Black folks in particular are at the low end of the economic scale, overwhelmingly without health care, retirement and other benefits the White population takes for granted. It is understandable that Blacks generally support a fair wage system for all citizens. But many Blacks know that the prevailing wage agenda as practiced by unions is nothing more than a system of privilege for White workers that effectively boycotts Black labor.
After more than century of boycotting Black labor, the Columbia Pacific Building Trades Council's new proposal for prevailing wage is unlikely to have any value to unemployed Blacks who are locked out of construction jobs and companies. In spite of the union's recent attempt to put a pretty public face on its efforts, the ugly little secret is that prevailing wage laws remain today an important feature of continued institutionalized discrimination against Black and other racial minorities in the construction trades.
Today there are virtually no Black journey persons in the Columbia Pacific Building Trades Council. Why do Portland elected officials continue to support de facto segregation practiced to this day by unions? Regardless of their progressive rhetoric about apprenticeship programs and recruitment efforts, the unions continue to discriminate behind a veil of customs unseen by but a few.
The Portland Development Commission attempted to end the boycott of minority labor through the South Water Front Diversity Agreement that supported prevailing wages in exchange for the unions ending their boycott. The $2 billion project was important to the unions.
The unions eventually agreed to a diversity plan to allow hundreds of minorities to become journey persons in exchange for PDC support of their prevailing wage issue. But before the ink was dry on the agreement the unions began to renege on the South Water Front Diversity Agreement.
Their strategy is simple: Get prevailing wages in the city without ending the lockout of minorities.
Their first effort began by getting the state Labor Commissioner to unilaterally impose prevailing wages on PDC and the city and then pressure the City Council to stop PDC from suing the illegal acts of the state Labor Commission.
After losing the PDC lawsuit, the unions enlisted City Commissioner Sam Adams' support to secretly draft a "best value" program embodying the primary elements of prevailing wage law. If approved by the City Council, the ordinance would impose a prevailing type provision on all businesses doing with the city of Portland.
In addition, the unions have successfully lobbied for a seat on the PDC with a plan to force prevailing wages on the PDC through internal means. Political pressure from the council forced Mayor Tom Potter to nominate a union executive to the PDC board. The council majority continues to be unmoved by adverse implications of prevailing wages on Black labor.
Prevailing wages coupled with de facto discrimination keep minorities from competing for the billions of dollars in construction. Here is what Potter and the City Council can do to prevent, rather than support, this continued racial discrimination:
• Any prevailing wage law must be tied to a verifiable diversity plan that increases the number of Blacks and other racial minority journey workers in the union apprenticeship programs;
• Replicate the fair and progressive South Water Front Diversity Agreement on all PDC and city work;
• The City Council should make sure that the progress is openly and transparently verified through adequate funding for this specific purpose;
• The city should insist on the end to de facto segregation in the White unions. The new prevailing wage requirements should go into place only when each union can demonstrate that it is on a path to make its workforce reflect the city as a whole;
• The City Council should not approve John C. Mohlis, executive secretary-treasurer of the Columbia Pacific Building Trades Council to become a commissioner on the PDC board until the 16 trade unions present a plan to increase the number of people of color and women in their apprenticeship programs along with a detailed plan on targets they expect to hit over the next 10 years in one-year increments.
This issue will define the level of support for Blacks and other racial minorities seeking equal treatment and job opportunities in the trades for decades. It is also a litmus test for those members of the City Council who like to talk diversity, but aren't yet ready to really walk it when it counts.