Bigger Slice, Shrinking Pie

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With 15 percent of all black employees represented by unions nationwide, blacks are more likely to be organized than are white, Asian or Latino workers. And black men are more often unionized than black women.

However, the number of black workers represented by unions has fallen 24 percent over the past decade, more than for any other group. Black workers have a growing share of the shrinking pool of union jobs in America.

This is the latest chapter in a complicated history. When New York City erupted in draft riots during the Civil War, white guild members were among those who rose up; they were angry at being forced to fight to free slaves that they feared would then come north to take their jobs. For decades after the war, black leaders and unions were often at odds over issues like using replacement workers during strikes: Black lead- ers saw crossing the picket lines as the only way for blacks to get into those industries. Even as blacks broke into unions during the New Deal and after, some unions discriminated against black members. During the civil rights era, however, some labor unions—like New York’s Transit Workers Union, under the leadership of Mike Quill—embraced the struggle against Jim Crow. But trade unions were harder to integrate.

That’s changing. According to data obtained from the New York State Department of Labor by the New School’s Darrick Hamilton, the white share of trade union apprentices in the state dropped from 64 percent to 52 percent be- tween 1994 and 2004. During the same period, blacks’ share of apprenticeships rose from 18 percent to 24 percent and Latinos’ from 16 percent to 20 percent.

At the New York City District Council of Carpenters, field representative Elly Spicer says 53 percent of the current apprentices are black or Latino. Spicer believes the change was an organic one. “If you’re someone who has built their career in the building trades and you made a pretty good living in the ’80s and ’90s, you sent your kids to college. They didn’t become carpenters. You wanted something else for them. The natural demographic change is just that,” she says. “It’s been a huge transformation.”

There are still hurdles for blacks aspiring to a place in the city’s trade unions. Almost all trade union jobs require a high school diploma or GED nowadays. “When we didn’t [require diplomas or GEDs], we just had a revolving door of people who didn’t have basic skills—reading skills, math skills. Without at least putting that level of criteria in, we did not find the candidates that were there to stay,” Spicer says.

In 2005, Mayor Bloomberg created the Commission on Construction Opportunity, charged with paving the way for more women and minorities to get into trade unions. Since then, the city has created a high school to train for the trades and promised to hire a research firm to track the demographics of apprenticeship programs in the city. Unions agreed to reserve slots for groups that have had a hard time breaking into the trades, like women and veterans.

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