Who gets to belong to a construction union? The labor organizations that represent carpenters and other workers responsible for constructing America’s buildings have offered generations of Americans an economic ladder into the middle class. But for Black Americans, access to the building trades’ upward path has never been equal.
A look back at the history of the building trades in Philadelphia, where carpenters organized the American trades’ first strike in 1791, reveals how Black workers have persistently faced barriers to the high-paying jobs and protections that others were promised through union contracts.
Just in time for Labor Day, we have unpacked that history and the shadow it casts over today’s changing trades movement in the latest installment of A More Perfect Union, The Inquirer’s yearlong project that examines the roots of systemic racism in America through institutions founded in Philadelphia.
Here are six takeaways from the latest in the series, “Broken Rung.”
Union construction – and other building trades jobs like carpentry, plumbing, ironworking – are some of the highest-paid jobs for those without a college degree. In 2022, construction workers in the United States made an average of $32 an hour. Those in a union often make more than that.
The construction industry is largely dominated by white men, however. In 2021, just 6% of workers in union or non-union construction jobs were Black, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
When the first recorded building trades’ strike happened in Philadelphia in 1791, it’s not likely that Black workers joined the picket lines. They weren’t members of the early carpenters union.
It was organized by the white men who worked for members of the Carpenters’ Company, an influential guild of master builders founded in 1724. The group, many of whom were also Quakers, looked within their own communities for new apprentices.
The Company’s founding documents also outlined early on that anyone who took on an enslaved apprentice would have to pay a hefty fine. While some may see the move as abolitionary as it discouraged the hiring of enslaved people, it could also be construed as a way to keep Black workers out of the industry.
The local building trades have refused to share demographic data on the workers they represent. But the most recent available data shows that the industry’s union workforce was more than two-thirds white in a city that is nearly 44% Black, and where other major labor unions are predominantly African American.
Data from the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission show that among 40 Pennsylvania unions that refer workers to contractors, 91% of their more than 39,000 members were white in 2018 and 5% were Black.
A 1963 protest outside Strawberry Mansion High School, then under construction, became a pivotal moment in the fight against racism in the trade unions.
There weren’t any skilled Black workers on the site, according to NAACP leader Cecil B. Moore, who halted construction alongside protesters until the issue was addressed.
» READ MORE: My dad’s union card gave me a better life. I want that for other Black families.
“This is a false democracy when qualified colored people can’t get a job building schools for their own kids,” a laborer told the Philadelphia Tribune.
Moore had succeeded in turning the status quo of all-white construction crews into a civil rights issue.
The fight for equality on the construction site grew bigger than Philadelphia as activists around the nation staged similar protests. It eventually gained the attention of the White House.
In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson took action to integrate construction sites.
While federal contracts contributed to about 50% of the construction work happening in Philadelphia at the time, just a sliver of members of the seven highest-paid trade unions in Philadelphia were Black.
To address the issue, Johnson rolled out a first-of-its-kind program that forced city contractors to make a “good faith effort” to hire Black workers on federally-funded projects over $500,000.
It was aptly called: “The Philadelphia Plan.”
Decades after Johnson’s plan went into law, Philadelphia building trades and peer labor organizations nationally remain whiter and less diverse in all ways than other workforces organized under a union contract.
Still, there has been progress toward meeting goals of increased diversity. In 2021, The Building Trades elected its first ever Black top official last year, Ryan Boyer, head of the Laborers District Council. Boyer has no plans to collect demographic data but he says the Building Trades want their unions to reflect the demographics of the city.