Retirees and those who tied slab in the 1980s remember, The Coalition, as a fierce and determined group of minorities intent on forging a path into the construction industry.
They used to show up at the jobsite right around 11:00 AM; guns drawn, bats in hand, ready to strike anyone that moved.
The foremen instructed everyone to STOP WORKING.
THE COALITION – (black, brown, latino, chinese) – would then have one of its leader’s negotiate with the General Contractor for a few men to be placed as laborers on the project.
Workers were usually sent for an early lunch.
Most times, The Coalition was successful in placing a member or two on the project.
The GC’s were unwilling to risk further slow-downs.
The reason for the formation of The Coalition was the outright racism shown by The Building Trades in hiring minorities.
Unions were pre-dominantly a white father-son business.
The first minority members in our union, and others, caught hell.
I worked with many of these hard-working Lathers back in the 1980s. (I was in my early 20s and these guys were much older).
At that time there was a fierce battle being waged by whites against the inclusion of the minorities.
My father was part of that backlash as were many of the Lathers of that time period.
These men had been brought up all of their lives being made to feel superior.
They did not want any minorities in Local 46.
There was huge resentment over the government mandate to open up the membership to minorities. (My father had a picture of John F. Kennedy proudly displayed in our living room. He named his first-born son after the former President. That picture was unceremoniously thrown out of our third floor apartment building one night after Kennedy enacted laws to help minorities join unions).
The first minorities were treated like enemies.
Minorities were only allowed to tie slab and do the most difficult lathing work.
Being a lather is a tough business.
Tying rebar or slab is an actual War of Attrition.
Bending down, stooped over, tying rebar together with tie wire for one hour is torture enough. Tying slab all day is a whole ‘nother animal. Lifting and carrying rebar around all day is no picnic either.
Men are made in a Lather’s World. “Stiffs” are sent home with the knowledge that they are physically and mentally inferior.
Two of these black men that I worked with back in the late 1980s come to mind.
Chicken George and Buckwheat.
These were typical of the nicknames given to minorities by the white members.
There was a definite caste system that was not hard to distinguish.
Blacks and Spanish members were treated as pariahs.
The racism was displayed at times overtly, but mostly covert.
The message was clear. Layoffs of minorites first was expected and common.
Resentment over their membership ubiquitous.
Chicken George, who was in his eighties, was a congenial fellow who would smoke weed all day and NEVER STOP TYING.
He would laugh at the off color racist jokes sent his way. He was also an exceedingly kind man who took me under his wing.
Buckwheat, on the other hand, was a firebrand who did not take anyone’s guff lightly.
His nickname belied his aggressive pushback against any overt racism that was directed his way.
They were both hard workers.
Both of these men taught me something about hard work and perseverance.
They were a credit to their families and our union.
I can only imagine what they had to put up with.
These men had a pioneering spirit that enabled them to push on despite the enormous adversity.
How much time did Local 46 lose fighting this ugly internal battle while slowly losing the war against Big Business?
There is no way to quantify it, other than to note that, unions have lost much ground since those days.
Black workers have proven themselves, time and time again, to be outstanding managers; workers, leaders, and now, delegates, of Local 46.
It was inevitable once they were given the chance to lead.
I wanted to commemorate our delegate Michael Anderson’s feting by the NAACP for being named Local 46’s first black delegate.
It is even odds that this would have been seen as more impossible back in the 1980s than President Obama being elected President!
I wanted to do it in a way that did not show short-shrift to our racist past.
History is a blueprint to show how things were erected, formed and maintained.
“Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it.”
Open and honest conversation should always be welcomed in a democratic society.
So it is, that we must pay our respects to the minorities who were the – Jackie Robinson’s – of Local 46, and other unions.
These brave men, who put up with hell to maintain their rightful role as union members: will not be given a place in the Hall of Fame; nor feted at fancy cocktail parties; nor given a special day with which to commemorate them.
Yet as long as their is a yearning for truth and justice in a man’s heart; they will not be forgotten.
These men who stood up against a rising tide of prejudice; and steered the boat capably, through stormy seas, displayed the best attributes of the trail-breaking men of the Old West.
Pioneers with an indomitable will, to forge on no matter the circumstances, and pave a better road for their families and future generations.
Their fierce determination has created a better union for us all.
Thanks for donating to the cause and helping The Appeal to advertise!
The Appeal E-Gift cards!: