Friday, March 14, 2008
Construction company pits workers against each other
In a brutally racist and systematic divide-and-conquer campaign, the multi-billion-dollar construction company AIMCO tried to pit Black and Latino workers against each other at a major San Francisco construction project late last year.
The workers, realizing they were all being abused, have joined together in a truly inspiring display of solidarity. Twenty-seven plaintiffs have filed a lawsuit against AIMCO and its contractors for flagrant wage violations and rampant employment discrimination.
On Feb. 28, the workers gave harrowing testimony of their mistreatment at a San Francisco County Board of Supervisors hearing. The City and County of San Francisco are ultimately responsible for what has taken place, since they give the stamp of approval on housing and construction projects.
Thousands of working-class homes and apartments have been demolished by the city’s racist redevelopment programs. The famous Fillmore district was gutted in the 1970s and the African American population has dropped from 17 percent to less than 7 percent today. The trend continues.
When AIMCO bosses began the housing construction last August, they methodically turned down virtually all African American job applicants, even though those who spoke at the hearing had 20 to 30 years of experience each as journeymen.
In a pattern similar to other cities such as New Orleans, Latino immigrant workers were chosen to fill the jobs in the Bayview because the company foremen thought they could get away with extra exploitation.
Struggle tears down racist divisions
But after a young Black worker, Greg Hall, started circulating a petition on his own, the handful of African American workers and the Latinos joined together.
They sat side-by-side at the hearing, held in Spanish and English. Most of the testimony was very emotional; some men cried speaking of the abuse and humiliation they felt.
Charles Chilton, a Black construction worker with 30 years of experience, told supervisors: "When we were hired, they set us up to fail. After 30 minutes of work on a scaffolding, I was terminated."
Randy Keys, another Black worker, was hired as a foreman. He testified that Ernesto, a contractor, said to him, "‘You take care of all the Blacks.’ I told him, ‘If I am foreman, I have to take care of all the workers.’ He told me, ‘If you don’t like it, you get off my f—ing job.’"
Sexto Rodriguez, hired in August, testified in Spanish. He told the Board of Supervisors: "I was paid $24 an hour, but my pay was supposed to be $32 an hour. I was treated very badly on the job. The company would take $100 from my paycheck each week. Then my son became very ill and had an emergency operation. I asked them if they could please not deduct money for a few weeks so I could take care of him. The company said they didn’t care, that in three weeks they were going to double the deduction."
Some Latino workers had up to $400 stolen from their paychecks each week. The foremen would forge their checks at corner stores, give them only a portion in cash, and pocket the rest.
Renee Saucedo, director of the Day Labor Program and community activist, translated a worker’s testimony. He said the Latino workers were rounded up in meetings, and told by AIMCO bosses that if they did not speed up and work faster than the "n—r," they would be run off the job, too.
Racism behind gentrification, exploitation
Bayview-Hunter’s Point, a historically African American community near the San Francisco Bay, has been hard hit by the city’s major urban "renewal" projects. Indeed, urban "removal" would better describe them, as neighborhoods have been gutted for high-priced development and residents driven out by skyrocketing housing prices.
When the massive construction project began at full speed last August, only Latino immigrant workers were hired, at a fraction of the normal union wage. Black workers, mostly skilled construction journeymen, were systematically denied jobs.
André, a Black man with more than 30 years’ experience as a carpenter, was one of the applicants rejected. "I applied several times, but they kept refusing me work," he said. "Finally, a representative of the city accompanied me to the worksite and the company promised him they would hire me. But once she left, I never got hired."
At first, there was understandable resentment by the members of the Black community against the Latino workers, since Black workers were excluded from jobs in their own neighborhood.
One young man who spoke at the Supervisors’ hearing shouted that the city’s neglect of the situation contributed to the divisions. "You almost caused a race riot!" He asked how could young men in the neighborhood help their families when they are denied jobs.
Another young man said, "At first we were angry at the Latino workers, but when we saw they were being screwed like us, we realized we’re brothers. Now we love them!" to cheers from all his co-workers.
Fausto Aguilar, a Mexican construction worker, spoke for himself and his two sons in Spanish. "This is so wrong how our African American brothers have been treated. We don’t like this." He then told a touching story. He was working on a job site with several family members in Oakland when a young African American worker asked after a few days, if he would be his father. Aguilar said, "Of course I’ll be your father. ... He invited me to his wedding. He was like my son."
When Aguilar went back to sit down, the Black workers got up to hug him.
A Black resident from Shoreview apartments in the Bayview testified to the deceitful promises that were made.
"I was involved when the whole process [of the construction project] started," he said. "We were promised that a certain percentage of jobs would be reserved for the residents. ... We went to every agency that we were told to register with. Then when the work started winding down, a few of us were given very low-paying jobs. I was supposed to make $24, but they only offered $14."
The workers met again on March 13 at a Bayview community meeting. Their next stop is the State Capitol, where they will speak with legislators in Sacramento. Representatives of the ANSWER Coalition (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) attended the hearing and meeting to express their solidarity.
Despite ongoing attempts by AIMCO to stave off the lawsuit and community support, it is clear that the workers will not be divided this time. Their unity and solidarity, forged in the heat of the struggle, is now hard as steel.
Source: Party for Socialism and Liberation
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