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Despite rulings, black pipe fitters say Local 597 discriminates

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Updated: January 23, 2014 6:27AM

Chicago often is called a union town.

That implies that the little guys here successfully stand together against the corporate honchos.

But historically, black union members have alleged that racial discrimination is allowed to run rampant among the union ranks.

Over the years, federal lawsuits were filed. Consent decrees were ordered. Monitors were called in. Big settlements were paid out.

Yet the problem is still entrenched.

In the summer of 2012, 87-year-old retired businessman Ed Gardner became so frustrated after seeing only white workers at a construction site at 95th and Western, he led a weekslong street protest.

When it was over, only a handful of black construction workers found work at the site.

Now plaintiffs in a class-action suit filed in 2012 against Local 597 of the Pipe Fitters Association are hoping the issue gets fresh traction. The case is in the discovery phase, and it could take years to wind its way through federal court.

“I used to go down to the union hall and would be there from opening to closing,” said Donald Gayles, 64, who joined the union in 1974 and again in 1999.

“White workers would come in and get their jobs and leave out, and black workers would still be sitting there,” he said.

The eight black former members of Local 597 allege, in part, that they received fewer work hours overall compared with white pipe fitters of comparable qualifications; that they were the last hired and the first fired from jobs; and that when they do receive referrals, they are disproportionately for short-term jobs or otherwise undesirable jobs.

“Local 597 is one of the most racially segregated institutions I have ever come across in my career as a plaintiff’s employment discrimination lawyer,” says Jamie S. Franklin, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs.

Johnson & Krol, LLC, attorneys for Pipe Fitters Association Local Union 597, declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

A federal judge recently dismissed Mechanical Contractors Association of Chicago from the lawsuit.

When it comes to race relations, Local Union 597 has a sullied past.

In 1973, the feds forced the union to enter into a consent decree, known as the “Chicago Plan” that required it to increase its black membership to 1,145.

But the union never reached that goal, taking in just 455 black pipe fitters before the numbers began to dwindle.

In 1984, Frank Daniels, a black pipe fitter, prevailed in a lawsuit in which he alleged “the atmosphere at Local 597 was racially hostile and that the job referral system was operated in a way that excluded black pipe fitters almost entirely,” according to the class-action suit.

At that time, the late U.S. District Court Judge Frank J. McGarr, the son of a Chicago plumber, found that the union’s “word-of-mouth” referral system rarely benefited blacks.

“Local 597 is incapable of assigning jobs in a racially free manner because it continually reverts to its decades-old practice of word of mouth referrals, and a failure to refer blacks or to inform blacks of work available,” McGarr wrote in a 60-page memorandum of opinion.

Today, only 215, or 3.2 percent, of the union’s 6,750 active members are black — six more than it had in 1973 when the federal government stepped in.

Harry Alford, president and CEO of the D.C.-based National Black Chamber of Commerce, said when former Mayor Richard M. Daley was competing for the 2016 Olympics, he urged the committee not to select Chicago because of its trade unions.

“There was a certainty there would be discrimination against blacks during the buildup for the Olympics,” Alford said.

“If you are a black pipe fitter or a roofer or a steel worker, it is worst because of the high wages,” he said.

The current pay rate for pipe fitters is $45.05 an hour.

Ronald Bouie, 55, was a member of the union from 1986 until 2012. Although he taught at the union’s training facilities, he did not get referrals that matched those of white pipe fitters with lesser skills, according to the complaint.

“I have worked with guys that have made in excess of $150,000 per year, and I have never come close to that,” said Bouie, who now is on disability.

Part of the problem is that certain union jobs get passed down through the generations, according to James Wolfinger, an associate professor at DePaul University and an expert on the labor movement.

“These are good, working-class jobs, which are harder and harder to find. There is this notion that if this opportunity is for more people, that is a zero-sum game,” Wolfinger said.

Plaintiff Duane Porter, who entered Local 597’s apprenticeship program in 1996, says he was completely shut out of all access to jobs between 2003 and 2004, and in 2010 received only 20 hours.

“When white pipe fitters were calling around and getting hired right on the spot with a phone call, I had to live in a box,” Porter said.

“The reason for this lawsuit is to create change in that union because everybody has to have a chance to make it. If we could give teenage boys graduating out of high school a chance of making that kind of scale pay, do you think there would really be this much crime?” he asked.


Twitter: @MaryMitchellCST

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