How to diversify the building trades in Buffalo

When Minnesota lawmakers agreed to put millions of dollars toward building a new football stadium for the Minnesota Vikings, contractors were told they had to what some thought impossible: ensure that minorities accounted for a third of the construction workforce.

Work on the $1.1 billion stadium is wrapping up, and contractors, despite their initial skepticism, have not only met the 32 percent goal but exceeded it, reaching 36 percent minority participation.

This kind of ambitious goal-setting has been absent on major projects in the Buffalo area.

The minority workforce goal was just 13.2 percent on the $130 million renovations to Ralph Wilson Stadium.

The goal on construction of the $750 million factory being built and equipped for SolarCity at taxpayer expense was dropped from 25 to 15 percent after contractors and unions said the higher goal was unachievable.

In Niagara Falls, community groups have been pushing for change after discovering that African Americans make up less than one percent of the workforce building the city’s new Amtrak station.

The region’s construction boom has resurrected concerns about racial disparities in the local construction workforce. Here and across the country, cities and states are grappling with the same questions and facing the same obstacles: inadequate training programs, structural racism, and a disconnect between labor unions and communities of color.

Unlike Buffalo, however, some communities have found solutions.

“We were able to change the rules of the game,” said Jackie Cornejo, who directed a campaign, 12 years in the making at the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a non-profit organization.

The group achieved a string of successes in persuading local government agencies to adopt ambitious diversity goals—and, for the most part, meet them. Los Angeles is often cited as the gold standard in creating a pipeline to help people of color find good-paying construction jobs.

In Los Angeles, a coalition organized by activists pushed for change; in Minneapolis, government was the driver. In each case, strong leadership was the catalyst for change.

Investigative Post is holding a workshop May 25 aimed at educating the community, contractors, unions and policymakers on how to promote diversity in the construction trades. Charlotte Keith will recap her extensive reporting on the topic for Investigative Post. John Goldstein, a national expert in workforce diversity, will then discuss the key steps in building a pipeline to connect low-income residents and construction jobs. The event starts at 7 p.m. at the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site, 641 Delaware Ave. Admission is free; pre-registration is requested on our events page.

Advocates emphasize the importance of building relationships between community groups, unions, contractors, and elected officials; setting ambitious diversity goals and demanding transparency about whether they’re being met; and developing a pipeline of qualified workers through pre-apprenticeship programs.

“These goals don’t get achieved in isolation,” said Minnesota Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey. “There has to be a conversation with the local schools, with training groups, with unions, with the bid-awarding entities, all pulling together in the same direction.”

Advocates say grappling with the entrenched problems behind racial disparities always seems impossible—until it isn’t.

“We want to get the word out,” Cornejo said. “It is possible to apply this model in other places.”

Working with unions

The first step, experts agree, is finding common ground between construction unions and communities of color.

“Getting the building trades involved is almost always a struggle,” said John Goldstein, a former head of the Milwaukee County Labor Council and now a national expert on workforce diversity.

Despite this, he said, it’s crucial for success, because “coalitions are strongest when they include the trades.”

Cornejo, who now works at the Partnership for Working Families, a national network of advocacy groups, agreed. The starting point in LA, she said, was persuading the different parties—construction unions and community and faith groups—to recognize their common interests.

This coalition then set out to learn when requests for proposals would be issued, contractors selected and work would begin.

They then lobbied elected officials and bureaucrats at the city’s Department of Contract Administration to embrace diversity initiatives. They also organized “Construction 101 Seminars” to show residents how to apply for union construction jobs.

“We kept hearing the myth of ‘There aren’t enough minority workers’,” Cornejo said. “But there’s tons: They just don’t know how to access apprentice programs and make sure they’re successful in them.”

Almost immediately, the group ran up against what Cornejo described as a “formidable barrier” in the form of an amendment to California’s constitution, in place for more than 20 years, which bans racial or gender preference in employment. That means goals explicitly encouraging the hiring of minorities or women weren’t an option.

Instead, the group examined socioeconomic barriers and crafted language to give priority to residents of high-poverty zip codes, as well as “disadvantaged workers”—a category that includes the homeless, former offenders, welfare recipients and the long-term unemployed.

Progress was gradual but unmistakable.

In 2010, the LA Department of Public Works adopted a Project Labor Agreement including goals that 30 percent of the construction workforce be residents of high-poverty city ZIP codes, an additional 10 percent disadvantaged workers, and another 20 percent apprentices, with priority given to city residents. The PLA allows unions to prioritize workers from these categories when dispatching members and requires contractors to document their efforts to contact community groups in search of workers.

The city’s school district and port and transportation authorities followed suit a year later.

Now, LA is widely regarded as the gold standard in leveraging public investment to benefit low-income residents.

Planning and pre-apprenticeship

After getting everyone on the same page, experts say the next step is identifying upcoming publicly funded construction projects early in the planning stage.

“Once there’s a shovel in the ground, it’s almost always too late—but that’s often when communities get engaged,” Goldstein said.

And while experts agree that there’s no “magic number” for diversity or local hiring, “the biggest mistake folks make is aiming too low,” Goldstein said. “If contractors have to do it, frankly, they figure out a way to do it.”

Although workforce development has become the buzzword of choice for many local officials in Western New York, existing policies aren’t being implemented properly.

Buffalo doesn’t know whether it’s meeting its own diversity goals for public works projects because the data that’s collected isn’t analyzed. A city law requiring contractors to hire apprentices and city residents, which union leaders say would encourage diversity, has gone largely unenforced.

In Milwaukee, by contrast, local hiring laws have proved so successful that a goal to hire unemployed and underemployed city residents on public works projects was increased from 25 to 40 percent in 2009.

At the same time, hiring standards are meaningless without qualified workers.

When Labor Secretary Thomas Perez spoke at Bennett High School in March, he emphasized the importance of “investing in apprenticeship” and “working with our friends in organized labor to make sure there are pre-apprenticeship opportunities and they’re open to African Americans, that they’re open to women, they’re open to Latinos, they’re open to former offenders.”

Buffalo’s pre-apprenticeship offerings have been sporadic, however. Community groups offering construction training have struggled to place their graduates in union apprenticeships; the trades’ pre-apprentice program, meanwhile, which is targeted at high school students, has only been offered twice in the past five years.

A version of this is currently underway at Burgard High School. Still, Paul Brown, president of the Buffalo Building Trades Council, said he was disappointed at the number of applications the program received—evidence of the disconnect between the unions and community groups.

Mistrust, missed opportunities

The long history of mistrust between unions and community groups is one reason changing the makeup of the construction workforce in Buffalo has proven difficult.

In 2012, 11 percent of local union members were minorities. That figure has barely changed since 2005, despite ambitious goals to diversify union membership that were included the schools reconstruction project. Minorities account for around 18 percent of Erie County’s total workforce, by contrast.

Some local unions have, nonetheless, made progress. The Carpenters Local 276 has increased minority membership from nine percent in 2012 to around 17 percent at the end of last year, according to union representative Chris Austin.

Working with Jomo Akono, an African-American union member, “we’re trying to hit as many places in the city to recruit as possible,” Austin said. He added that Akono has encouraged meeting with groups like the Buffalo Urban League and We Are Women Warriors that hadn’t traditionally been part of the union’s outreach.

One particular challenge, Akono said, is the mandatory math test for prospective apprentices, so he’s been working with Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant to hold remedial math classes.

“There’s like a wall of perception” about what it takes to get into the union, Akono said. “And so we’re trying to explain to people what’s happening on the other side of the wall.”

Transparency and consistency

Advocates also stress the importance of transparency in the way diversity goals are set and participation is reported.

In New York State, workforce goals are set on a contract-by-contract basis, which allows for greater flexibility—but also less consistency. Construction at the state level, for example, is handled by a bewildering array of agencies, each with slightly different goal-setting processes.

Those state goals aren’t typically aligned with whatever local goals might exist.

To observers, the goals can seem arbitrary. For example, HarborCenter, the rink and hotel complex built by the Buffalo Sabres, had a minority workforce goal of 25 percent. The goal was 15 percent on the SolarCity project, even though both took place in the city and drew mostly from the same pool of workers.

It’s a common complaint among African-American community leaders that the goals aren’t set high enough because contractors and government agencies don’t want to risk falling short.

That’s not the case in Minnesota, where the Minnesota Department of Human Rights in 2012 increased the minority hiring goals from 11 to 32 percent for state-funded projects in the two counties covering Minneapolis and St Paul. Those counties have similar demographics to Erie County, according to US Census data.

Cue grumbling from contractors.

Kevin Lindsey, the state’s commissioner of human rights, acknowledged that the change met with some resistance—in particular from contractors and developers who feared they wouldn’t be able to find enough minority workers to meet the higher goal.

But he said raising the goal was a way to “force people to think long-term and to think strategically about how to create a pipeline” for getting people of color into construction jobs. The change has been followed an increase in minority workforce participation across state-funded construction projects.

Contractors have another incentive: Minority and female participation figures for all ongoing projects are available on the department’s website.

One key difference with New York is that the goals in Minnesota are consistent for all state projects in a particular region, something Lindsey says is key to their success, as it sets a clear standard and makes enforcement easier. Since the goals are always the same, contractors know long in advance what they will be and have more time to plan how to meet them.

In the context of Minnesota’s changing demographics, upping the goals was important for the state’s economy, he said, pointing out that more than half of the children in Twin Cities’ public schools are minorities.

“If half of workforce don’t have access to certain opportunities, that doesn’t bode well for the economic viability of the state,” Lindsey said.