How to end construction union racism— start a black union!


— It has been 45 years since my mentor, Dr. Arthur A. Fletcher, implemented the Philadelphia Plan, a federal program used to integrate unions. From the beginning, the construction trades resisted with violence and Jim Crow style segregation. Take the pipe fitters’ union halls in Chicago, they have been successfully sued various times but still will not integrate their halls. It is this way across our nation. Therefore, the National Black Chamber of Commerce will not support pro–union Project Labor Agreements.

Then, why do most civil rights organizations and local black elected officials support such instruments of racism? That is simple. They accept donations from the very construction locals who discriminate against us. Sometimes they will claim that they will start an Apprentice Training Program that will result in black youth starting careers in productive union jobs. Many have gone through these programs; graduate and sign onto a union hall; and wait forever. There will be no jobs and there will be no career. It is a sham. This is a national disgrace. If they do it all the time in Washington, D.C., the Capital of our nation, it is happening everywhere. Forty-five years and there is no progress. Construction unions were “skipped” during the Civil Rights Victories. Now the unions will allow general laborers and cement workers to integrate which provides cover for the higher paying trades.

Last week at the request of the Illinois Black Chamber of Commerce, I visited something I never envisioned. I sat in a meeting with a group who introduced themselves as an international construction union. The U. S. Department of Labor accepts them. Their members are black and they have active apprentice training programs. The key to this is that they are “International” and are not affiliated with the Jim Crow unions. I said to myself, “Finally Lord, we have found the way.”

This meeting took place at the historic Altgeld Gardens, a public housing neighborhood under the management of the Chicago Housing Authority. I have been into hundreds of public housing facilities but this one was quite different. It is like a subdivision. Two story homes housing 3,400 residents. It is clean, quiet with all the residents speaking to one another. Unique would be an understatement.

Section 3 of the HUD Act (24 CFR part 135) was enacted in 1968, right after the first Watts Riot in Los Angeles. It was updated after the Rodney King Riot in 1992. Unlike the 95 percent of HUD facilities, which ignore Section 3, Altgeld is compliant with Section 3. Section 3 provides on the job training for all projects that have “some” HUD funding. That HUD funding could be in a shopping center, hotel, football stadium, etc. Those projects are to contract 10 percent of that funding to Section 3 companies. A Section 3 company is one that hires at least 30 percent Section 3 workers (people that live in public housing or Section 8 rentals.) Altgeld should be a national model.

So here we are— a black union running apprenticeship programs through Section 3 construction contracts and using Section 3 workers. Keep in mind that Altgeld is the largest public housing facility in greater Chicago. Their tenants’ association works hand in hand with this black union. They have a working calendar which keeps everyone busy improving their lives. It is more like a happy town.

This progress reminded me of a classic James Brown hit, “I don’t want nobody to give me nothing! Just open up the door and I’ll get it myself. Do you hear me?!!”

The union has big plans of spreading their “gold medal” process. They contract with a large public housing unit; complete the project and run apprentice programs at the same time utilizing Section 3. Keep in mind a journeyman drywall installer makes $80.00 per hour in the Chicago area. Before long the residents of public housing will be saying “Bye, Bye” to poverty, drug trafficking and despair.

These guys knew about the Section 3 classes we were producing across the country 25 years ago, that is why they wanted to meet the NBCC. Their plan is to spread this model across the country city by city. Chicago is their second city. They got their start in New York City.

Well, the NBCC will collaborate with them. They will make a formal presentation at our annual conference in July. Our chapters located in urban areas can bring the prototype of this program back to their communities.

In conclusion, I will quote a more melodic singer: “God bless the child who has his own,”— Billie Holiday.

Harry Alford is the co-founder, President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce ®. For more information, visit: and to contact Harry Alford, email: