By Patrick Forrest
Congressman Danny Davis’ office recognized Labor Day with the chairman of Chicago Black United Communities, Eddie Read, putting a spotlight on the need for more Black workers in trade professions, an issue the group has highlighted since the 1970s.
In the past, the group’s tactic has been to shut down construction sites. This time they released a report with the statistics that showed the systematic racism in different segments of the workforce, specifically in trade unions that operate in Illinois.
“For more than 40 years, Chicago Black United Communities (CBUC) has served as an advocate for the empowerment of Black people. Currently we are fighting to eradicate the systematic racism against Black workers and Black contractors, not just in Chicagoland but across the state of Illinois,” Read said.
“Combined with the ravages of a pandemic that has sent countless Americans to the unemployment lines, a lack of access to jobs in the building trades and construction industry exacerbates the disparate impact on Black unemployment.”
“The same systematic approach that excluded Black workers from the building trades 50 years ago is even more prevalent today,” he said.
Read continued, “We need a serious overhaul of the current policies, rules, ordinances and statutory requirements that allow this sort of discrimination to persist. Big Labor should be ashamed of the numbers we’ve found. This is ‘No Labor Day’ for tens of thousands of African Americans in Chicago and millions across the country.”
A CBUC report finds apprenticeship programs of 62 Illinois trade unions remain mostly white, with some of them, such as asphalt paving machine operator, rough carpenter, gas utility worker, stained-glass glazier and industrial coating painter, being completely segregated.
“CBUC has obtained information documenting discrimination in the construction skilled trades apprenticeship programs during the years 1999 to 2018. During this period, there were at least five skilled trades apprentice programs that had 100 percent white participants and zero Black participation.
“Additionally, 15 apprentice programs had a minimum of 80 percent white participants. Another 13 programs had 70 percent to 79 percent white participants,” Read said in a statement.
“Therefore, Chicago Black United Communities has zero confidence in the ability, commitment or desire of the Skilled Trades Construction industry.”
The CBUC’s stance of eradicating systemic racism against Black workers and contractors Read said, “will ensure that Black individuals will get a fair and equitable opportunity to participate in any aspect of the skilled trades such as apprentice, journeymen, or any other employment categories.”
Congressman Davis joined with the group in calling for a renewed push of Black union workers and joined the group in hopes that the nationwide reckoning with systematic racism that has taken place following the death of George Floyd can lead to the disgraceful union membership numbers being changed.
“I couldn’t believe that in the year 2020, after all the marching, all the demonstrations, there are still unions that have frozen out African Americans. I had to get a magnifying glass to make sure I was seeing these numbers right,” Davis said.
“We’re going to have to do something about it. Don’t tell us there is no room at the inn, because if there’s no room, then we just have to kick the door down and come on in anyway. I’m tired of seeing young men on my block standing around with nothing to do, because they can’t get into these trade unions.”
CBUC is currently accepting testimony to build a case for a class action lawsuit in order to receive compensation for workers who have been denied jobs. The organization believes that many students who worked to gain access to the trades and a middle-class lifestyle were wrongfully denied that opportunity, which would be a potential breach of a city ordinance.
“An ordinance passed under the late Mayor Washington stipulated workers on public works jobs must be 50 percent city residents. We don’t believe that’s enforced,” Read said. “All the Black children who graduated from trade programs at high schools like Dunbar, CVS and Simeon between 1999 and 2018 believed they could enter the trades. These numbers clearly show they could not. So, we believe they too have standing in a class-action lawsuit.
Though past wages have been lost due to the lack of opportunity for Black workers in the trades, future opportunity and income is still available. Large-scale construction projects like the renovation of Pullman’s Clock Tower create high demand for construction jobs in the city limits.
“The City Of Chicago alone is projected to create a $40 billion to $60 billion construction boom in the next two years,” CBUC said in a statement. “That means that very few African Americans will be able to obtain jobs in the unions that awarded contracts in these new developments.”