Building Racism

Segregation and racism are used to pit black and Latino carpenters against each other at a low-income-housing site

As Latinos have passed blacks as the country's largest minority group, much controversy has ensued over whether one group's success means pushing the other out of jobs. A 2006 Pew Research Center poll indicated that blacks are more likely than whites to see immigrants as taking jobs away from Americans. Former Mexican President Vicente Fox created a media circus in 2005 after he commented that Mexicans take the U.S. jobs "even blacks don't want to do." In 2006, 28 percent of construction workers in this country were born in another country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But in San Francisco, even with the unemployment rate of African-American men hovering at three times that of Latino men, the alleged efforts at the AIMCO site to divide the two races instead had the opposite effect. The two groups have joined in a perhaps a uniquely American display of solidarity — suing their common enemy, the employer, as one.

The suit alleges a number of violations of state labor code and antidiscrimination law, including:

Attorney Bob Salinas says worker Jeff West took this photo of graffiti in a construction site bathroom in January.
R C Rivera
Attorney Bob Salinas says worker Jeff West took this photo of graffiti in a construction site bathroom in January.
Lloyd Thibeaux signed a petition circulated by a black carpenter protesting some job-site supervisors’ alleged wage extortion of Latino workers.
R C Rivera
Lloyd Thibeaux signed a petition circulated by a black carpenter protesting some job-site supervisors’ alleged wage extortion of Latino workers.

• Job-site supervisors and foremen, mostly Latinos themselves, took $100 to $400 a week from Latino workers, either by cashing paychecks and withholding the money or having workers cash their own checks and give kickbacks.

• Qualified black carpenters were repeatedly told there was no work available, even while subcontractors continued to hire Latinos.

• Black and Latino workers worked on separate crews.

• Black workers hardly ever worked a 40-hour week, while Latinos often worked overtime and sometimes weekends.

• Management hid several nonunion workers in a warehouse when the carpenters' union reps came to visit.

• Black workers were repeatedly told they were too slow and inexperienced. At least once, instructions for a job were given only in Spanish to a group of Latinos and blacks, leaving the black workers without instructions.

• Latino workers were pressured to do fast and shoddy work; one job-site supervisor said it was because only black people would live in those units.

For now, construction at the site has stopped for what a spokesman says is a normal delay in building phases, though the company vows it will restart work in early April. The carpenters and community activists demand that the individuals named in the lawsuit do not return. Meanwhile, AIMCO is passing the blame. In a letter to city supervisors before a hearing on the issue last month, senior vice president Patti Shwayder said that the allegations focus on employees of the subcontractors hired by Fortney & Weygandt, and that AIMCO would require that company to remove the subcontractors from the job if the allegations were true.

Fortney & Weygandt's general superintendent on the site, Mike Cunningham (no relation to Ernesto), who is named in the suit, says he was sorry to hear "there's just so much discontent," and was surprised by the allegations of kickbacks: "I wasn't aware of every little detail that was going on, but so be it," he told SF Weekly. All hiring and firing is up to the subcontractors, he added.

Attorney Paul Simpson represents the two subcontractors accused of extorting wage kickbacks, Daly City-based roofing company IMR Contractor Corporation, and San Rafael-based Bay Building Services. Simpson says his clients deny any discrimination or kickbacks, and that they would take "appropriate action" if any employee was proven to have done so. While the lawsuit accuses IMR owner Moises Avila of sharing kickbacks and echoing Ernesto Cunningham's racist rhetoric, Simpson describes Avila as "a roofer [who] worked his way up. He's an American success story, and these allegations are very hurtful to him." (Avila referred all questions to Simpson, his attorney.)

Simpson's clients have reason to worry: This could result in a costly settlement or jury-awarded damages, and multiple city officials and carpenters say that the district attorney is investigating. (The DA's office will not confirm or deny an investigation.) The state criminal code allows a two-to-four-year prison sentence for extortion, possibly tacking on a year for each consecutive count up to a total sentence of eight years. Three Latino carpenters say that managers were taking money from at least a dozen workers every week for months on end, although it's unknown how many would testify to it in court.

For now, the allegations must be treated with skepticism, but there's little denying that it would be an extraordinary feat of coordination for 27 workers, half of whom can barely communicate with the other half without a translator, to come up with similar tales. As Bob Salinas, the Oakland attorney who is representing the workers in the suit, asks, "Could my guys have been making that up?"

At a City Hall public hearing last month, supervisors were clearly concerned. Carmen Chu nodded in solemn agreement as Jeff West, a carpenter apprentice who lives in one of the AIMCO properties and worked on the site, explained that he wanted to be a role model to men in the area by getting a job. "But to come to work and be a taxpayer and be called a nigger? I deserve everything ... that another man deserves."

Salinas adds that the alleged statements from the warehouse meeting — that the bosses wanted to fire all the blacks and that the Latinos were "at war" with them — hark back to antidiscrimination cases of eras past, before employers knew to hide their racist hand. "To prove this, the jury just has to believe this statement is true, and it's over," he says. "Do you think it takes a trained legal expert to see these things were based on race?" Other evidence is even more explicit. Salinas provided the SF Weekly with a photo he said West had taken of graffiti scrawled in a bathroom on the construction site in January, including the words "fuck all nigger's," "slave," "monkey's," and "AID'S."

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