insurance, defined pension benefits and greater protections against discrimination on the job.
The National Urban League has been in the forefront of the fight to expand union access to more African Americans for decades. The great Lester Granger, who served as National Urban League President from 1941-1961, worked tirelessly to integrate racist trade unions. He teamed up with A. Philip Randolph in a successful campaign to persuade President Franklin Roosevelt to sign the 1941 Fair Employment Act, barring discrimination in defense industries.
Other African American leaders, including Coalition of Black Trade Unionist president, William “Bill” Lucy, have repeatedly called for the construction industry and other unions to open their doors to blacks. In the 1960’s Nate Smith an aspiring professional boxer and construction worker in Pittsburgh laid down in front of bulldozers, challenged established union authority and developed a training program called Operation Dig that helped raise minority union rates from 2 to 15 percent in that city.
Since the start of the recession in 2007, our economy has lost almost 2 million construction jobs. Another 21,000 disappeared in September. The Obama Administration’s stimulus plan recognized that the key to getting those jobs back and to fueling our economic recovery is a robust investment in rebuilding the nation’s roads, bridges and public works infrastructure. Construction unions, which stand to benefit greatly from that opportunity, have an obligation to open their doors to workers of color so that no one is left behind.