Carpenters’ union chiseling women, blacks
Denied recruitment funds, equal job access, member says
Despite the meager number of women finding jobs in the construction trades, Nieko Malcom has been a good union woman.
But after 15 years with the local carpenter’s union, Malcom has just about had enough.
“My problem is the anti-affirmative action attitude we are dealing with now,” Malcom told me.
Until recently, Malcom chaired a committee that was set up to hire and retain female carpenters.
Of the 46,000 carpenters represented by the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters, only about 400 are women.
Earlier this month, the union laid off 58 organizers. Among those let go was the first and only African-American female organizer and trustee in the union’s history
Worse yet, on Tuesday, Malcom was informed by the union’s first vice president that funding for the committee was cut.
“My stipend is $133 per month. We met four times a year, and I would have to beg the local union to provide water and coffee,” she said.
Jeffrey Isaacson did not return several phone calls about this issue.
However, with respect to the layoffs of organizers, Frank Libby, president of the council, told ChicagoUnion.com that “the residential field has hit rock bottom,” and that union work has “flatlined.”
Interestingly enough, the union’s decision to lay off organizers comes amid research that shows there is a movement across the country to increase the number of women and minorities in the building trades.
Studies that looked at the union construction labor supply found women and non-Hispanic minorities are still underrepresented in the local construction trades.
Malcom said the crisis in the housing market has led to women and minorities being pushed aside as workers compete for jobs.
“Now we are not worth two cents,” she said. “I am not anti-union. But this union thinks women and blacks are insignificant.”
Additionally, Malcom complained that women are told not to go to work sites in groups to look for employment.
“The guys still go together, but we are told that we are nothing but a lawsuit waiting to happen,” she said. Times are tough all over. Slow housing sales and a continuing credit crunch have resulted in some unions renegotiating contracts.
For instance, in the Twin Cities, union carpenters were forced to take a 10 percent cut in pay.
And this week, the Chicago and Cook County Building and Construction Trades Council announced that all apprenticeship programs are closed to newcomers.
One unidentified rank-and-file electrician told a reporter that contractors would jump on apprentices first since they are cheaper labor.
Charges that minorities and women have been blocked from good union jobs have persisted for as long as I’ve lived in the Chicago area.
Last year, when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was passed, some black elected officials hastily put together “opportunity fairs” so that minority subcontractors would not miss out on construction projects.
“It is important that minorities, and particularly African Americans are seated at the table of opportunity when these shovel-ready projects begin,” said U.S. Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) when he announced the construction of the MetraRock Island 35th Street Commuter Rail Stop.
Malcom points out that women, especially those who are raising children alone, would greatly improve their quality of life if they were allowed to participate equally in the building trades. “These are much better jobs,” she said. Malcom said she will use social networking sites to communicate with her union sisters who still need support.
“I’ve been told that the union isn’t willing to spend a dime,” she said.
“A lot of people have 10, 15 years in. They are fighting over public projects because there are not a lot of private projects.”
“But there is an unspoken attitude that until all the guys get back to work, everybody is out of work,” Malcom said.
In some instances, women who are hired are kept on the job site only for a short period of time, Malcom said.
“Women who have kids can’t stay only three or four weeks so somebody can meet their minority quota,” she said.
It could not have been easy for Malcom to break solidarity with her union brothers and sisters.
But sometimes numbers speak louder than words.