Building Racism

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

The carpenters' union filed three charges against IMR and Bay Building Services with the National Labor Relations Board. The two companies "settled" the charges for the alleged antiunion comments at the warehouse meeting by accepting the slap on the wrist of having to post a bilingual notice saying that federal law grants them the right to union activity. Another charge against Bay Building Services was withdrawn when NLRB reps said there wasn't enough evidence that the Aguilars and two other men had not been recalled from a layoff because of their union activity. The lawsuit alleges many black and Latino carpenters were laid off in retaliation for complaining to the union or signing a petition.

Rodriguez says the managers tried their best to stop communication between the Latinos and blacks. He speculates that was so they could get the Latinos to work fast and in unsafe conditions, and steal their money without anyone squawking. Rodriguez says he was discouraged from talking to blacks, and that the workers ate lunch separately, so communication was often limited to the black workers telling the Latinos there was a work stoppage in protest. Black carpenter Gregory Hall heard of the accusations regarding the Latinos' stolen wages and circulated a petition denouncing it among all the workers. Hall says it was intended to show solidarity; he didn't show it to the management.

Last fall, the Aguilars and Rodriguez attended one of the community meetings held by black workers at a church near the work site. Ivy remembers everyone whooping in disbelief as the details of the alleged wage stealing were translated into English. The separation tactics had failed. The two sides realized they were both victims of the same alleged business model: to employ the cheapest workers who wouldn't complain.

Residents of the apartments say their “redone” garages have been left half-finished.
R C Rivera
Residents of the apartments say their “redone” garages have been left half-finished.

Upon hearing the stories, Ivy says he was reminded of black men he'd worked with through the decades who accepted bad working conditions out of fear of losing their jobs. "It was almost like slave labor," he says.

Last fall, some carpenters went to La Raza Centro Legal in the Mission to inquire about their rights. La Raza contacted Bob Salinas, who had just won a $100,000 settlement for three workers who had not been paid for all their hours worked at a Chinese buffet in the East Bay. After listening to the carpenters' stories, and doing his own investigation, Salinas decided they had grounds for a civil suit.

Although the carpenters' statements and the photo of hateful graffiti may be the only records of the alleged racism on the construction site, evidence that some of the work was done haphazardly is built right into the renovated units.

To the untrained eye, the neat row of the redone yellow-and-tan three-story units of All Hallows Gardens sloping down to the shipyard looks cheery and inviting, especially compared with the brown barracks-like Oakdale housing project across the street.

But Gonzalo and Fausto Aguilar pointed out the shoddy work earlier this month. The brothers say many of the hires were undocumented family members or acquaintances of the management who wouldn't protest kickbacks. The lawsuit says that Ernesto Cunningham would hide several nonunion Latinos in a warehouse, and told them to hide if the union steward came to the site. The union fined Cunningham and IMR, according to the suit. (The carpenters' union refused to comment for this story.)

The Aguilars say inexperienced workers bring down the level of safety for everyone. "It's like this: If you go to a job where there's blacks, whites, Latinos, safety is first, right?" Fausto says. "But if you go to a job where there's 70 percent Latinos, they don't care about safety."

"They want fast work," Gonzalo says. "It pains me to say it, but the Latino foremen are the ones who treat us the worst. This wasn't the first time. But here it was more evident."

The brothers point to the doorbell where Jesus Sandoval had told them not to leave a space for the wires while they were putting siding on the wall. When asked why, Sandoval told them, "Fucking black people, they don't deserve it," the lawsuit states.

The Aguilars point out how at a corner of the house, the siding doesn't align on the adjoining walls. At another place, siding runs up the front of the house at an angle.

Coming home from work, resident Patricia Williams opens up her garage door to show how the construction folks left it when she moved back in, after staying in another unit for a month during the renovation. Sawdust coats the floor, which is littered with nails, pallets, and an empty barrel. Uneven holes are cut into the walls around exposed wiring. The thick television cable mysteriously snakes out of the apartment's second-floor wall and into her garage, the only one like that on the block.

"It's tacky," Williams says. "They just did a bum job."

Such disappointment clouds what chief assistant city attorney Jesse Smith called a "fresh start" between AIMCO and the city, after the company settled the city's lawsuit in 2004. To encourage the company to completely redo the units, the city promised to endorse AIMCO's application to the state to receive tax-exempt status on bonds to finance the work. But the approval came with stipulations that AIMCO must pay prevailing wages, enact nondiscriminatory hiring, and abide by the city's First Source Hiring program to prioritize San Franciscans for entry-level jobs, especially residents of the Bayview.

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