By Ken Epstein
The City of Oakland’s Department of Race & Equity recently issued a report calling for construction unions to abandon their historic, racially exclusive membership policies if they want the city to sign a contract guaranteeing the unions receive the lion’s-share of construction jobs on city-funded projects.
The City Council has been under behind-the-scenes pressure for several years from both building trades unions and their allied community groups to sign a binding contract, called a Project Labor Agreement (PLA), guaranteeing most jobs on city projects will go to union members.
Most building trades craft unions have failed to report numbers of Black and women members of their organizations. They also have not taken steps to eliminate the barriers to entry nor the sometimes-hostile work environments that keep African Americans and women out of union construction jobs.
So far, the 70-page racial equity analysis report, “Improving the Effectiveness of Project Agreements,” which examines current conditions and makes proposals for change, has been largely ignored by the media and most Oakland accountability activists.
The report was completed in in December 2020 by the Estolano Advisors and the San Francisco Foundation and submitted to the City Council by the Department of Race and Equity.
The San Francisco Foundation convened an advisory committee of representatives of public agencies, community-based organizations and the Alameda County Building Trades to examine strategies to diversify the construction workforce through PLA’s. Also supporting the study were Julian Gross of Renee Public Law Group, Junius Williams Consulting and others.
Local data, submitted by unions in July 2020, indicate that “numerous disparities” under PLA’s currently exist in Oakland. However, data was submitted to the city by only 10 out of 28 of the building trades. Presumably these may have been the unions with better results.
- 98% of current members in the data sample are male;
- 25% of building trades members lives in Alameda County (not necessarily in Oakland), and 75% do not;
- Union members in the samples were 54% white, 35% Hispanic/Latino, 5% Black, 3% Asian, and 4% other or unknown.
- Journey workers (the most skilled and highest paid) represent 79% of members, while 21% are apprentices;
These survey results confirm “that current data from the trade affiliates does not fully capture the landscape of the local construction workforce because trade affiliates do not collect data consistently and are not mandated to collect and report it,” according to the report.
The ongoing economic disparity in opportunities for women and African Americans in the building trades are national in scope and historically conditioned, according to a report to the City Council by Darlene Flynn, director of the Department of Race and Equity:
“Inequity in outcomes is the result of over 200 years of institutional policy and practice that excluded BIPOC Black, Indigenous, People of Color) groups from fair and equitable access to living wage employment and wealth building.”
“Government has a responsibility to right historical wrongs in which it participated, and the City of Oakland has made a commitment to address disparities through intentional equity strategies in all the City does,” Flynn said in her report.
One chart in the report shows that although Black workers comprise 12% of the nation’s workforce, they obtain roughly a flat 6% of the jobs in construction for 25 years, from 1995 to today.
National unemployment rates underscore the inequities. In July 2021, overall unemployment during the pandemic remained at 6.5%. White unemployment was lower at 5.1%, Black unemployment was significantly higher at 10.1% and Hispanic/Latino joblessness stood at 8.4%
The report listed some of the persistent barriers that at present maintain the underrepresentation of Black and female building trade membership:
- “Vastly different, opaque, sometimes subjective entry process for each trade (somewhat like trying to get accepted into an exclusive fraternity);
- Disparities in participation and success rates in apprenticeship programs, mainly for Black and women workers;
- BIPOC members disproportionately hired into lower-paid apprenticeship programs;
- Small and local contractors, many non-union but hire more women and African Americans, are often shut out of city contracting under PLA’s;
- Poor reporting of race and gender data for unions, and “ineffective/inconsistent monitoring of contractor obligations;”
- Poor funding for pre-apprenticeship programs;
- Unwelcoming worksite culture for under-represented groups, lack of mentorship support for underrepresented groups;
- Lack of public accountability for equity outcomes.
This is the first of a series of articles on Project Labor Agreements and racial equity analysis. Future articles will focus on concerns of Black construction workers and small contractors in Oakland and solutions that would produce more equitable outcomes.
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