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100 Black Construction Workers: Social Justice Through Trade Unionism

NEW YORK, N.Y.—Barrie Smith, president of 100 Black Construction Workers, stands on a South Bronx street corner with the group’s political-action director, Anthony Williamson, below the unfinished towers of Brookfield Properties’ 101 Lincoln Avenue development. 

100 Black Construction Workers President Barrie Smith and  Political Action Director Anthony Williamson on the streets of the South Bronx. 

“This job site here,” Smith says, pointing up at the $1 billion luxury-housing project by the Harlem River waterfront. It’s the largest construction job in the city that’s using nonunion labor, the two say. And nonunion, they add, means the mostly black and Latino workers are getting paid minimum wage or maybe a couple dollars an hour more, with no medical benefits, and many of them are undocumented immigrants or are former prisoners hired through labor brokers called “body shops.”

“We are vanguards for nonunion workers,” says Smith.

Founded about 13 years ago, 100 Black Construction Workers functions as a constituency group within Laborers Local 79, where both Smith and Williamson are now on the board of directors. Its main focus is economic justice, but also to educate people, especially nonwhites, about unions, to counteract the once-often-true stereotype that the building trades are segregated — to make it visible, says Smith, that “there are people of color who have union books, who are construction workers.” 

Local 79 is now more than half black, Latino, and Asian, they note.

The group also aims to diversify the union’s leadership, such as shop stewards and officials. It’s important to have decision-makers and not just figurative leaders, Williamson says. It’s also campaigning for more vocational training and to help released prisoners re-enter society by getting them good jobs.

“I’d rather see someone with a shovel in their hand than a gun,” Williamson says.

The majority of nonunion jobs, says Smith, are using body shops to hire former prisoners, who can be sent back to prison for violating parole if they don’t stay gainfully employed. 

“You can’t talk back. It’s a slavery hold,” he says. 

It’s a deeply personal issue for Smith, who grew up in public housing in Brownsville. “My mother raised me correctly,” he says, but when he was a teenager in the 1980s, the neighborhood’s street culture heeded Tony Montana, Al Pacino’s cocaine gangster in the movie Scarface, more than it did maternal messages about education, respect, and showing up not just on time, but “before the time.” He was convicted of murder, later vacated and reduced to felonious assault, and served 17½ years in prison. His mother died a few months before he was released.

When he got out, he recalls, he was trying to support his four adopted siblings, his wife, and two stepchildren on a $5.15-an-hour minimum-wage job.”

“I never had the opportunity to work safe,” he says. “I had so much pressure on my back. I promised my mother I would stay free and do the right thing.”

The day his parole officer warned him he would get a violation if he didn’t keep a job, he says, he asked an Irish supervisor at a construction site in Washington Heights if he could get a job there. “He gave me the opportunity,” Smith recalls. He began doing masonry, laboring, and fireproofing, and got sponsored into Local 79. 

“After 17½ years, if I’m doing the right thing, I deserve a bit of security,” he says.

He went on to become a shop steward, but then became seriously ill, he says, from carbon-monoxide poisoning sustained while working nonunion jobs. He was a volunteer organizer on Build Up NYC, a 2013 campaign by the building trades unions, SEIU32BJ, and the Hotel Trades Council to persuade developers to use union labor, along with several other founders of 100 Black Construction Workers, among them Justice Favor, now a Local 79 staff organizer.

The group is enthusiastic about mayor-elect Eric Adams, particularly his support for bringing former prisoners into union jobs, that’s he’s a union member, and that he’s a former police officer who knows what it’s like to get beaten up by cops when he was a teenager.

“When he sat down with us, he understood our vision,” says Smith. “He gave us a seat at the table, he listened to what we had to say.”

“If you want to take the cold steel of a gun out of someone’s hand, then put the steel of a hammer in their hand, and let them be on the job site,” Adams told a rally organized by Local 79 in the Bronx in August. “Good middle class jobs, that’s the best crime-fighting tool you can ever get.” 

Smith also praises current Local 79 business manager Mike Prohaska for breaking down racial barriers within the union. When Prohaska sent him to a job at the Manhattanville projects on Harlem’s west side, he says, it made him “the youngest Afro-American worker ever sent to a long-term job.” Those steady, secure assignments had been mainly reserved for whites.

The murder of George Floyd “basically took the skirt off everything,” Smith says, showing that systemic racism “has to be removed.” That includes looking at the racial impact of the city’s rezoning programs, in which working class Black and Latino neighborhoods, mostly in the outer boroughs, are rezoned for luxury housing, which is supposed to subsidize a percentage of the apartments built to be affordable. 

Williamson is passionate about expanding vocational education so it starts in junior high school, to create “a pipeline to all the construction apprenticeship programs.”

“We know we have a W.E.B. du Bois, but we also have to educate the Booker T. Washingtons,” says Smith. “Some people are good with their hands. They’re not academic.”

“We’ve got to put people to work,” says Williamson.

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