Councilwoman Desley Brooks has refused to take a position on whether or not the city should adopt a policy which is called a “Project Labor Agreement” until she is given assurances that the PLA will benefit Oakland’s Black community.
In response, the construction unions have threatened to create an Independent Expenditure Committee to fund a negative campaign to help candidates running against her, unless Brooks will agree to vote for this policy.
Why is this a problem? First, coercing the vote of an elected official with threats of money to an unnamed, unaccountable Independent Expenditure Committee feels shady.
And second, we, the authors, are convinced that this city-wide Project Labor Agreement is a bad idea.
We are progressive in Oakland and we tend to support union actions automatically. This is often a good instinct. The Longshore Workers union, teachers’ union, nurses’ union, city worker unions, auto union and many others have created both economic and racial progress with their struggles.
But nobody should get a pass on racial justice.
And many of the construction unions have never gotten over their racial history. African-Americans get only 9 percent of the work on city-funded construction projects, although Black people make up a quarter of Oakland’s population.
The trades are asking for a “Project Labor Agreement,” which means their members will get almost all the work on these city-funded projects, and few of their members are Black.
The trades have consistently refused to release the numbers of people in their unions by ethnicity. So, they are asking the public to turn over our tax dollars to a select set of employees without regard for whether Black people make up a fair share of those employees.
And a walk around Oakland to look at most construction sites makes it clear that they do not. By all the information we can gather, most of the construction unions, especially those with better pay, have few Black members, because of a set of barriers which include various tests, the location of required apprentice training programs far away from Oakland, and others.
A major problem is that African-Americans in Oakland do not currently have the political power to create solutions for their communities. But the issue is much bigger than Black people.
It’s about equity and the moral compass of our city and society as a whole. The City of Oakland’s Equity indicators report confirms that bias and privilege have tangible outcomes build on a history of racism.
Councilmember Desley Brooks is the lone voice that is demanding more, and she is being persecuted for it – a scenario that also has familiar and historic roots.
With the dwindling Black population, the rising cost of living and the widening wealth gap, it is critical that African-Americans have good living wage jobs. We need many champions pushing to make that a reality NOW, not a distant hope or promise for a future that may never come.
We encourage the construction unions to desist from coercing an elected official to do something do something she may have concluded is morally wrong – voting against the employment needs of the African-American community
And we encourage those unions to break down the barriers to Black participation in their unions, so that eventually they will be willing to report openly on the ethnic composition of their membership, and the taxes of Black families will pay for projects on which they are also allowed to work.
Signed (organizations for identification only),
Carroll Fife, Executive Committee, Oakland Branch NAACP;
Kitty Kelly Epstein, PhD, professor of education and urban studies;
Henry Hitz; executive director emeritus, Oakland Parents Together: