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By Bernie Foster of The Skanner News
Published: 08 March 2012

It's no secret that trades unions have not always welcomed people of color. Historically, they acted as gatekeepers, striking tough bargains for their members, but blocking access to construction training and jobs for minorities and women.

As a result generations of people were prevented from entering the trades. And minority communities have been consistently denied opportunities to benefit from government construction projects, even those intended to boost local hiring. That's why last year's stimulus package did very little for minority business.

The Carpenters and Operating Engineers union wants to shed that reputation and remake its image as a friend and even a champion for minorities in construction. As part of that effort, the Carpenters have drawn up a Community Benefits Agreement that recognizes the wrongs of the past by making significant concessions to minority contractors.

The agreement, designed to apply to public works projects, states:

Certified minority and women-owned businesses can use their own employees with no requirements to sign collective bargaining agreements or pay union benefits.

Public works projects should spend 20 percent of construction costs on minority- and woman-owned businesses and should aim to expand those businesses.

It also requires public projects to set aside a percentage of project costs for a minority worker training fund, prioritize apprenticeships that reflect diversity and ensure that contractors and sub-contractors recruit and hire minorities and women.

But to minority contractors the promises in the union proposal still ring hollow. Talk to contracting advocate James Posey and he'll tell you that the agreement is a Trojan Horse whose only purpose is to claw back some of the power unions have lost. Unions have ignored minorities for the last 35 to 40 years, he says. So why should we trust them now?

Well, the Carpenters clearly understand that without the participation and support of Blacks, Latinos and other minorities, unions cannot survive in 21st Century America. Other unions may want to take note. Attempts to crush union power once and for all are even now underway across the country. Unions are battling for survival.

For the Carpenters to take this stand – one that by the way is not popular with some other construction unions – signals a major leap in awareness. Union leaders say they sincerely want to diversify their ranks and become a truly inclusive voice for construction workers. We believe them.

Is this agreement needed? Some government projects – the Sellwood Bridge contract, for example – already include similar conditions. Portland Development Commission contracts seek to deliver 20 percent of project costs to minority and women-owned businesses. Oregon Department of Transportation, however, is a different story. Figures released in January show that participation for African American contractors declined, from 1.3 percent to 0.09 percent between 2007 and 2010. That's at the same time that state administrators were assuring us they were improving these dismal diversity statistics.

TriMet too could do better when it comes to minority businesses. As an agency that receives federal dollars, it takes equity seriously. But because its marketing contracts lack teeth and hard numbers, minority business partners have no comeback when contractors renege on their commitments to them.

Unions do provide protection for workers as well as the raw strength in numbers bargaining power that small contractors lack. That's a benefit that almost everyone in the construction trades could value. So if the Carpenters union can demonstrate that Black Americans and other minorities will benefit from its clout, everyone will get on board. In the meantime, history is holding us back.

Should other unions follow the Carpenters? Tell us what you think!

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