Testimony of Dr. Trevor Griffey

Good morning. Thank you to the EEOC Commissioners for inviting me to provide a brief overview of the history of attempts to desegregate skilled construction trades as part of your hearing on fair employment in the U.S. construction industry.

In every year since the end of World War II, between four and six percent of all nonfarm employees in the U.S. have worked in the construction industry.[1] Because some construction trades are considered high “skill,” there are a significant number of construction workers who are not easily replaceable. This has given these workers leverage as individuals to bargain higher wages than workers in other blue-collar industries, as well as leverage through which to form labor unions that have been a bedrock of the private sector labor movement for more than a century. The wage premium provided to skilled trades workers persists to this day, even though labor union representation of the industry has declined substantially since the 1970s. In March of 2022, seven and a half million non-supervisory employees in the construction industry earned an average wage of $32/ hour, with wages even higher for skilled trades workers.[2]

The most lucrative jobs in the construction industry were largely restricted to white men until the 1970s through a combination of employer and union bias. Informal hiring practices by construction contractors, just like those in other industries, historically provided privileged access to jobs and apprenticeships for those with personal connections to the contractor. A friend of mine in the Seattle electrical trades told me that some workers continue refer to this system as “FBI”: the hiring of friends, brothers, and in-laws. Labor unions representing skilled trades challenged some of these kinds of networks as cronyism. But in places where union power was especially strong, unions had their own forms of cronyism that provided privileged access to jobs for people with personal connections to labor leaders— a system made worse by the infiltration of some unions by organized crime.[3] In this way, both union and employer practices effectively prohibited non-white and women workers from participating in apprenticeship programs or being dispatched from union hiring halls well into the 1960s.

The near-total exclusion of black workers from skilled construction trades contributed significantly to black freedom movement demands for fair employment laws in all industries from the 1940s through the 1960s. But neither the more than twenty state laws that prohibited employment discrimination before 1964, nor an order by President Kennedy requiring that federal contractors take meaningful steps toward desegregation (or what the order called “affirmative action”), nor even Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, were sufficient to compel construction contractors and unions to desegregate. Unions removed racist exclusions from their bylaws in the 1940s and 1950s. Contractors downplayed their ability to choose who worked on their sites, instead claiming that union hiring halls were to blame for any segregation. Both partnered in creating pre-apprenticeship programs in the 1960s that could provide remedial preparation for nonwhite workers to enter apprenticeship programs in skilled trades, while touting the diversity of lower wage workers in the industry (such as laborers). But so long as apprenticeship admission and hiring practices for electricians, plumbers and pipefitters, ironworkers, operating engineers and others remained the same, new promises of equal opportunity mainly provided cover to continue to exclude non-white workers.

It was in this context that black contractors and their allies engaged in a six-year campaign of direct action protests at federal government construction sites across the country— primarily in the urban north and west. The movement began in 1963 in Philadelphia with what historian Thomas Sugrue called a “two-month-long siege of city-sponsored construction projects” that involved protests outside the Mayor’s house, a sit in at City Hall, and disruption of work at multiple government building projects.[4] It included activists with the Congress of Racial Equality occupying construction of the iconic St. Louis Gateway Arch in 1964.[5] And it climaxed with protests by tens of thousands of people in the summer and Fall of 1969, led by protests of thousands in Chicago and Pittsburgh, and including people marching onto the flight apron of the Seattle airport to briefly halt air traffic.[6] Just as the demands for the Montgomery bus boycott included that black bus drivers be hired for routes that served the black community, these activists demanded that black workers be able to get jobs on construction sites in black neighborhoods. Their protests took place at the same time that a wave of urban rebellions against police brutality rocked the country, and thus provided an incentive for Department of Labor officials in both the Johnson and Nixon administration to become more assertive in their enforcement of fair employment laws, and ultimately to impose affirmative action on the construction industry in 1969.[7] Federal agencies and courts extended similar guidelines for desegregation to other industries in the early-to-mid 1970s, fundamentally changing industrial relations in the U.S..[8] Recessions in the 1970s made affirmative action more contentious than it would have been, in ways that continue to shape our politics. But I like to remind students in my history and labor studies courses that affirmative action originally meant “more than zero,” because zero is what construction industry compliance with state and federal civil rights laws looked like from the 1940s through the 1960s.

My book, Black Power at Work, tells this story to highlight a key point that was downplayed by previous historians: that the social movement activism that drove the creation and enforcement of fair employment laws was about imagining a new urban political economy. Their hope was that investment in the redevelopment of neighborhoods would not displace poor and working class people, as it had with federal highway construction, but would instead provide job training as a pathway for both individual and community empowerment. These are the founding ideas for project labor agreements that use “local hire” requirements today to promote equal opportunity.

My book also demonstrates that there’s more to the desegregation of an industry than simply being hired: workplace culture also has to change.[9] The first non-white workers hired into the construction industry— men and women— were not welcomed, and many were hazed off the job by hostile supervisors and coworkers. I worked with the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project to publish interviews online with black construction workers in Seattle that I draw from in my book to describe this phenomenon.[10] They describe near-miss accidents with dropped equipment, being assigned meaningless or unnecessary tasks like cleaning up a supply shack, being asked to look for tools that don’t exist, watching journeymen but not having anything explained or being provided with opportunities to learn through experience. This kind of hazing got a number of people to quit or otherwise prevented them from learning a trade, and was difficult to track or prevent. Contractors and unions in the 1970s often covered for the high attrition of non-white workers by recruiting replacement workers, or moving a few people of color to multiple job sites during compliance review, as a form of what people called “paper compliance” with affirmative action guidelines. Though some people of color heroically achieved journeyman status through this process, this high turnover— compounded by recessions in the 1970s— slowed the pace of the industry’s desegregation.

My own research for Black Power at Work, which I will submit for the record of today’s hearing, demonstrates that those in charge of enforcing fair employment laws were generally aware of workplace culture problems in the construction industry the 1970s, but were handicapped by the growing political backlash against affirmative action. The subsequent political polarization surrounding the enforcement fair employment laws in the decades since the 1970s partly explains why attempts to desegregate the construction industry have had such limited results. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, last year 88 percent of all construction employees were white, and only 6 percent were black (though 33 percent of construction employees were Hispanic or Latino/a, most of them also identify as white).[11]

The black freedom movement opened the door for women to enter skilled trades. Black women were often the first women in their cities to work in the construction industry under federal affirmative action guidelines around race, and the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project also has interviews with some of these pioneers.[12] Drawing on legal precedents established by the black freedom movement, white women first gained significant access to construction industry apprenticeship programs in the early-to-mid 1970s. White and non-white women who entered the construction industry in the 1970s experienced ubiquitous pornography, requests for sexual favors, groping and worse from their bosses and coworkers. As one African American pioneer in the Seattle electrical industry described to me, pioneers in her trade in the 1970s were encouraged to attend to their coworkers’ and supervisors’ emotional needs by listening to their stories about their love lives, bringing cookies or treats to the workplace, or dating their coworkers. Those who didn’t play along with these gendered roles, and especially those who spoke out against them, could be socially isolated and insulted, including by being called a “bitch” or a lesbian. As the historian Carrie Baker has documented, lawsuits by women had to name these practices as “sexual harassment” in order to successfully get the courts to rule them violations of federal civil rights law.[13] But growing opposition to affirmative action in politics and the courts in the 1980s stymied feminist activism to use the government to resolve these issues, and largely abandoned workplace pioneers to their tormenters.[14] Though women have gone from being 5 percent to 11 percent of the construction workforce since the 1970s, it seems fair to conclude from these numbers that the industry has not done enough to recruit, train, or support women workers in skilled trades.

Now, as the federal government is substantially reinvesting in U.S. infrastructure projects, is an important time to revisit the lessons of this history to ensure that federal government spending continues the work of providing equal opportunity for all workers.



[1] St. Louis Federal Reserve, “All Employees, Construction (USCONS),” updated May 6, 2022, accessed May 12, 2022, https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/USCONS.

[2] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Construction: NAICS 23,” accessed May 12, 2022, https://www.bls.gov/iag/tgs/iag23.htm.

[3] On organized crime in labor unions, see James B. Jacobs, Mobsters, Unions and Feds (New York: NYU Press, 2007). On their influence in New York City’s construction industry, see New York State Organized Crime Taskforce, Corruption and Racketeering in the New York City Construction Industry: Final Report to Governor Mario M. Cuomo (New York: NYU Press, 1990).

[4] Thomas J. Sugrue, "Affirmative Action from Below: Civil Rights, the Building Trades, and the Politics of Racial Equality in the Urban North, 1945-1969," Journal of American History 91 (June 2004), 145.

[5] Alexia McGhee, “A Look Back: Civil Rights Protesters Climb Unfinished Gateway Arch in 1964,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 14, 2013, accessed May 12, 2022, https://www.stltoday.com/news/archives/a-look-back-civil-rights-protesters-climb-unfinished-gateway-arch-in-1964/article_c15dfc94-8af3-5c9c-8782-87de8e5bc433.html.

[6] Trevor Griffey, “From Jobs to Power: The United Construction Workers Association and Title VII Community Organizing in the 1970s,” in David Goldberg and Trevor Griffey, eds., Black Power at Work: Community Control, Affirmative Action, and the Construction Industry (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010), Chap. 7, 167.

[7] Sugrue, "Affirmative Action from Below”

[8] Hugh Davis Graham, “Philadelphia Plan Redux,” in The Civil Rights Era: Origins and Development of National Policy, 1960-1972 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 322-45.

[9] Griffey, “From Jobs to Power”

[10] “Tyree Scott and the United Construction Workers Association: Video Oral Interviews,” Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, December 30, 2003, accessed May 12, 2022, https://depts.washington.edu/civilr/ucwa_interviews.htm.

[11] Trevor Griffey, “Nixon, the Hard Hats, and ‘Voluntary’ Affirmative Action,” in David Goldberg and Trevor Griffey, eds., Black Power at Work: Community Control, Affirmative Action, and the Construction Industry (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010), Chap. 6, 134-160; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey,” updated January 20, 2022, accessed May 12, 2022, https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat18.htm.

[12] Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, interview with Janet Lewis, April 13, 2006, accessed May 12, 2022, https://depts.washington.edu/civilr/janet_lewis.htm; interview with Beverly Sims, May 25, 2005, accessed May 12, 2022, https://depts.washington.edu/civilr/sims.htm.

[13] Carrie N. Baker, The Women's Movement against Sexual Harassment (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[14] Nancy MacLean, Freedom is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2008), Chap. 8, 265-99.