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Interview with a Latina carpenter, part 2

Group fights discrimination in the construction trades

Published Apr 20, 2012 7:40 PM

Latina carpenter Margarita Padín, active with the Fair Hiring Coalition’s 10-week campaign, received a letter from Temple University threatening her arrest if she enters any campus building. The university denies Padin’s right to enter a public place of education partly paid for by her taxes. The April 19 Workers World newspaper ran Part I of "Interview with a Latina carpenter: Group fights discrimination in the building trades.” In it, Padín explained the legacy of racist, sexist hiring practices in the Philadelphia construction industry. The following is Part 2.

Workers World: How does picketing Temple University accomplish diversity in the workforce?

Margarita Padin: Temple University officials say it’s not their job, but it is. Temple is allowing discrimination on their construction sites. If they wanted to eliminate it, Temple would tell contractors to “Hire from every demographic group in this city looking for work. You won't even have to recruit because they have already applied for work. Ask the union hall for the list of workers [broken down by nationality and gender] from these groups. Or you're gone. We'll get another contractor to do it." But have Temple administrators done this? No.

If Federal Executive Order 11246 was being enforced, government agencies would realize that none of these contractors are making good faith efforts — as the order stipulates — to hire from different racial and gender groups. They would see the contractors did not comply and didn’t hire anybody from the lists. … They didn't go to the hall and ask for the names of workers of color or women.

Because of their own bigotry, some officials and contractors will claim, “That’s reverse discrimination.” They won't say it like this, but what they have is an affirmative action plan for white males.

WW: You’ve spoken before about race and class in the construction trades.

MP: People get into contracting to make a profit, not to see that Philadelphia’s diverse workforce is fairly hired.

When African-American, Latino/a or women owners are awarded contracts as a result of years of struggle, they often must partner with a firm that has done this work for years, which then manages the workforce. Then it’s the same exclusive workforce. This situation won’t change without more struggle.

If any contractors picketed for workplace diversity, they would jeopardize their jobs. If any speak out, the general contractors won’t give them a contract. The contractors, just like the workers, are fighting an industry with a long history of racism and sexism.

As workers of color and as women, we have to make our own demands and find our own solutions.

WW: Some media scapegoat unions as the culprit. As a 23-year member of the Carpenters Union, how do you see it?

MP: People hire who they know. Traditionally, there has been a lot of nepotism. The history of the building trades unions shows that some original charters and constitutions admitted "white men only."

There's a lot of complicity all the way around from the developers to the contractors. It includes unions that don't represent their members when they suffer discrimination. It includes politicians who allow racial and gender discrimination to occur as they accept money from the developers. Finally, all the city, state and federal agencies that are supposed to enforce the laws bear the blame as well.

There are many variables. Who is going to represent the minority workers? Is it going to be the general contractors? I doubt it. How do minority workers organize as they try to get into unions that have historically excluded them? … [T]he politician, business owner, developer or contractor won’t organize the workforce, since they are there to make money.

In Philadelphia, more than a handful of individuals hold union cards while simultaneously acting as contractors. Some hold a third position as labor union representatives. When so many individuals are wearing three hats, how can class-consciousness develop? How do you get class unity out of that situation?

The Fair Hiring Coalition is doing good work, even if it's just a little grain of sand. We are raising something that has been raised before but has usually died out quickly.

WW: So is this the first time that a coalition has formed that has been able to organize 10 weeks of recurring protests?

MP: Yes. Usually it's one picket and then boom, it's over.

WW: Beside picketing, what else have you done?

MP: The Temple students went to a university Board of Trustees meeting and did a mic check to raise the unfair hiring practices on campus construction sites.

We also found out that the Philadelphia City Council was considering an economic opportunity bill to create a committee to report contractors that discriminate at city worksites. We testified on behalf of the workers. I don't know how much this bill will help because it depends on enforcement. Are they actually going to enforce and stop these current discriminatory business practices? After all, these politicians rely on support from the same contractors and developers to get elected.

WW: What have these activities accomplished so far?

MP: We've raised awareness. We've distributed over 10,000 fliers in the last 10 weeks. We've gotten many responses from people who want to address the issue. We have met with Temple officials, but all we got were promises. We are not happy until we see results.

This is an old story in Philadelphia. Everybody knows about the history of segregation at these sites. We have chosen Temple University because it's in the middle of one of the poorest districts in the whole country. They have $400 million worth of construction projects right now, yet the residents of the surrounding neighborhoods are not being hired.

Temple University has always bragged about having a diverse student body and promises that they won't exploit the neighborhood that they are in. Yet Temple has gentrified a large area of North Philadelphia and pushed out many residents. Now, when they are actually generating a few living-wage jobs in the neighborhood, they don't hire its residents.

WW: What kind of jobs do neighborhood residents get?

MP: Temple administrators brag, “We're hiring area residents to do the maintenance and custodial work that clean the structures." These are jobs that pay minimum wage!

WW: How long are you going to keep this going?

MP: Until we see Temple, the contractors and the city doing it right. We are tired of this in Philadelphia. Temple University has occupied North Philly for many years. Now it's time for the residents to impose some “homeland security” on Temple for our own economic well-being.