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Protesters demand more local jobs at Ferdinand

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Protesters demand more local jobs at Ferdinand
Protesters march on Washington Street near the Ferdinand construction site to demand more hiring of local residents. About 800 to 1000 workers are expected to put some 400,000 work hours into the project, which will create a new BPS headquarters and ground-floor retail space. The protests were organized by Priscilla Flint (in background at far right) of the Leadership Forum. (Photo: Sandra Larson)

Author: Sandra LarsonProtesters march on Washington Street near the Ferdinand construction site to demand more hiring of local residents. About 800 to 1000 workers are expected to put some 400,000 work hours into the project, which will create a new BPS headquarters and ground-floor retail space. The protests were organized by Priscilla Flint (in background at far right) of the Leadership Forum.

Minority hiring is high, but city resident jobs lagging

Local residents and community activists have been protesting at the Ferdinand site in Dudley Square for the past week to demand more construction jobs for Boston residents on the Dudley Municipal Center.

“Boston jobs for Boston residents!” chanted some 15 protesters in the early morning of Oct. 15, carrying signs at the construction site entrance on Washington Street as trucks backed in, construction machinery rumbled and buses roared toward Dudley Station.

The massive $115 million project broke ground in March and will be in progress until late 2014. It will create a new Boston Public Schools headquarters and ground-floor retail space.

“I’m out here supporting the young men who don’t have jobs,” said Terrence Williams, a meter installer for the Boston Water and Sewer Commission. “You see trucks from other parts of the state [at construction sites]. It’s a shame that taxpayers’ money is not coming back into the city of Boston. Boston is being rebuilt, and we’re not part of that project.”

At issue is whether the city and Shawmut Design and Construction, the project’s general contractor, are adhering to the Boston Residents Jobs Policy (BRJP). The 1983 ordinance calls for general contractors on city-funded projects to allot 50 percent of work hours to Boston residents, 25 percent to minorities, and 10 percent to women. On the Ferdinand site, numbers for minority workers actually exceed requirements so far, but resident and women worker numbers are lagging.

“This site is out of compliance,” said protest organizer and Roxbury native Priscilla Flint. “[Contractors] keep being out of compliance. The city is supposed to apply sanctions. We don’t know what else to do.”

Flint is the economic development coordinator for the Leadership Forum, a group formed by concerned community leaders last December to “hold everyone accountable,” she said, from elected officials to community development corporations.

She is also on a citizen monitoring committee that examines biweekly Ferdinand project reports of minority, resident and women workers in each subtrade. The volunteer monitors meet with city and elected officials and Shawmut representatives every two weeks to discuss the reports.

Flint is frustrated that even with this vigilance, not all the job numbers are up to par. As protesters assembled in pre-dawn darkness, Flint brought out a binder of worker data for the site. Late-September figures showed that so far, minority workers had put in 71.4 percent of total project work hours — far exceeding the goal of 25 percent — but the Boston resident numbers fell short, at 29.3 percent compared to the goal of 50 percent. The female worker percentage was 6.2, short of the 10 percent requirement.

“They keep saying it’s going to get better,” she said. “When is it going to get better?”

Patrick Brophy, assistant director for operations on the City of Boston’s Property and Construction Management (PCM) team, talked with the protesters as they gathered. He reminded them that the project is just beginning, and there is still time for local residents to come onto the job.

“We are trying very hard,” Brophy told them. “The minority number is good; we put a priority on it. The resident hours are woefully inadequate, and we’re pushing that. Those numbers will rise.”

But the protesters appeared unconvinced and proceeded to picket, some citing frustration with a long history of unkept promises on projects all over the city.

According to city officials, 109 workers have been on the Ferdinand site so far, mainly doing abatement, demolition and site work. Hundreds of additional workers of many types will come on to the project in the 28 remaining months. Subtrades still to be hired include plumbing, electrical, flooring, roofing, HVAC, painting, metal, fire protection and masonry.

In total, 800 to 1000 workers are expected to log some 400,000 total work hours on the project, according to a written statement prepared by PCM Deputy Director Joseph Mulligan, with input from Shawmut.

The statement listed some efforts to increase local hiring. Shawmut has established a walk-in application office near the site at 22 Warren St. Two women workers were hired on Oct. 15, according to the statement, one of whom was a walk-in applicant.

In addition, Centaur Construction, a Boston minority woman business enterprise (MWBE), has recently started on the job in a joint venture with AA Will of Stoughton. This partnership stemmed from a “subcontractor open house” Shawmut hosted to help small and large contracting companies form such relationships.

While the Boston Resident Job Policy (BRJP) addresses worker hours only, many argue hiring local minority contractors is a logical way to bring more local minority workers into the workforce.

“The businesses are the ones who create the jobs,” said Rodney Singleton, a Roxbury resident who has fought for greater minority business access on local projects such as 225 Centre St., now under way in Jackson Square. “If you haven’t engaged minority businesses, [the BRJP] is not going to work, because businesses come with their own regular employees.”

Singleton and others also pointed out that limiting hiring to union workers shuts out a lot of minorities, who traditionally have not been welcomed into unions. Some local activists are pushing for more non-union construction projects in Boston.

Frustration in the community over jobs runs deep. Construction projects can be visible and painful reminders that other people are getting the opportunities. The topic of trucks with out-of-state plates on local construction sites comes up repeatedly in community meetings and in hearings, along with statements that young people of color rarely see faces that look like theirs on local work sites.

Recently, some elected officials at the state and city level have taken up the issues of access to opportunity for minority workers and MBE/WBEs.

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz has sponsored a bill, now making its way through the legislative process, that would establish incentives for companies to increase workforce diversity and local job creation on state-funded projects.

In Boston, City Councilors-at-Large Ayanna Pressley and John Connolly organized a joint hearing last June with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization to address some of the obstacles MBEs and WBEs face in getting work and getting paid promptly.

Pressley and District 8 City Councilor Mike Ross authored a 2010 change in the BRJP that required greater transparency in the form of publicly viewable construction hiring reports — the reports that Flint and others now monitor in order to track BRJP compliance. And just this month, Pressley and Ross launched a working group focused on improving the effectiveness of the BRJP.

“The BRJP is a good policy,” Pressley said, “but it’s only as good as its enforcement.”

About the protests, Pressley noted that it’s only the beginning of the Ferdinand project, and only three percent of the work has been done, but said, “It’s important that we remain vigilant. These jobs need to go to Boston residents and we need to ensure those goals are being met.”

She also mentioned that with minority, female and resident hiring, policymaking is often a slow process. Lawmakers need to evaluate at every step to make sure policies do not open the city up to lawsuits, potentially forcing a step backward.

“We’re making incremental steps in the right direction to protect and strengthen the policy,” she said. “The efforts don’t immediately yield results. Our ordinance has made a difference. [But] there is a sense of urgency because people need to get to work, they need to feed their families. This is about justice by way of equity and opportunity.”

Meanwhile, the protesters say they will continue to picket daily, keeping the pressure on the city and pushing for more local hiring. On Oct. 22,  six days after the initial protest,  about the same number of people marched, but their presence was more audible with the addition of a bullhorn.

Speaking over the amplified chanting and the traffic and construction noise, Flint said she had secured a meeting for the following day with Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) representatives. She sees that as a positive sign, but certainly not the end of the fight.

“It’s not just about the Ferdinand building. It’s about projects all over town,” she said. “I think [the protests] let the city and Shawmut know that we’re not going to let them come in and do what they want to do in our community. We have to do what we have to do. Things happen because people don’t speak up.”

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