Erik Loomis over at LGM highlighted an important anniversary today in his “This Day in Labor History” series (WHICH YOU SHOULD ALREADY BE READING DAILY GODDAMMIT). Back in 1969 Nixon tried some Realpolitik-ing between organized labor and the Civil Rights forces by successfully forcing the lilly-whitest of all unions (except for maybe the POA), the Building Trades, to start allowing black members into their locals:
The Philadelphia Plan required that 6 Philadelphia area building trades create numerical “goals” for integrating their locals if they wanted to receive federal contracts. White construction workers around the country opposed this idea. They did so for a variety of reasons. Overt racism drove many, but it’s also important to remember that the building trades had developed traditions of passing jobs down to family members. Setting affirmative action targets meant that for every African-American granted a job, someone’s son or cousin or nephew was not getting a job. They also thought they had worked hard to rise in the world and believed that this was the government letting a special class of people equal them without working. Of course, racism also infused these last two reasons, not to mention the mental gymnastics it took to talk about how you worked so hard to get your job compared to these blacks when it was your dad who secured it for you.
For the building trades therefore, being forced to integrate was seen as a direct attack on the white male enclave they had created. This hard hat anger at the overall tenor of social and cultural change became manifested in the Hard Hat Riot of 1970, an event that unfortunately created a stereotype of unions hating hippies even though this was just a couple of building trades locals in New York. In Pittsburgh and Chicago, construction workers held sizable anti-integration rallies. In the former city, 4000 construction workers rallied when the city government halted all contracts to negotiate with African-Americans demanding integrated work. AFL-CIO head George Meany strongly criticized the plan, siding with his building trades over the civil rights movement that always had a complex relationship with organized labor.
As Long Beach is considering introducing more Project Labor Agreements into the City (which are VERY good for protecting workers rights) it is important that we member the not too-awesome recent history of this facet of organized labor and people of color. Ron Miller is a good and decent person who understands this complex relationship between race, class, and entry-level work. Additionally past projects by the LA/OC Building trades have proactively addressed the new way that contracts like modern PLA’s guarantee diversity (via a “Disadvantaged Worker” provision).
However Long Beach residents, particularly those in the racially diverse (and economically depressed) 1st, 6th, 7th, and 9th districts should urge their council members to pay close attention to any proposed PLA for future large-scale construction projects inside of the city. A good apprentice program and job with a Building Trades Union is a virtual ticket out of poverty and into the middle class, so an alert legislator should be wary of any contract that does not have strict standards for guaranteeing the permanent placement of disadvantaged workers inside of these publicly-funded projects.