Building Racism

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

Simpson, the attorney for two of the defendants, called the testimonies at the hearing "inflammatory," and said his clients weren't informed of the hearing until it was already in progress. "They are people that are hard-working, honest individuals that are being accused of wrongdoing, and nobody has come up with any evidence substantiating the accusations," he said.

But the carpenters say they've witnessed plenty.

The hiring at the AIMCO site was problematic from the start. According to the lawsuit, not one black worker was hired for the first month of work in May. Black carpenters who inquired were told contractors weren't hiring, or that they were waiting for materials. But black workers noticed that more Latinos were hired. Finally, some carpenters and community activists stopped work at the site with a protest.

Gonzalo Aguilar says Latinos on the site were pressured to do fast and shoddy work.
R C Rivera
Gonzalo Aguilar says Latinos on the site were pressured to do fast and shoddy work.
Construction workers met near the job site with their lawyer, Bob Salinas (far right); organizers from La Raza Centro Legal; and community supporters.
R C Rivera
Construction workers met near the job site with their lawyer, Bob Salinas (far right); organizers from La Raza Centro Legal; and community supporters.

After the rally at the end of May, a dozen black carpenters were hired, according to the lawsuit, including 61-year-old carpenter Bob Ivy. Having grown up in the Bayview just blocks away, he considered it his duty to rehabilitate the neighborhood. But once on the job site, Ivy and the other black workers rarely got a full week's work, while the Latinos often worked overtime and weekends. One day, carpenter Roy Edwards complained about always being the first to be sent home; according to the lawsuit, Ernesto Cunningham called him a "motherfucker." The two men got into a yelling match, and it was announced that nobody would work that day, according to Edwards and foreman Randy Keys. But soon after, Keys says he drove by the job site and saw the Latinos still at work.

In his 35 years as a carpenter, Ivy says he's always had to fight to get and keep jobs. But in recent years, he says the color of the competition has shifted. When a black Vietnam vet like Ivy visits construction sites and sees mostly Latinos, some of whom are willing to brush aside a union man's "safety first" creed and don't speak English, it's hard for it not to sting. "I feel bad for them, but they're taking money out of my hands and food out of my mouth," he says. "How do these other ethnic groups come to America and succeed, and the black people still stay stagnated?"

Ivy said at the public hearing that the crews for the company he worked for, Livermore-based Bay Area Construction Framers, were divided by race — his all-black crew was assigned to tearout, while white workers came in for the installation. Joe Powell, the company's attorney, says the job assignments had nothing to do with race. He says it's normal for a company to assign a crew it has worked with before and knows is trained in a certain specialty to one type of work, and then the local hires with whom it has never worked to another.

Other black carpenters in the suit report that the various bosses often told them they were slow, and threatened to dock their pay for stopping work for just a moment. When one carpenter complained about the dangerous conditions the Latinos were working in, the suit claims one foreman retorted, "Scared or something?"

Meanwhile, the Latinos faced their own woes. Problems started for Hector Rodriguez on his first visit to the job site. A union journeyman carpenter, Rodriguez was instructed by Bay Building Services foremen Ernesto Cunningham and Jesus Sandoval that he would earn $24.25 an hour, $9 an hour less than union wage, according to the lawsuit, though the work he did for IMR and Bay Building Services was only what he considers carpentry work – siding, windows, sliding doors, and walls. After a few weeks, Rodriguez began getting paid carpenters' wages, but had $100 deducted from his paycheck each Monday by Bay Building Services foreman Qaltemo Arellano, according to the lawsuit. Rodriguez, 28, says he has paid taxes for the 11 years he's lived in the United States, and thought what his bosses were asking was illegal. Yet he had problems finding work, and had four children: "I wasn't happy, but I had to work." After he had worked there for several weeks, one of his sons required emergency dental surgery. Rodriguez' Kaiser copay was $6,000. He pleaded that his supervisors not take a cut of his pay that week, but they still did, as Rodriguez explained at the hearing.

Rodriguez complained to the carpenters' union along with the Aguilars and others, but things only got worse. According to the lawsuit, Rodriguez said he was threatened on the job site by Jesus Sandoval's brother, Elias, that if he kept complaining to the union, something "might happen to him outside of work." One night last fall, months after he'd been laid off, Rodriguez says he donned his cowboy boots and cowboy hat to go to the Fiesta Nightclub in San Jose to see El Potro de Sinaloa, a popular singer from his home state. He later noticed other job-site supervisors were at the club, and the scene that ensued seemed taken straight from a mob movie, as described in the suit: Carlos Delgado, Cunningham's brother-in-law, grabbed Rodriguez by the neck and called him a "fag," saying that complaining to the union wasn't something a "man" does. "They could do something to me easy," Rodriguez says. "I was scared. I have family, and if something happened to me, I don't know what would happen." Delgado could not be reached for comment.

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