The Perpetual Apprentice


In the final weeks of the mayoral race, Mike Bloomberg and his Democratic challenger, Fernando Ferrer, are vowing to fight poverty in large part with job-training programs and apprenticeship set-asides, but some labor activists doubt their true commitment.

Bloomberg’s 10-point initiative, hammered out with the Building and Construction Trades Council, includes reserving 40 percent of union apprenticeship slots for the “economically disadvantaged.” He says a 1,000-seat specialty high school for the building trades will be opened next year. Another “work readiness” program will prepare impoverished New Yorkers for Construction Skills 2000, a “pre-apprentice” program run by the trades council and the Building Trades Employers’ Association.

Don’t tell it to James Haughton, a sprightly old New York labor vet. He says he has been fighting entrenched “cronyism and nepotism” that have locked people of color out of union work for 30 years. “It’s tokenism,” he says. “It’s worse than nothing because it gives the appearance of doing something when in actuality things get worse.” The real problem, he says, is that the unions encourage racist hiring—a charge union leaders continually deny—leaving already trained black and Latino workers on the sideline.

For his part, Ferrer also places a high value on vocational training. At the October 6 debate at Harlem’s Apollo Theater he spoke of the need to close the “skills gap” that he says helps keep 40 percent of the city’s black men and 33 percent of its Latino men unemployed. On his website he promises, if elected, to “offer job training to every New Yorker who seeks employment opportunities” and to “connect small businesses to existing job training programs to develop intern and pre-employment training opportunities that lead to permanent jobs.”

The candidates’ emphasis on so-called work readiness frustrates activists and workers. “We don’t need more apprenticeship training—what we need is to be put to work,” says journeywoman Earline Fisher of Harlem, who joined the carpenters’ union in 1996. “When jobs come into the city, [the union bosses] keep us from getting our fair share. They lay off solid black workers after a few weeks and hire some apprentices so they can use that cheap labor. They’ll milk a government job, especially. When big jobs come Long Island will eat, Jersey will eat, but Harlem is not eating.”

What happens to workers once they enter the union system does not seem a high-priority issue in the Bloomberg camp. Bloomberg spokesperson Jordan Barowitz reiterates that besides job training, the mayor’s plan involves “a public-service campaign to attract women and minorities to the construction trades.” The 10-point initiative, he adds, has the support of Congressman Charles Rangel and City Comptroller William Thompson.

Ferrer’s camp provides a more sensitive response but leaves the underlying issue untouched. “The way to move past nepotism and unfair privilege is by offering opportunity to every one,” writes spokesperson Maibe Gonzales. Ferrer’s small- business plan would help minority and women contractors get loans so they could better compete for city contracts, she says.

Easier access to cash would help a carpenter like Fisher, who now runs her own “green building” company, but it doesn’t address the problem of the discrimination she says she’s faced in the union hiring system. And even as apprentice programs create a semi-permanent pool of cheap labor, the activists argue, family connections provide the more fortunate with quick access to good jobs. “Everyone knows,” Haughton says, that white workers get their job training “on the job—at full union pay.”

Accusations of biased hiring practices are nonsense, says Louis Coletti, president of the trades employers’ association. “Contractors are going to take from the union halls the most productive workers they can,” he says. Trades that have historically had problems with racism and sexism are even more carefully monitored by the state department of labor than the rest. “There are criminal and civil penalties for playing games with the [hiring] lists, so I don’t believe anyone would risk that.”

Haughton’s organization, Workers for Infrastructure Revitalization, has been advocating that the city fund a “community hiring hall” just for minorities that would parallel the union hiring system. It’s the best way, he says, to insure that skilled women and nonwhites receive their fair share of work. He says they’ve written Bloomberg letters to this effect but have gotten no response, and though both Ferrer and Bloomberg were invited to a demonstration October 19 in front of City Hall, neither is expected to attend.