In early August of 1973, a short article titled “Judge Rules Steamfitters Must Admit Minorities” ran on page six of the Amsterdam News. It explained that the Steamfitters Local 638 “must admit Black and Spanish-surnamed applicants exclusively for ninety days effective August 6.” The brief story mentions that “Fight Back, Inc., headed by Jim Haughton, is a local community-based organization that has been effective in getting construction jobs for Blacks, Spanish-surnamed, and other minorities in New York City.”
Two years earlier, we published an article titled “Black steamfitters demand equal chance to work here,” which reported that the “members of Fight Back vow not to allow the Steamfitters Union to proceed on any job uptown unless the workers are integrated.
“We are tired of the discriminatory practice of the Steamfitters union and of all the trade unions which make it a practice to hire Black and Puerto Rican workers last and lay them off as soon as the work slows down,” Haughton was quoted as saying.
Those two articles, which ran 18 months apart, highlight the struggles that New Yorkers of color faced in integrating the skilled and construction trades and their unions. But they also highlight just how effective Fight Back (also known as Harlem Fight Back) and its longtime leader James “Jim” Haughton, were, along with many others, in ensuring that workers of color received their fair share.
The Brooklyn-born Haughton served as an assistant to the legendary labor leader A. Philip Randolph at the Negro American Labor Council before forming the Harlem Unemployment Center, which would later become Fight Back.
“Jim’s philosophy was, if we can’t work here, nobody could,” Lavon Chambers, a former Fight Back organizer, union organizer and currently the executive director of Pathways to Apprenticeship, told the AmNews in a lengthy interview.
“Jim always had a vision. He didn’t really live long enough to actually see. But Jim had a vision of what would happen if the community and labor ever got together,” Chambers added. Their power would be unstoppable.
“The struggle for economic improvement,” Haughton wrote in a 1979 AmNews op-ed, “must come from below, from the workers.”
Decades of Struggle
As an organizer and activist for more than 30 years, Haughton was at the forefront of the group of activists and organizations forcing both developers and local unions to hire workers of color, especially on job sites in their communities. A 1977 AmNews profile said “Haughton and the construction workers he calls his brothers with a winning sincerity, have been on the picket lines that have sometimes deteriorated into bloody brawls at Harlem Hospital, Downstate Medical Center… and almost every other confrontation with the unions and contractors who control the industry.”
Many activists and organizations played a role in the integration of New York’s building and construction trades, but Haughton and Fight Back were, in many ways, the furnace that forged the growing equality that those in the skilled trades now enjoy.
“As Fightback’s [sic] reputation has grown,” the 1977 AmNews profile states, “organizations modeled after its aggressive approach have sprung up in Seattle, Detroit, and Washington.”
The Civil Rights Act and federal non discrimination laws and executive orders passed in the mid-20th century guaranteed, at least on paper, that people of color should be able to get work on construction sites, but the reality of de facto segregation continued, even in the “liberal” North.
“They’re building highways in communities of color or new housing projects or community centers [and] you’re bringing this racially exclusive white workforce into communities of color,” said Dr. Trevor Griffey of UCLA in an interview.
“And people can see from their doorsteps. ‘Oh, I can’t even get a job in my own neighborhood’,” he added.
What was clear to Haughton and other activists in the 1960s, and became gospel in the following decades, was that without community pressure and direct action, nothing was going to change for Black workers.
But what does direct action look like? The AmNews interviewed two former Fight Back activists who detailed both their experiences and the impact Haughton had on them and the entire industry.
Building an Army
Born and raised in Harlem, Chambers had recently come out of the Army and lost his job as a video editor when he first wandered into the offices of Harlem Fight Back on 125th Street in the early 1990s.
“When I came out of the Army, [I] didn’t really know what to do with my life. But I knew I didn’t want to go back to hanging with my ‘friends.’ A lot of them were cool, but it didn’t really lead me to anything good. I inadvertently heard about an organization in my neighborhood called Harlem Fight Back,” Chambers said in an interview.
It is there where he met Jim Haughton, who took a liking to Chambers and gave him books to read, including “The Mis-Education of the Negro.” Chambers warmly recalled the first few weeks he spent in those offices listening to the organization’s leaders and members talk about politics“ as opposed to standing on the corner, talking to people who are selling drugs, or, committing acts of violence.”
Chambers quickly learned, however, that Haughton and his colleagues were more than just talk.
“One day, they’re talking, ‘Hey, Lavon, you want to come with us on the Shape?’ I’m like, ‘What’s the Shape?’” he recalled. They told him, “‘There’s this job over here. And they won’t hire people from the community. And we’re going to go shut it down.’ What do you mean, you want to shut it down? ‘We’re just going to shut it down [using] civil disobedience’. And I thought these people were foolish.
“They’re talking about, ‘You’re gonna go to the site, where all these white folks [are] there, and you’re gonna shut your site down.’ I thought it was foolishness. But I went.”
And that day would change his life just as it had for so many others. Chambers described getting in one of several vans that transported Fight Back members to a nearby construction site.
The van pulled up and “we all ran in the building. And there wasn’t any violence. We just went in there,” Chambers recalled. “It was coordinated, like a tactical military effort. We just hit every floor. We told people with force, ‘There’s a labor dispute, exit the building now!’” And to his surprise the workers… listened. They all left the building and lined up across the street while Fight Back leaders spoke with their supervisors who promised that several of their members would return tomorrow and be allowed to work.
“And I remember I got really emotional. This was like a religious experience to me,” Chambers said. That experience would light a fire in him to become more active in the organization. “Jim used to always talk about building an army. Like not the army in the sense of fighting,” but an army made up of the community to fight for equal opportunities to work.
Jerome Meadows also joined Fight Back in his 20s after working as a drug dealer for the infamous Nicky Barnes. A friend told him about the organization and how it was helping people get construction work, an attractive alternative to the messenger work he was doing after leaving the drug trade behind. When he explained his checkered past, Fight Back organizers still welcomed him and he, too, joined the direct actions to stop construction sites.
Meadows didn’t get work immediately, but he stayed with Fight Back, and within a few months he was earning $18 an hour working in demolition. But he also saw that “we really wasn’t accepted with open arms” at a job site that were otherwise lily white.
On some of his first jobs, Meadows said, they called him “derogatory names. They would write ‘Nigger go home,’ nigger this, nigger that in the bathroom. He added that white workers left “ropes with with monkeys hanging [from them]. It was terrible.”
But Meadows and Chambers endured the abuse and racism they encountered and climbed the ranks, eventually joining Local 79 at Haughton’s encouragement.
Making Change From Within
During his time with Fight Back, and later within Local 79, Meadows recalled seeing a transformation happen within the real estate development community in New York City due at least in part to the pressure of the ongoing direct action work of Fight Back and other organizations.
“If you’re building in these communities, a certain amount of work must go to people in the community,” Meadows said of the organization’s approach. Once the developers decided to start hiring minorities, he added, “they started putting [us] on [as] project managers. Women started getting key positions.”
Even within the union, which Chambers joined at Houghton’s urging after several years of working with Fight Back, he recalled that his early days as an organizer were anything but pleasant.
“I spent a few years there feeling like a hated man,” he said. “People did not like me. People were not nice to me. But there were some people there who had nothing in common with me but they took me under their wing. And they helped protect me. And it gave me time to be able to work on things.”
The hard work of Haughton, Chambers, Meadows, and the thousands of activists and union members and leaders helped transform the landscape of New York organized labor.
Chambers says that Local 79 was more than 90% white in the mid 1990s and based on public filings from Local 79 required by the government. Now, the union is comprised of more than 70% women and people of color.
Getting to this point has not been easy.
“There has been a complete paradigm shift within the leadership of the building trades, in terms of the way they view diversity,” Gary LaBarbera, President of the New York State and the New York City Building and Construction Trades Councils, said in an interview with the AmNews.
“I’m very proud of what the leadership of these individual unions have taken on and collaboratively we have made a real decision, a conscious decision to expand that increase opportunity and further diversify the building trades.
“When you look at the apprentices that are coming in, over 75% identify as a minority. And so this has been a conscious effort by the building trades affiliates and the Building Trades Council, to once and for all move past that criticism, and we have committed ourselves to working with marginalized and underserved communities.”
Chambers acknowledged that the legacy of trade unions excluding workers of color was well known. “But we also understand that at some point, somebody needs to build an army of like-minded folks….And once again, I need to stress this. I don’t want you to write something that [makes] people say, ‘Oh, Lavon Chambers says that the racism is over?’ No, that’s not what I’m saying. I don’t know anywhere in America that I could actually say that. But what I am saying is that while things have changed so much, that there’s an opportunity to help people,” he added.
Our final installment will examine what programs are working to solve the access problem for workers of color and the impact they are having on the lives of young people.
This series was made possible by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network. Brian Palmer contributed research and reporting to this article.