Standing Up with the Aboriginal Blackmen United

The rabble-rousers of the ABU have helped to achieve local hiring goals.

This structure is what makes the ABU so effective, even though it lacks most things that community organizations need: a payroll, dues, computers, an office. Ask Richards for statistics about how many workers the ABU has placed, and he says he has no idea. Even in an age of "measurable outcomes," he doesn't really keep records. But the ABU's way of operating has its own advantages. If other community groups wanted to hold a protest, they would have to organize well in advance, make calls, juggle schedules, and hope their supporters show up. For Richards, none of this is necessary. He has a standing army.

The ABU isn't the only San Francisco organization that focuses on local hiring issues. In the past year and a half, a group of nonprofits in Bayview–Hunters Point and Visitacion Valley have joined together to form the Southeast Jobs Coalition. Like the ABU, these groups monitor construction sites and try to place more local workers on the jobs — they just do it more politely. (There's also the Bay Area Black Builders, which threatened violent protests early this year over the construction of a Bayview library.)

At least rhetorically, San Francisco officials tend to support neighborhood hiring. There's a slew of statutes at both the city and state levels that emphasize the importance of local hiring, particularly on publicly funded projects. But contractors and union officials raise concerns about the level of local hiring that is actually feasible — especially in a recession, when construction projects are already moving forward on razor-thin profit margins.

Ashley Rhodes (center), the ABU’s second-in-command, with two favorite slogans.
Josh Edelson
Ashley Rhodes (center), the ABU’s second-in-command, with two favorite slogans.
Supervisor John Avalos wants a tougher local hiring law.
Josh Edelson
Supervisor John Avalos wants a tougher local hiring law.

Michael Theriault, secretary-treasurer of the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council, pointed out in a March 2009 article in a union journal that in Los Angeles, a city five times as populous as San Francisco, the local hiring goal is 30 percent.

Oakland, on the other hand, has a legally mandated 50 percent local hire quota — but it operates with exemptions. That means contractors who work with a team of long-term employees can reduce their local hire requirement to 25 percent.

It's unclear whether some of the construction trade's resistance to local hires is simply racism under a different name. In the Bayview, hiring neighborhood workers usually means hiring black workers. Subcontractors throughout the Bay Area often complain that "local hires" aren't as productive as other employees, and that they sometimes have an attitude. Theriault says this isn't racism, but he wrote that some contractors might have doubts "about whether a minority member from the inner city can carry the same work load as someone from a farming or peasant background."

Local hiring quotas force contractors to overcome these doubts and give neighborhood workers a chance. But, Theriault argues, these quotas need to be realistic. Historically, this city has rarely been able to meet its optimistic local hire goal. In the past 10 years, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency has never met the city's 50 percent good-faith quota, according to a May 2010 memo. It has exceeded the 25 percent mark in only three of those 10 years.

Part of this failure may be a pipeline problem. Residents of neighborhoods like the Bayview may be dealing with a long list of impediments to working or getting into an apprenticeship program, such as a lack of a high school diploma or GED, criminal records, or unpaid union dues. Part of it could be entrenched opposition to local hiring from certain unions, including the electricians' union, which refuses to dispatch workers to projects based on where they live — or based on any factor besides how long they've been on the unemployment list. (John O'Rourke, a representative of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

To many community advocates, all of these factors boil down to simple discrimination. It's one of the ABU's favorite slogans: "They don't give a damn about us."

Last year, the ABU created so much tension outside several Third Street construction projects that the mayor had to intervene in order to avert violence. The ABU was intimidating individual workers and calling out anti-Latino and anti-immigrant slogans. ABU members would occasionally block the project gates at 6 a.m., and in response, the project managers would call the police.

One former employee at a residential construction site at Third and Armstrong streets, who doesn't want his name used, remembers 20 or 30 big, menacing guys standing outside his construction site day after day. They would chant his name, "saying that I would only hire Hispanics or Mexicans and that I was going across the border and bring[ing] them in."

"Not even the strikes are like that," he says. "In 28, 29 years that I've been in the trade, I never saw anything like that."

Scott Smith, president of James E. RobertsObayashi Corp., the general contractor at the site, says the protest started out with just barbecues and chanting, but soon got nastier. "Really, the drive was to not have Hispanics on the job. They wanted to make sure they were all black workers," Smith says.

The ABU wasn't just advocating for neighborhood hires or for black hires: It wanted its own members on the job. When another local hire replaced an ABU member, the group protested that. As Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Fred Blackwell points out, the ABU's protests may benefit the wider community, but there's no question that Richards' followers benefit the most.

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