Mr. Erlich is one of the authors of a book addressing the history of racial exclusion in the building trades. He notes that the original Boston Residents Jobs Policy in 1983 came out of the fight by Black workers for jobs on building sites. But it had to include residents and women to gain white political support and overcome the opposition of union leadership.
“There is a legacy of racism, which by no means has been eliminated,” Mr. Erlich said. “I respect folks in the community that complain that things are not changing fast enough. And they are not changing fast enough.” Still, he argues, unions realize that “they need to become less homogeneous and reflect the demographics of the city.”
And he warns that the nonunion contractors that will hire workers of color do not generally provide training or a career path, as unions do. The work is often more dangerous, he says, and it pays nothing like the wages in union shops.
The Limits of Patience
Workers of color who make it into the unions acknowledge the opportunities that membership provides. On a sunny October afternoon in Dorchester, a roomful of apprentices and journeymen and women, assembled by Local 103 to talk to a reporter, lauded the union’s efforts to broaden its ranks and called for patience.
“Diversity doesn’t happen overnight,” said Sam Quaratiello, a recent graduate of the apprenticeship program who is of Asian descent. Walter Cowhan, a Black journeyman, argued that the union had become far more diverse in his 20 years of experience. Still, he said, if workers of color are to become more prominent on job sites, training is essential. “If you don’t prepare the work force, directly bringing in Black and brown workers could undermine the whole process,” he said.
But among some of those pushing for racial equity, patience is wearing thin. Mr. Watson offered the words of the Black author and activist James Baldwin: “You’ve always told me it takes time,” Mr. Baldwin said in the 1989 documentary “The Price of a Ticket.” “How much time do you want, for your progress?”
The building unions are “huge obstacles” to that progress, said Angela Williams-Mitchell, who heads the Boston Jobs Coalition, a community organization dedicated to increasing opportunities for people of color. “They do not open their doors to create access for communities that have historically been excluded.”