I remember when I was a boy and started hanging out in Jones’s poolroom on North Street in Rochester with the older hustlers. I was no more than 12 or 13 at the time and wasn’t supposed to be there. There was an old black-and-white television set on a shelf near the back door that usually no one watched. However, if it was known that Moms Mabley, Richard Pryor or some other African-American was appearing on a sitcom or variety show, the news quickly spread throughout the neighborhood.
For that half-hour or hour while the show was on, the pool balls stopped rolling and the poker and dice games in the back also stopped. All ears and eyes were glued to the tube. Seeing one of their own on the television was so rare and momentous, it was comparable to man’s first landing on the moon. For the next day or two, people would still be talking about it. Somehow their pride and joy at seeing their own kind on the TV related to their desire to be accepted, respected and seen as American citizens, to be given equal rights, opportunities and treatment as citizens.
Today, African-Americans aren’t so uncommon in movies and on TV. In sports, the Williams sisters are among the top tennis stars; and the place of Tiger Woods on the hitherto all-white golf courses needs no comment. In fact, miraculous as it may seem, an African-American actually is president of the United States.
Now it seems that the only place left in America where African-American progress remains little or next to nothing is in the construction unions. There has been change in America, but that change is not evident here.
Many of us wouldn’t be concerned about this if it were not for the nearly monopoly control the unions exert over construction projects funded by taxpayer dollars. But the investment of that money makes it a matter of public interest. And when it is used to strengthen an institution that perpetuates and thrives off racial discrimination, it becomes a matter of public concern.
At present there is a GlobalFoundries construction project going on in the Saratoga County town of Malta. It is a multibillion-dollar project and involves more than $1.3 billion in New York state taxpayer money. That makes it a matter of public interest. And if the allegations are true that less than 2 percent of those employed on the project are minorities and that whites from New Jersey and other states are getting the jobs over New York state taxpaying minorities, that makes it a matter of public concern.
New Jersey residents do not pay taxes in New York. To use our tax dollars to employ them while so many of our own residents are out of work is unreasonable, to say the least. And given the construction union’s history of racial discrimination, to give them 100 percent control over who is or isn’t hired on what might be the largest construction project going on in the United States today is unwise and unjust.
Voices of experience
When I talk about the discriminatory practices of the construction unions, I speak not only from personal experience. I also speak from what I know to be the experience of numerous African-American, Guyanese and Hispanic young men who come through the doors of my place of employment in Schenectady (MCTAP, the Minority Contractors Technical Assistance Program) looking for construction-related work. Many of these guys have gone to the different union offices in the Capital Region trying to get work. None of them are called back.
Union reps frequently justify their inaction on the behalf of minorities with an argument that individuals are chosen from a list and given job assignments based on their seniority in the union. This argument has more than a few major flaws that make it unacceptable to minorites.
First, when these seniority lists were being established, minorities were routinely blackballed from signing up. Consequently, establishing seniority was an impossibility for them. As a result, when employment through the union became at all possible for them, they were the last to be hired.
Second, everyone knows that there exists a system of patronage within the unions. So when John Doe’s nephew, brother or son needs a summer job to pay for a new car or college tuition, he calls his relative or friend who knows the right person in the union to ask for a favor. As a result, John Doe’s nephew, brother or son gets a construction job, regardless of the existence of the seniority list.
Cause for protest
Both these examples are unfair to minorities. But when you take our tax dollars and spend them to employ people from other states while I myself can’t get a job, it is a most egregious form of “taxation without representation” and a legitimate cause for protest.
Thus the minority community demands that union jobs on construction projects involving our tax dollars reflect the makeup of the American working class or of the New York taxpayer. And if the unions refuse to do this, then take those dollars from their workers’ pockets and give the rest of us our money back.
Larry Bratton lives in Schenectady. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.
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