Labor Pains: Because Being in a Union can be Painful

Construction Union Faces Federal Trial for Alleged Race Discrimination

BWM cookie adWe’ve noted the fact that New York City construction unions’ black members make 20 percent less than white members. We’ve pondered why that might be, and a federal lawsuit that received a pre-trial hearing last week gives us considerable insight into how the locals represented by the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York may have shortchanged the pay of their minority members.

In 2012, Averil C. Morrison, an African-American woman, sued International Union of Operating Engineers Local 14-B—a BCTC member union—for racial discrimination. (Four other union members, one black woman, two black men, and one Hispanic woman, have subsequently joined as co-plaintiffs.) According to court findings, Local 14-B’s membership is 91 percent white (only about 100 of its roughly 1200 members are non-white).

The union allegedly allows its predominately white membership to refer new prospective members (who are predominately white) as full journeymen, while requiring prospective members without connections (who are more non-white) to do lower-paid apprenticeships. The plaintiff union members allege that the largely white referred new members get to skip apprenticeship even if they do not have “any qualifications other than being sponsored by an existing White [sic]  member.”

A brief review of Local 14-B’s wage scale shows just how big a favor skipping apprenticeship can be. According to the 2015-16 apprentice wage scale, first-year apprentices are paid $29.25 per hour (40% of the Pile Driver rate). By the end of a three-year apprenticeship, the wage rises to 60% of the Pile Driver rate ($43.87/hour). Meanwhile, a full-member journeyman Pile Driver is making $73.12 per hour.

There are further allegations of the union rigging job placements in favor of white members. Using its control of the hiring hall system of job referrals, Local 14-B allegedly manipulates the hiring hall so that white members get jobs that last longer (which assures white members of higher earnings and less time unemployed). Even more egregious, Local 14-B’s absolute discretion for assigning “master mechanics” (essentially shop stewards) ensures a racial wage gap, as master mechanics who are appointed are allegedly “almost never” non-white. Master mechanics allegedly “can work virtually as much double time as he desires” and “easily earn several hundred thousand dollars a year.”

If the allegations are valid, it’s everything that we expected–a sordid situation where unions are keeping black workers in worse jobs than whites and using their control of internal union politics to deny plum job referrals to black workers. It’s time for construction unions in the Building and Construction Trades Council to stop hiding behind the diversity of lower-paid apprentice positions, and show the public the diversity stats for higher-paid positions that really matter.

Categories: AFL-CIOBuilding and Construction Trades CouncilCenter for Union FactsUnfair Share