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Building trades unions won’t disclose racial data

Morgan C. Mullings
Staff reporter covering state and local politics. Report for America Corps Member. VIEW BIO

For three years, private construction jobs in Boston of 50,000 square feet or more have been monitored to make sure that people of color, women and Boston residents get a fair share of work hours. For all public jobs, this has been the case since 1983 through the Boston Residents Jobs Policy. Meeting those standards has proved difficult, despite the recent push toward equity and inclusion.

“Union jobs in the city are still not providing work to residents, people of color, and women at rates consistent with the Boston Residents Jobs Policy (BJRP) goals of 51% of worker hours going to Boston residents, 40% to people of color, and 12% to women,” said Travis Watson, chairman of the Boston Employment Commission, in a release last week. The BEC is the city agency charged with overseeing compliance with the BRJP’s goals.

Watson made it clear that meeting these requirements would add thousands of dollars to the pockets of Boston residents, black people, and women, but data shows that the ordinance is not working as it should. The BEC has heard from union locals that they have the members to meet the goals – but union contractors also tell them that     obtaining the correct workforce from unions has been unsuccessful.

“It can’t be both ways,” Watson said.

 One example of insufficient BRJP requirement compliance that Watson cited is a union project where 86,285 hours of work were performed in Boston from January 2017 to May 2019. Of the workers on the job, only 19.6% were Boston residents, 21.4% people of color and 5.5% women.

Improving compliance on these goals, Watson says, can happen if the city collects race and gender data from the unions. Until the unions start collecting that data themselves, that can’t happen.

David Lopes, general superintendent of Janey Construction, saw firsthand the barriers that building trades unions pose while working his way through the industry as a teenager. As a Cape Verdean American, Lopes says he was “more fortunate” than other African American workers, despite being Black.

“I worked for people who cared about me,” he told the Banner, remembering all the relatives he worked for, and watching his father, formerly one of the only Black workers at Sydney Construction.

As a small company, Janey Construction may not work with unions often, but when they do, it’s more expensive.

“The union will want you to only use their workforce, not your own,” Lopes said.

Though unions present a problem, Lopes says the solution is in proper education.

“We’re not creating the workforce we need,” he said.

The mayor’s pre-apprenticeship program, Building Pathways, is a nine-week course aimed at young members of minority groups interested in working in construction. The program prepares them for union apprenticeships.

In a statement to the Banner, Brian Doherty, General Agent of the Boston Building Trades Unions said, “Building Trades Unions have a strong legacy of advocating for fair wages, health and retirement benefits, and the highest level of safety and training programs in the industry. Throughout the construction industry, at all levels, there is also a history of institutionalized racism and sexism that we must continue to acknowledge and work vigorously to eliminate.” Doherty is also president of Building Pathways, where he has worked within the labor movement to improve equity in construction apprenticeships.

“Our mission is to ensure every construction job is a good job, and that everyone has access to those good jobs,” he said.

But Lopes called the Building Pathways program “indoctrination, not training,” and says that workers cannot be trained in just nine weeks.

As examples of firms and unions that are increasing diversity, Lopes highlighted companies like the black-owned Outkast Electrical and unions like the local branch of North Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters. Still, he noted, there’s a need for more Black pipefitters, iron workers and many other trades.

When construction companies can’t meet the requirements, they discuss with BEC why and how they can improve; they can also submit “best faith efforts” notice to describe to the BEC how they attempted to fulfill the requirements, such as reaching out to specific unions.

  Still, Watson says that communication is not enough, and it is time to collect race and gender data from the unions.

“We need everyone on board — every union member, every union trade, and every union contractor,” he said. “And we need transparency about union membership.”

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