Trade unions segregate construction in Oakland

Once upon a time, when I was an innocent girl and started in this industry working for the City of Oakland, some of the wages were different. The post Trade unions segregate construction in Oakland appeared first on San Francisco Bay View.

Trade unions segregate construction in Oakland
Bendu-Griffin-Washington-in-safety-gear-on-construction-site-1-1400x1867, Trade unions segregate construction in Oakland, World News & Views
Bendu Griffin Washington wears safety gear on a construction site.

by Bendu Griffin Washington

Open letter to Oakland City Council President, Council Member at Large and Council Members:

Of all the months that the City of Oakland would choose to remind Black contractors that they are not equal citizens with the same rights as non-Blacks when it comes to City contracting, February, the month that we celebrate Black History, should not have been that month! We as a City tout “love life” as our mantra, but when it comes to policies and practices around procurement, love is not for the Black contractors and consultants.

Thanks to those of you who are still continuing the fight to ensure equality in contracting!

At the Feb. 20 City Council meeting, we had to fight the lies that the construction trade unions have workforce and safety policies that are different from those that the City has. Well, that is not true. The City of Oakland and all other governmental agencies do not have workforce policies or safety policies. Agencies are only to develop policies and procedures that lay out how they plan to enforce what their respective states and the federal government have mandated for public and, at times, private works projects. The City of Oakland, like other public agencies, can choose to go above and beyond what their state and the federal government have set to ensure equality and a level playing field for projects, but they cannot go below the threshold. 

Bendu-Griffin-Washington-with-Rep.-Barbara-Lee-staff-1, Trade unions segregate construction in Oakland, World News & Views
Bendu Griffin Washington poses with members of Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s staff.

In California, the prevailing wages set by the Department of Industrial Relations (DIR) for public works projects are one and the same as the union wages. There is no difference. Once upon a time, when I was an innocent girl and started in this industry working for the City of Oakland, some of the wages were different. However, the DIR, which sets the wage rates to be paid to every worker on public works projects, sets the same rates for union shop and open shop workers. For federal projects, the Department of Labor sets the wages. When there are combined monies, the higher of the two wage rates is to be paid.

In fact, open shop contractors generally pay higher wages to their workers than union contractors when the unions refuse to send out apprentices to the open shop contractors. In those instances, a union carpenter apprentice starts out at $36.23 per hour, while an open shop contractor must start his worker out at $60.39 per hour, the rate paid to a journeyman. And open shop contractors must pay all the same fringes – health and welfare, pension, vacation/holiday, training and other costs to their workers unless they have a third party that administers the benefits. (Training is not paid to the worker but to the Department of Apprentice Standards.) In essence, the union apprentice takes home $36.23 an hour to start, the union journeyman takes home $60.39 per hour (current rate), and the open shop worker takes home $93.01 per hour (total minus the training). 

When the DIR raises the prevailing wages, the union workers and open shop workers alike enjoy the increase. If the union worker loses his job and cannot continue to pay his monthly dues to the union, he is dropped; and if he is not vested, he loses all his benefits other than vacation. The open shop worker enjoys ALL his hard earned money! This is what the City’s own DWES (Department of Workforce and Employment Standards) enforces for every City project.

Additionally, the unions do not set safety standards above the City of Oakland and open shop contractors. In fact, the City of Oakland, the unions and open shop contractors do not set safety standards for projects and workers. All contractors, union and open shop, on public works projects, must abide by the safety standards set by OSHA; and all contractors, union or open shop, are required to produce their safety plans prior to beginning work on any public works projects. All contractors are required by OSHA to hold weekly safety meetings, and the prime contractors are required to have at least one dedicated safety rep, on site, every day, who monitors and works with the identified safety rep for each of their subcontractors to ensure that OSHA’s safety standards are upheld.

We might say that we have overcome – but in reality, when it comes to contracting, Blacks are still being told to “sit in the back of the bus” and to “enter the doors marked ‘Coloreds.’” People who pounded the pavement to turn out the vote for you, our elected officials, who paid their hard earned money to get you to the seat where you can implement and enforce policies to protect their rights to be equal citizens when it comes to contracting should not have to constantly fight for their rights. Do you know how it feels to have to be on edge constantly, to not only watch the unions and large primes but to have to watch those who are tasked with protecting our rights?

And worse, we are expected to be grateful for the crumbs that are thrown our way. When did the KKK tell the truth and reveal who they were under the sheets? It took people who were willing to lay down their lives to fight for us to be able to join the unions – if we wished – and to work on jobs where we were then, and where we are now still being called the “n” word. Take it from me who works day in and day out with contractors.

On your own project, not a few months ago, a Black open shop contractor was physically threatened by union representatives on a City project, and the “union” shut down the job only because he is not a union contractor. Not because he was not paying workers the prevailing wages, not because of safety violations, but because he would not bow to the almighty union and join them. A right that he has as a business owner. 

This contractor hires all Oakland residents – a crew of diverse minority workers – he has a fabulous record and his performance is second to none. Yet, he has to constantly fight to work on projects that his tax dollars are paying for. The remedy by the unions for this open shop contractor, a “special non-union gate,” was created and letters sent out to all the other contractors that this Black contractor (we will keep his company name private), all his workers, vendors and visitors were to use the gate marked as non-union for his use. Wow! Segregation in the 21st century, on a City of Oakland public works project! 

Worse, unions are asking union workers to identify who the non-union contractors are so they can pressure the prime contractors to get rid of them and hire only union contractors. I can verify this is true: As I sat at a breakfast meeting late last year with one of my clients, the union rep told us the same thing. (I won’t name the union because I know this letter may likely find its way to the union.) 

The Feb. 20 City Council meeting was just another fight for the rights of minority, especially Black contractors – rights that are afforded to majority White contractors and workers. Last night, I was reminded of the precedents and policies that allowed Black people to be hunted down and killed – policies and practices that still allow for the hunting and killing of innocent people just because of the color of their skin. When you, our City officials, pass policies that favor systemic racist institutions like the construction trade unions, you too give power to the economic hunting and killing of Black contractors, their wives and husbands, their children and future generations.

Bendu-Griffin-Washington-in-DC-with-Bulbul-Gupta-CEO-of-PCV, Trade unions segregate construction in Oakland, World News & Views
Bendu Griffin Washington stands during a visit to Washington, D.C., with Bulbul Gupta, CEO of PCV.

I pray that some of you can sleep at night because for many Black contractors and consultants, the fight to participate on projects in our backyards, constantly being told that our companies are not up to par, that our workers are not up to par, that our bids are too high when we know they are low, when we are asked to lower our bids yet more so we can participate, told that we just don’t exist and cannot be found, when we have to go to other cities just so we can work, when we are told to “keep your mouth shut or you won’t get any contracts,” when we are finally successful on projects but somehow we never work, when we have to jump through hoops imposed by the policies that are supposed to ensure equal participation, when we face yet another disappointment because the project is handed over to others while we are told to wait until next time – when the stress of it NEVER CHANGING and the fear that we cannot feed our families keeps us up at night.

Some of us are tired of the “history” in Black History Month. I offer that we rename February “Black Current Month” or “Black Present Month,” because for many Blacks, especially in City contracting, we are tired of shucking and jiving and dancing to the old historic beat of the “massa’s” drum.

Respectfully submitted,

Bendu Griffin Washington, President of Tonma

Bendu Griffin Washington is a fierce advocate who uses her voice to speak for fair and equitable procurement for small and marginalized businesses. The fight for a level playing field for Black and Brown marginalized contractors and consultants takes her from Washington, D.C., to the City of Oakland, OUSD, Peralta and Alameda County. Her 21 years as an agency worker, two years as co-owner of a construction firm and 12 years as a small business owner is testament to her tenacity and belief that one day the tide will turn. The fight for equality in financing and procurement is not all adversarial as testament to the work of businesses like PCV, NAMC Northern California, HEBC, Cahill and Wickman. We want our contractors and consultants to build projects in their backyard because a community owns what a community builds. Reach Bendu at Tonma,

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