Car­pen­ters’ union chis­el­ing women, blacks

De­nied re­cruit­ment funds, equal job ac­cess, mem­ber says

Chicago Sun-Times - - News -

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.

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