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Unlevel foundation: A history of obstacles

CHAMPAGIN -- The construction industry's history of racial segregation in Central Illinois isn't a legend or an excuse; among workers themselves, it's a well-known fact.

Dan McCall, president of the East Central Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council, recalls hearing grumbling his elder relatives grumble about the federal government's requirement for unions to open membership to minorities in the late 1960s.

"My uncle was actually the president [of the bricklayers union] when the first two African-Americans came into this local. It didn't go over well," McCall said. "There were mandates coming down from our international, you know, saying "˜Hey, we're not a country club.' And
there was legislation and stuff like that basically forcing us to open our doors."


The resistance was particularly strong among the older members of the bricklayers union, McCall said. "There were some of them, if one of our African-American [masons] showed up on a job, they'd quit."

It wasn't that the bricklayers didn't want to work with minorities; it was just that bricklayers were accustomed to minorities being relegated to a subservient role. On a job site, bricklayers relied on "hod carriers" or "mason tenders" to bring them a steady supply of blocks and mortar.In this area, most hod carriers were black.

John Doren, who has been a member of Laborers' Local 703 --known as the "unskilled laborers" -- union for more than 30 years, says some black hod carriers were illiterate, but they were so adept at their jobs that they were highly sought after by white contractors.

"They didn't have to be told what to do. They could go to a job site and set it up, make things ready for the bricklayers. They were experts at it," said Doren, who is white.

Yet even the bricklayers, who were dependent on the hod carriers, did not perceive these black laborers as qualified for any other trade.

"They just didn't believe that there was a place for them in the unions," McCall said. "When you talk about the Laborers, they would tell you yeah, that's where they belonged. They didn't belong in what they called a skilled trade."

Laborers earn the lowest wages of any unionized construction trade, with top hourly wages these days at about $27, compared to almost $37 for pipefitters.

Percy Gordon was one of those black hod carriers, though far from illiterate. Like Doren, Gordon has a college degree (McCall does not). Gordon, who retired in 2008 and is now 63, tried office work briefly and discovered that he preferred physical labor.

"I realized the construction industry kind of allowed you to be our own man. You work hard; you go home. You didn't have to hear all the meetings, all the BS that gets nothing done," Gordon said. "You just need a strong back and a willing mind, because the work is very hard."

He was an outspoken Laborer, occasionally getting into fistfights, and once bringing a pistol to the union hall when he believed he had been unfairly taken off a job.

"Most of the people in the construction industry have heard of me -- that I don't take no crap, and that I understand how it works," Gordon says.

A small business owner himself (Gordon has owned a clothing store in downtown Champaign for 13 years), he sees the money flowing into union construction, and the politics that follows the funds.

"It's supposed to be fair, but there's politics in everything, and there's a whole lot of
buddy-buddy politics in union construction," Gordon said.

Union membership is crucial to a career in construction, because virtually all commercial and government jobs use strictly union workers.

Each trade union has its own application process. All require applicants to undergo an interview before a panel of contractors and other union members; a few -- pipefitters, electricians, carpenters and ironworkers, for example -- require a written exam first, and interview only those applicants who pass.

The bricklayers union has, in the past, required a written assessment, but McCall said the test was dropped because too few wouldbe masons passed it.

Ironically, the Laborers union now requires a written test because, Doren said, some of the steadiest work for laborers is at the Clinton Power Station. The plant also requires workers to pass a written test, so the union screens out applicants who would likely be unable to
pass that exam.

Over time, the one union that was always open to blacks has now become predominantly white. Whether it's due to the test and interview process, the dispersal of black workers into other trades, or the union's history isn't clear.

Gordon, who retired in 2008, has lobbied the leadership to change the all-white membership of the interview panel, asking the union leaders to consider how a young white man might feel if he had to be interviewed by a panel of six African-Americans.

Gordon actively recruits and mentors young black men interested in construction work, but steers them toward unions other than the Laborers.

"I've gotten electricians in, I've gotten carpenters in, I've gotten three ironworkers in," Gordon said.

That's the other fact construction workers agree on: The old days of blatant racism are slowly fading. Even though the changes aren't apparent on construction sites yet, they're being felt in the incoming classes.

McCall said the last time bricklayers accepted new apprentices, they hired four, two of whom are black.

Kevin Sage, training director for the pipefitters' union, said he still receives calls from older members asking him to enroll their sons, because they're used to the tradition of automatic admission. But heredity no longer ensures membership; in fact, Sage recently expelled a
member's son from the apprenticeship program for lack of attendance.

"We are very results-oriented, and if you're not performing, it doesn't matter who you are, we're not going to stand for it," Sage said. "That is a new attitude."

Communicating that attitude to the union membership is a simple matter of time; persuading the minority community is a bigger challenge,Sage said.

So many generations of minorities have been excluded from the trades that they no longer bother to try to get in.

"I think it's something where we need to change the whole attitude, and it starts with people like me -- the training directors -- that have to go out and let people know that hey, this is open to everybody," Sage said. "There's nothing here stopping you from doing this."


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