Association for Union Democracy

Labor relations and racial discrimination in the construction trades

by Herman Benson

The following letter to the editor was submitted to the New York Times by AUD founder Herman Benson in response to an article published on December 21, 2015.

After 44 years, as the New York Times reported on Monday, black members of Sheet Metal Workers Local 28 who suffered years of hiring discrimination are finally getting some money and a measure of justice. But how big is that measure of justice? I am impelled to ask that question because as a founder of the Association for Union Democracy in 1969, I have dealt with thousands of construction unionists, individuals and groups, in locals across the nation in most major construction unions. Their chief complaint has been hiring discrimination.

The original complaint against Local 28, those many years ago, was not over job-hiring; the union was charged with barring blacks from membership and a federal monitor was imposed on the local to make sure that it would admit blacks as members. That action seems to have been a great success. From a tiny few, blacks now constitute 25% of the membership. As time passes, the union is charged with discriminating against its own black membership in job assignments. To settle that complaint, the local had already paid $6 million to its aggrieved members and now agrees to pay $12 million more. From my readings about unions under federal monitorship, I know that this amount paid to workers is probably dwarfed by the far higher fees for legal costs and for fees to monitors. The local will have to levy special assessments upon its members to pay out these enormous sums. The irony is that the 25% black membership will be paying 25% of the cost of reimbursing the victimized blacks.

But why must union members alone bear the heavy cost of racial discrimination? In this section of the industry, as in most construction, employers have as much control over hiring as unions, and usually even more. For most of that 44-year period sheet metal employers were not required to hire any workers out of a union hall or any other hall. They were free to hire any union members off the street. At any point they could have hired blacks or any minority. Only in 2014, I am told, were employers required to hire some workers out of a hall. And even then, the hall is controlled by the federal monitor, and employers must hire only 25% of their work force out of the hall. They can still hire three out of four off the street.

For full justice, employers must pay their full share.

Forty-four years to get a meager share of justice. The Local 28 experience tells us something depressing about labor relations in the construction trades.

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