Building Racism

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

"As a corporate entity, they're not known for their civic-mindedness," says Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, whose district includes the Bayview. "We had to sue them to get things repaired properly. ... That's why we put the conditions in, and not say we'll just leave it to their good graces."

But since no formal complaints were lodged with city agencies about violations of the agreement, the city did very little, although multiple officials say the district attorney is investigating. The city was limited in its ability to pressure for jobs, since the first hiring legislation applies only to entry-level workers, when much of the work at the AIMCO site was for journeymen, says Chris Iglesias. He was then the director of CityBuild, the city's program to help construction companies implement local hiring requirements. AIMCO says that by the end of 2007, nearly 40 percent of all hours worked on the construction site were by city residents.

While Maxwell says "the agreement did what it could," since in the end the pro-ject was not city-funded, the carpenters and community activists say the city and AIMCO let them down.

Paul Trapani
Bob Ivy says getting and keeping jobs in his 35 years as a black carpenter in the Bay Area has been a constant struggle.
R C Rivera
Bob Ivy says getting and keeping jobs in his 35 years as a black carpenter in the Bay Area has been a constant struggle.

"I'm tired of people saying they need to put teeth into these agreements," says Dorothy Peterson, a longtime AIMCO opponent and activist for the building's residents. "C'mon, just do the right thing."

Will the city be suing for breach of the agreement? The city attorney is waiting to see if AIMCO will make good on its promise to force Fortney & Weygandt to investigate the allegations, Smith says. "Ultimately it could go to legal actions, but we're all hoping if there is a problem, [AIMCO] will take quick action to solve it," he says. "That's what everyone is hoping and expecting will happen."

"They're in trouble," says carpenter Terry Mackey, sitting against the back wall of the City Hall meeting room, referring to AIMCO and the other defendants.

The carpenters turned the Government Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee meeting into something resembling a pep rally, including applauding themselves and their supporters and heckling their villains.

"Get up there and tell us a lie!" one man yelled as Bill Wong, a former senior field representative of the carpenters' union, took the stand. Many carpenters say that if their union had reacted more aggressively to their complaints, or had better policed nonunion members on the site, it would have headed off the lawsuit. But carpenters' union attorney Salinas says the union had been looking into the wage grievances, but those cases were dissolved because of the pending lawsuit.

While testifying, one carpenter declared: "We love each other. We just didn't know this, but we know this now." And after the Aguilars' father testified of his support, placing his white cowboy hat on the podium, several black carpenters embraced him in a bear hug. While shooting a group photo outside on the steps, a few workers held up peace signs.

Certainly, carpenters complaining of poor treatment and expressing interracial brotherly love make sympathetic characters. "The carpenters are adorable, aren't they?" Salinas said.

AIMCO's pinstripe-suited attorney from the 2002 lawsuit, Jim Reuben, seemed to measure his words as he stood up to speak, careful to say nothing that would get him heckled, yet careful not to say anything that would come back to haunt the company in a courtroom.

"On the personal level, I found the testimony surprising and troubling," he said. A sarcastic "Psssh!" erupted from somewhere in the back. "Every time I heard the name AIMCO mentioned, it sounded to me like [IMR Contractor Corporation] should be mentioned as well, but that's what our investigation will find out."

Supervisor Maxwell dug in: "Yes, but by and large, AIMCO is who the people know. It's who we know, it's who we made the contracts with. So we have to take that kind of responsibility."

"Understood," Reuben defers.

Until the lawsuit goes to court, the carpenters are waging private battles, many brought on by their time at the job site. Bob Ivy is on disability for a herniated disc after he jammed a countertop into steps while carrying it unassisted, and now walks stiffly, with constant pain. Hector Rodriguez says he now checks his house before he lets his family enter, since he thought he spotted the man who took him to the job site and a foreman driving by multiple times. Felix Cortes is worried the defendants may try to exact vengeance back in Mexico, given that the family of the man he's accusing in the lawsuit of taking $400 from his $800 weekly paycheck lives near to his own family's village in Oaxaca.

"Here, there's justice," Cortes says. "If someone does wrong, they punish him. There, the richest person wins."

Ivy says the case is not about the money. "I'm looking for change," he says. "I've been doing this for 35 years, and I'm still fighting for a job.

"How can I call this a career?" he continues. "It's been a struggle."

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