From: The New York Times
The black, white and Hispanic craftsmen toil amid the bones of New York City’s unfinished office towers, threading air-conditioning ducts through ragged walls and ceilings, guiding the gleaming metal tubes from one set of hands to another.
Their union, Local 28 of the Sheet Metal Workers, was featured this year in advertising highlighting the changing face of the construction industry. “Opportunity. Diversity. Middle class careers,” reads one of the ads run by the city’s building trades association. “This is what union construction looks like.”
But the multiracial tableau obscures a stark racial divide: The union’s white members have received more work and larger pensions, data show. In contrast, minority members, who have lagged for decades, often struggle to find steady jobs and to earn enough credit to retire on time with full pensions.
Last month, the union began paying the first installments of $12.7 million in back pay to hundreds of black and Hispanic members in a partial settlement of a bias lawsuit decades old — the oldest such case in the hands of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The union stands as a case study of how workplace discrimination has persisted in corners of the construction trades, according to federal officials, even as unions have become increasingly diverse.
Forty-four years after the Justice Department originally sued Local 28 for refusing to admit minority workers, the union no longer bars nonwhites from membership, as it once did. Instead, the federal court has found, the local has consistently denied work opportunities to black and Hispanic members. The bias — more subtle and complex than in an earlier era — endures in the midst of the city’s building boom, officials say.
Similar allegations have emerged in lawsuits filed against a pipe fitters union in Chicago and an operating engineers local in New York City, among others. An operating engineers union in Philadelphia and an ironworkers local in New York City, also accused of discriminating against minorities, remain under court supervision, as does Local 28.
But the sheet metal workers’ case provides a rare, detailed view of discrimination’s cost and toll on black workers. It also offers insight into an insular world in which union officials and contractors have wielded considerable influence in determining which union members snare the well-paying, blue-collar jobs that have provided generations of white men a pathway into the middle class.
A statistical expert in the case in the Federal District Court of Manhattan has documented discrimination’s cost, worker by worker, in the form of lost hours, wages and pension credits.
Last month, the settlement checks went out to about 400 workers in 20 states, arriving in mailboxes of tidy homes in the Bronx and Queens and modest apartments in Brooklyn. They landed in the hands of men and women who had watched in frustration as their white colleagues prospered while their own dreams deflated.
Frederick Aaron, 64, who has been jobless for more than a year, owed $5,000 to his landlord when his check arrived. Kenneth Smith, 59, who dropped out of the trade when his knees gave out, was scraping by on disability payments.
Melbourne Pearson, 56, who installs air-conditioning ducts around the city, said he lost so many hours of work during his 36 years on the job that he would have to work for eight years more before he could retire with a full pension.
The checks were the largest some workers had ever received — $10,000 each, on average — but there was little sense of celebration. The settlement, which covers earnings lost between 1991 and 2006, represents 19 percent of the damages that the workers’ lawyers anticipated they might have won at trial, not taking into account any reductions made in light of the union’s finances.
“I feel all right for the moment,” said Mr. Smith, who said the money would help cover his bills. “But this is no justice, man.”
Lawyers for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said in court this year that minority workers, who account for about half of the union’s members, continued to receive fewer work hours than their white counterparts since 2006. The problem is particularly acute for black workers.
Daniel E. Clifton, a lawyer for the union, said that Kevin Connors, the local’s president, was working to level the playing field. This year, Mr. Connors ended overtime for employed members, except in emergencies, to ensure that those hours would go to the unemployed, Mr. Clifton said.
The union has also taken action against contractors who have refused to hire unemployed workers, as required under a collective bargaining agreement and by the court. “The union is actively making attempts, not just to comply with court orders, but to decrease the disparity,” Mr. Clifton said.
He said the local, which has agreed to a corrective action plan, was not trying to hide from its past. “There was discrimination,” Mr. Clifton said, “and people who suffered that discrimination are rightly getting a monetary remedy.”
Thomas Lepak, a senior trial attorney with the opportunity commission, said the agency was “encouraged by the union’s efforts.” But he cautioned that the agency would “continue to monitor the situation to ensure meaningful progress.”
Established in 1913, Local 28 has left its imprint on the metal trim of the Woolworth Building and the shimmering spire of the Chrysler Building, among other landmarks.
But by the 1960s, the union was better known for its determination to keep minority members out. The local kept a “Caucasians only” provision in its bylaws until the late 1940s and refused to admit minority workers until the state ordered it to end its exclusion of blacks in 1964.
The Justice Department sued the union in 1971. Four years later, a federal judge imposed an order, barring discrimination, that remains in place. The order also called for an affirmative action program. At the time, minority workers accounted for 3 percent of the membership.
The local, like many others in the industry, was populated primarily by white workers whose relatives, friends and neighbors often followed them into the trade, city officials said.
Michael Belluzzi, a former president of the union, said many white workers feared they would lose their jobs to the newcomers. In the sheet metal trade, union members find their own jobs, checking in with contractors and friends to find out who is hiring. For decades, he said, union officials referred favored workers to contractors to ensure that whites got steady work.
“The minority never had an opportunity,” said Mr. Belluzzi, whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather were in the sheet metal trade. “We always went to work first. That’s honest. It’s time the truth came out.”
The union was far from singular in this regard. In 1993, the city’s Human Rights Commission noted that four other construction locals had landed under court supervision for discriminating against minority workers.
But Local 28, with roughly 3,000 members, gained notoriety: It was found in contempt of court four times over two decades. Its lawyers appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which in 1986 upheld the court-ordered affirmative action program.
The case has outlasted seven presidents, six mayors and the federal judge,Robert L. Carter, who presided over it for 25 years. Mr. Carter, a chief architect of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which outlawed school segregation, died in 2012.
It was Judge Carter who found in 2005 that discriminatory practices had persisted. Black union members said they got short-term jobs that lasted a few days or weeks, while white workers were hired for months or years. They said that they were rarely offered overtime and that some months passed without any work at all. Lawyers at the firm of Debevoise & Plimpton, along with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, represent the minority workers in the case.
“The discrimination became a lot more subtle; people started to get jobs, but not the plum assignments,” said Louis Graziano, a trial attorney with the federal employment commission who retired in 2013 after working on the case for 25 years.
In 2008, the union agreed to a settlement of $6.2 million for discrimination that occurred from 1984 through early 1991. As negotiations over later years dragged on, some minority workers gave up on the trade.
Among those who hung on, Mr. Aaron said he could not help but compare himself with white union members who bought houses, sent children to college and retired comfortably. He said he might have built that kind of life, too, if he had had steady work.
“What you going to uplift your life with, if the job is not there?” he asked.
Mr. Pearson, who had to pull his children out of private school and forgo buying a house, says he has made peace with those sacrifices. But he still burns inside when he sees white men with fewer skills hired when he is not.
“It weighs on you,” he said. “You try sometimes to look away and hope that something will change. But it’s still there.”
Black workers now account for a quarter of active members but 43 percent of the unemployed at the local’s hiring hall, said Anthony Guerrero, the local’s court compliance officer.
Mr. Guerrero and Nathan Mays, a veteran black sheet metal worker, said the union was working hard to tackle the problem. In 2013, Mr. Mays became the first African-American elected a full-time official in the union. “The tide is turning,” he said.
Mr. Mays hopes he will see the racial disparities fade and the court’s oversight of the local come to an end. But he is also aware that hundreds of minority workers waited years, decades even, to receive some compensation for the wages they had lost.
More than two dozen died waiting, their lawyers said.
Correction: December 20, 2015
An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of a law firm. It is Debevoise & Plimpton, not Debevoise & Plympton.
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