Now that President-elect Barack Obama has made clear his intention to use infrastructure projects, including transportation and schools, as a cornerstone for a massive jobs program aimed at stimulating the economy, Black leadership at all levels must insist that construction trades unions end practices that have prohibited Blacks from gaining access to union jobs. If these construction projects are supported with federal tax dollars, discrimination in hiring should not be tolerated.
There is no denying the need to repair and build anew much of our nation’s infrastructure. Across America roads are in disrepair, bridges and tunnels are falling apart, and school buildings are crumbling. The sewer systems of many older cities are at capacity and most municipalities have long delayed necessary improvements. The implementation of a jobs program to get long stalled improvements and new construction off the ground, and prepare for future projects is a long overdue measure. Still, it remains to be seen whether Blacks will gain employment under Mr. Obama’s plan given the construction trades long-term exclusionary practices.
This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to set new ground rules for the labor movement and President-elect Obama is holding all of the cards. He can insist that unions change their hiring practices if they want these jobs to be exclusively union controlled. With the level of public support he currently enjoys, Mr. Obama is in the strongest position a Democratic president has been in since the Kennedy era to demand the unions make concessions. Between labor’s vulnerability in the auto industry, their desire to see these infrastructure projects get off the drawing board, and their hope that “card check” will be passed in the 111th Congress, they are in no position to set the terms of engagement. If they are wise they will see this as an opportunity to dramatically increase their numbers by including Blacks and Latinos as union members.
There is also a need for several key Black organizations to make their voices heard right now. The National Conference of Black Mayors, the National Black Caucus of State Legislators and Congressional Black Caucus must let labor know that the jobs attached to these infrastructure projects must be made available to their constituents. Since federal dollars will likely pass down to state and local governments, these organizations must make certain that infrastructure construction projects in their backyard are not the sole domain of white workers. It would be tragic to have this much money pour into cities and none of it reach our community.
In many ways these infrastructure projects are about much more than jobs for our community. In many cities Blacks are literally cut off from commerce because of geographical isolation and poor transit systems and highway construction that literally uses our community as a bypass. For many Black workers simply getting to work is a challenge; forcing people to make multiple transfers on public transit and losing personal time at the beginning and end of the day in the process. The lack of a coherent transit grid steals time from families and puts additional pressure and stress on workers. Similarly, in many of our communities our children are trapped in antiquated school buildings that are ill-equipped for modern education. The deteriorating conditions of many public schools in our community coveys a message to Black children of society’s diminished view of them. Just as important as the jobs that are attached to these projects is the actual need that will be met if they are indeed completed.
Finally, it is time for Mr. Obama to reveal his choices for Secretary of Labor, Secretary of Education and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. All three are integral to his call for a large scale public works program centered on transportation infrastructure and school construction; as is the Secretary of Transportation. All of these federal departments oversee programs that have some bearing on whether Mr. Obama’s plan will be successful. Yet, to date, we have heard little of who the President-elect is considering for these positions. It’s time that we do.