In the oppressive summer heat of August 1963, the New York Amsterdam News ran a short story on page 7 of its August 10th edition: “Plumber To Be First In Union.” 

Just a few hundred words long, the story highlighted “Edward Curry, the 25-year-old Negro plumber on the verge of entering the all-white Plumbers Union, Local 1 admittedly knows little of the reasons for the long well-publicized demonstrations at the Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn.”

For weeks, hundreds of clergy and activists had been arrested while blockading the site that our newspaper in other stories called “near lily white”, demanding that at least 25% of workers be “Negro or Puerto Rican.”

“It doesn’t mean too much to me,” Curry is quoted as saying of the demonstrations, but the timing of the announcement of his barrier breaking hiring was likely a direct result of the demonstrations that had, and would continue on and off for years, to convulse not just New York city, but cities around the country.

In the middle of the 20th century executive orders and laws were put into place, through the hard work of activists and organizers for civil rights, to ensure that the American workplace, including construction sites and union halls, became integrated. But the laws and regulations were meaningless without enforcement and it fell to many of those same activists, and to even more radical organizers, to ensure that the construction sites of America’s cities, both North and South, East and West, were desegregated.

A Dream Deferred

“All the way through the 1960s, not all trades in the construction trades were racially discriminatory, but the highest skill, highest wage ones were very racially discriminatory,” Dr. Trevor Griffey, a lecturer at the University of California, Irvine said in an interview with the Amsterdam News

While organized labor had grown in power during the first half of the 20th century, many of the unions that represented the skilled and highest paid trades like plumbers, electricians, pipe fitters and steel workers still marginalized Black Americans.

“A number of those unions were very militant, but also very racially exclusive. And then they fought against the inclusion of racial discrimination prohibitions in labor law,” Dr. Griffey added. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act, racial discrimination in hiring and employment was banned but construction sites continued to be bastions of de facto segregation.

“When an employer needs people, they often tell the people who are working there, ‘we need to hire some more people, go tell your friends, and tell your family’. And so if you have an all white workforce, that’s going to mean that the people who hear about those job openings are all going to be white,” said historian Dr. William Jones of the University of Minnesota, explaining why it was so difficult to diversify worksites despite the passage of Federal nondiscrimination laws.

A chain binds together the upraised arms of fourteen pickets sitting in entrance to a hospital construction site in Brooklyn, N.Y., on July 25, 1963. A squad of New York City policemen move in to remove the chain with wire clippers and arrest demonstrators. A member of Congress of Racial Equality chained the pickets together as they sat in roadway to Downstate Medical Center of protest alleged job discrimination. (AP Photo/Anthony Camerano)

While he believes that the building trades have made enormous improvements, Jeff Grabelsky, the Co-Director of the National Labor Leadership Institute at Cornell, told the AmNews in an interview that “there was a time in New York City when some major unions, in a city that was becoming majority minority… where there were local unions without a single Black member.”

During this era, construction unions largely mirrored private industry which also excluded workers of color from the most lucrative trades. 

“Direct action protests started targeting these construction sites in the sixties. It started in Philadelphia, quickly moved to New York and then was nationwide. People occupied the arch in St. Louis as it was being constructed,” Dr. Griffey noted. 

The threat of action during World War II led to the creation of an executive order which prohibited discrimination in the defense industry. Direct action also led to both the inclusion of Title Seven, in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and President Nixon implementing the “Philadelphia Plan” which began to force companies seeking Federal contracts to ensure that they employed Black Americans.

But these hard fights for laws and regulations had their limits Mr. Grabelsky noted. 

“Through legal action and community organizing, building trades unions were forced to bring in Black community members. And in some cases, six months later, they were all gone because nothing else changed in the union and they entered this hostile environment that made it exceedingly difficult for them to succeed.”

They say get back, we say fight back

There was an intense backlash to what would become known as “affirmative action” that pushed back on what little progress was being made at the time.

“There are counter protests against affirmative action in ’69, that look a little like hate marches,” said Dr. Griffey. In 1970 “A group of construction workers in New York, descend on a peace rally and beat the shit out of the protestors, then march to City Hall and protest affirmative action in the construction trades, [on the] same day,” he added.

Some organized labor officials also found ways to oppose the integration of their unions; and in one case, was rewarded with a cabinet position.

“These are long time Democrats. Many had never voted for a Republican in their lives. They’re campaigning for Republicans on a law and order platform. And when they help with the landslide election of Nixon, [Peter Brennan], the head of New York City building trades is rewarded by being made head of the Department of Labor where he guts what remains of affirmative action in the construction industry,” said Dr. Griffey.

But right wing construction workers and their leaders weren’t the only ones taking to the streets in the 1960’s and ‘70’s. As large, publicly funded construction projects went up in New York and other cities, activists and organizers of color began to demand their fair share.

“There’s these big public construction sites in Black communities, where Black workers aren’t being employed. And so these protests are around the construction sites to get people employed in those jobs and to open up those jobs,” said Dr. Jones

A group of African American pickets outside the construction site for the Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn on August 2, 1963. Picketing at the site continued in the effort to halt what they called discriminatory hiring practices at the construction site. (AP Photo)

“The argument was: ‘Our tax dollars are paying for this construction. We should be able to get these jobs as well.’ And in that case, it was largely the construction, the skilled trades unions that shut Black workers out of these jobs,” he added.

Across the country in Los Angeles, Black workers have also been fighting for their share of the pie.

Janel Bailey, Co-executive Director of Organizing & Programs at the Los Angeles Black Worker Center, spoke to the AmNews about efforts her organization has undertaken to ensure that Black workers are represented on job sites. As L.A.’s mass transit system expanded into Crenshaw, the organization in partnership with other labor organizations negotiated an employment agreement with the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority which they say increased the number of Black workers on the project from zero to 20% in 2015.

“Folks at our organization came together, with allies of course, to really step to Metro and asked them: ‘how you have all this money coming through our neighborhood, but [its] not going to the workers and the families that are actually here? You need to hire more Black workers’.” Bailey said in an interview. 

During their negotiations she said they encountered “the usual things of like, ‘Oh, well, we can’t just say Black [workers] and we don’t know any Black workers’. Which to be perfectly honest, I believe them when they say, ‘I don’t know any Black workers.’ I believe them because the culture of exclusion that they’ve built set up their network such that it doesn’t include Black people.”

Bailey is also critical of labor unions and the apprenticeship system in Los Angeles.

“This culture of exclusion didn’t come up overnight and so I’m naming all these policies that broadly create a culture of exclusion,” she said. Apprenticeship programs are “wonderful for workers because it created a control of the market on labor, such that if you wanted to hire, to bring folks in to do that work, then you had to go through the union and you could set standards. Safety standards and wage standards for workers. Which is beautiful.”

But she went on to say that “the values of the folks who created and maintained that program were anti-Black. And so when they chose to create this wonderful pathway for workers, it was not inclusive of Black workers. And so what we’re seeing today is the fruits of that legacy. 

“That honestly, I think if you take it straight up on paper, the apprenticeship program actually is not problematic. I think it’s actually quite brilliant…. However, applied with the values of the people who had the power to build that, it was anti-Black and it was built in a way that for some was deliberately exclusive. And so we arrive at this moment now where we have this incredible program that only benefits some workers and we’re trying to figure out how to open it up, how to expand it so that it includes workers of color.”

“There is a history of exclusion,” said Grabelsky of the National Labor Leadership Institute at Cornell. “I don’t think race and racism explains everything in our society, but I personally think nothing of any significance can be fully explained without looking at it through that lens.”

Our third installment will examine how organizers in Harlem helped launch a movement to hold builders and unions accountable

This series was made possible by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network. Brian Palmer contributed research and reporting to this article.

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