Thursday, December 10, 2020

Interesting Article About Labor Unions and Race

 I was reading decisions concerning the use of the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause and affirmative action for my spring semester 14th Amendment class.  (This will be online; if really interested, there may be time to apply to College of Western Idaho and enroll.)  Richmond v. JA Croson Co.(1989) involved an attempt to ameliorate past wrongs:

On April 11, 1983, the Richmond City Council adopted the Minority Business Utilization Plan (the Plan). The Plan required prime contractors to whom the city awarded construction contracts to subcontract at least 30% of the dollar amount of the contract to one or more Minority Business Enterprises (MBE's). Ordinance No. 83-69-59, codified in Richmond, Va., City Code, § 12-156(a) (1985). The 30% set-aside 478*478 did not apply to city contracts awarded to minority-owned prime contractors.

Adding to the problem, there was no clear evidence that the disparity in minority owned construction contractors in the Richmond area was because of past discrimination.  Curiously, there is some evidence that this shortage might have been the result of governmental action:

The Davis-Bacon Act, passed by Congress in 1931, requires private contractors to pay "prevailing wages" to employees on all federally funded construction projects over $2000. Most often, the "prevailing wage" corresponds directly to the union wage. This is especially true in urban areas, where union membership tends to be higher.

The Davis-Bacon Act covers a significant portion of the projects undertaken by the construction industry. Approximately 20 percent of all construction projects in the U.S. are covered by the Act, affecting more than 25 percent of all construction workers in the nation at any given time.

The Act was passed with the specific intent of preventing non-unionized black and immigrant laborers from competing with unionized white workers for scarce jobs during the Depression. This invidious law continues to have devastating discriminatory effects, as minorities tend to be vastly underrepresented in highly unionized skilled trades, and over-represented in the pool of unskilled workers who would benefit,if the prevailing wage laws were abolished.

The advantage given to union labor certainly contributed to reduced opportunities for black workers.  This 1959 Commentary article details how labor union discrimination played a part in the battle for equal rights in the 1950s:

The removal of the sanction of law from racial segregation has sharply posed the issue of the Negro’s status in virtually every area of American life. As much as the public schools, religious organizations, and business firms, the labor movement is on trial today. For labor’s democratic ideals are in serious conflict with a tradition of racial discrimination in the unions that is currently very much alive.

To some degree, union discrimination simply reflects the racial and religious prejudices among union members—prejudices that many unionists share with other prejudiced persons. Thus recently in the North, groups of white workers participated in violence against Negroes at Trumbull Park in Chicago and at Levittown, Pennsylvania. And in the South, workers have given considerable support to the White Citizens Councils and other groups seeking to perpetuate segregated institutions....

The Negro had established his first beachheads in industry during World War I, but most AFL unions still practiced a rigorous exclusionist policy throughout the 1920’s. In some instances still, Negroes were able to enter industry only when employers hired them as strikebreakers.2 In other industries, predominantly those employing mass production methods, the Negro was able to gain a modest foothold because the craft-proud AFL would not organize them. But the limited gains of the Negroes in the 20’s were destroyed during the Depression, largely because the AFL had not extended union protection to the Negro in the earlier period. As late as 1933, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, with 35,000 members, had almost half the total number of Negro members in the AFL.

Now the Davis-Bacon Act impacted workers, not contractors.  But what is the usual path to being a construction contractor?  I suspect most contractors at some point swung a hammer, laid bricks, or poured concrete.

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