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Community and workers join to fight toxic racism in construction

Brian Champ

January 13, 2021

On June 10th, a noose was found attached to the equipment of a worker of African descent on the Michael Garron Hospital construction site operated by EllisDon.  Subsequently, over the next several months a further 5 more nooses were found at different construction sites across Toronto and it should be noted with the exception of 1 site, all the other incidents took place on Union construction sites. As has become clear, far from being an anomaly, violent racist threats directed at workers of African descent have been regular features of construction sites for a long while. Most times it has been kept quiet because the toxic culture of racism, sexism and homophobia intimidates those who would step forward.

But this incident happened a little over 2 weeks after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the subsequent explosions of rage across the US and the world. Here in Toronto, on May 30, ten thousand people marched in the middle of the pandemic to demand justice for Regis Korchinksi-Paquet, a young Afro-Indigenous woman who fell to her death while in police custody. Clearly this movement influenced the workers who were targeted, as they refused to stay silent. This pushed the issue into the light of day, forcing EllisDon and other players in the construction industry to be seen to be taking action.

Unsatisfied by the response of the industry, a group of community activists centred around Old's Cool General Store, a unique corner store near the hospital that has been a community hub for social justice and anti-racist organizing over the past 6 years, organized a fantastic "artivism" event that saw hundreds of anti-racist signs, posters, banners plastered on the hoarding at the MGH site. More actions were organized after nooses were found at construction sites across the city, bringing in broader layers of community activists. This informal network, energized by the influx of activists, became Community Solidarity Against Racism in Construction (CSARC), developing a petition to demand action to address the racism endemic in the construction industry.

At the same time as these community actions were happening, within the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union Local 353 (IBEW L353), which represents 11,000 electricians across central Ontario a group of rank and file electricians formed. These men and women reached out to the IBEW L353 leadership and were told that it “was against the law to question members when there is an open police investigation” and adamantly refused to speak with the brothers and sisters on site regarding the issue. Disappointed and disillusioned, the members could not believe that their union had not taken a clear stand against the racist acts perpetrated against a co-worker of a different union, UA L46 (representing plumbers, steamfitters and welders), even though the IBEW member was being accused of aggressively defending the placing of the nooses to one of the targeted UA L46 members, who is of African-Caribbean descent. Subsequent to this initial incident, a physical altercation occurred between the IBEW L353 member and the UA L46 member that resulted in the IBEW member being banned from all EllisDon sites. The IBEW L353 leadership still took no action.

Kimoy Francique, a woman of Afro-Caribbean descent who is a proud IBEW L353 member with over 15 years in the trade had initially believed that her local leadership would take action. But instead, a local IBEW L353 representative issued platitudes like "there's a lot of things we need to work on, and we're working on them". When a member asked him what a noose represented to him, he answered “it’s just a joke brother, just a joke.” He also outrageously claimed there was nothing they could do because "he didn't say it to one of our members". Kimoy and her brothers and sisters who were appalled and disgusted that no action was taken, met to discuss how to address the problem. Unhappy with the fact that their local union leadership refused to address the issue that it was an IBEW L353 member that spouted the bigot, racist statements and had knowledge of who hung the noose at the UA L46 member work area, started a petition that was ultimately presented on September 18 2020 to President Rob White of IBEW L353.  

It was circulated in IBEW L353 at worksites across Toronto under the headline "Our Unions Must Fight Racism! An Injury to One is an Injury to All!" to call on the local leadership to conduct its own investigation and gather evidence into these allegations in order to hold members accountable for their racism:
"We are calling on IBEW L353 to strike a tribunal, composed of at least 50% members of varied ethnicities, to hear this testimony and to render judgment on the involvement of its member and the nature of the Union's response. Leaving this matter in the hands of the TPS and the contractors—who are presently telling us, “ongoing investigation, stop talking and get back to work” makes IBEW L353's statements against racism empty."

The petition is also noteworthy because it demonstrates a fierce cross-sectional solidarity with the plumbers, steamfitters and welders in UA L46 and the workers of African descent targeted by the nooses, not just because it's the right thing to do, but because this, "threat of lethal racist violence was also an attack against all the union workers on the site, as racism of any sort divides and weakens unions in their struggle to defend their members' rights and working conditions. It is an extra slap in the face that this comes barely a year after UA L46 went on strike to fend off an attack by its contractors that surely would have been visited on the other trades had they not prevailed. An injury to one is an injury to all!”

This refers to the successful strike last year by UA L46 against the demand by their contractors association to increase the regular work week from 37.5 to 40 hours per week saving them overtime outlays and to move to 100% named hiring which would undermine seniority and solidarity in the union. Over 200 signatures were gathered. IBEW L353 members presented the petition that was delivered to the leadership of the union on September 18th. Signatures were also obtained from many members of other construction unions as many workers intensely feel the need for solidarity across the trades at construction sites.

After more nooses were found at the MGH construction site in late September, an in-person protest was held at the entrance to the site on the morning of October 9, organized by activists from CSARC and Toronto East Anti-hate Mobilization (TEAM) and mobilizing community members to demand action to end the racist threats. After reading press coverage of this protest, IBEW L353 anti-racists activists made contact with the CSARC campaign.

The fact that it requires a fight to get the local union leadership to take action against these virulent forms of racism shows the extent to which the culture on construction sites is systematically racist, sexist, homophobic and misogynistic. An alternative, anti-racist leadership needs to be posed to the existing leadership, which is difficult in a union local that is currently 84% white male- up from 1980, when 81% of the IBEW 353 membership was white male. A goal of members of the anti-racist group in IBEW L353 is to form an Electrical Worker Minority Caucus in the local, which would enable BIPOC workers to gain leadership experience and provide a much needed counterbalance to the existing leadership that not only refuses to confront racist threats and violence, but also tolerates and normalizes the culture of racism that permeates the construction industry.

Kimoy has had to struggle against it every day, and at every stage of her career as an electrician. She attended Central Technical high school in downtown Toronto and excelled in her classes. First, she wanted to be a mechanic, then when her friend suggested taking an electrical course she checked it out and was soon obsessed with the field, maintaining Honor roll status while working a part time job. Always within the top percentile of her electrical classes, she was excited to graduate and start her career. After graduating with a Certificate of Technologies from high school, she went to local many non-union construction companies in the area for apprenticeship training and was met with laughter that a woman, especially one of African descent, would work in construction, for them.

She went to the union and they said she had to lift 80 pounds up and 8-foot ladder and she couldn't do it. So, she worked out until she could. But when she went back to see about an apprentice position, they gave another excuse. After taking a few years off she tried again and was surprised to find out that the head of the Joint Apprenticeship Council (JAC) had retired, and new person had taken over. This time she was not given any unfair test to complete and she gained membership into the IBEW L353. But once in, she faced something that women and people of African descent face in the trades: spending their apprenticeship doing menial or office tasks rather than learning the necessary skills of the trade. Kimoy was tasked with cleaning rather than learning the electrical skills she needed. After she got her certificate and went out on jobs, she found that she was asked to do tasks which she did not know how to do. She would be slow and then she would be the first person laid off from the job. The only way she survived was by taking the opportunity to learn new skills on each job, at first only until she was laid off, and finally after years of hard toil found a way to keep her head above water.

And the whole time, the culture that exists on construction sites allows racism, sexism, homophobia and misogyny to persist as a constant presence, often with name calling using the n-word and other oppressive language. If she complained, she would be told she could not take a joke: "suck it up, buttercup" or "there's no crying in construction". And the way electricians get jobs is such that it does not pay to make too many waves. This is because there are two ways to get an electrician assignment: either by being a named hire, or off the list. Contractors hire by name through informal networks of trade union members and employers. For every named hire, the contractor has to hire 2 members from of work list, which allows all members of the local a chance to be hired for upcoming jobs.

But the list is long, and those hired from the list can be laid off later - and many people of African descent  and women can become relegated to the list if they do not have good connections to get hired by name. Furthermore, list hires can only reject 5 jobs before being pushed to the back of the line, meaning electricians may have to take jobs to which they are not suited due to age, physical condition, and specific skillset. While a simple list is inadequate to reflect the varying skills and constraints of electricians in the local, it is preferable to the named hire system that allows contractors more control over the staffing of jobs.

Most people don't have the perseverance and drive that Kimoy possesses; many women and people of African descent don't last 6 months, much less the 15 years that she has put in in the field. But the systematic undermining of her training while an apprentice, all the harassment, name calling, written racist messages has given her an inferiority complex, making her question herself unnecessarily.

And she is upset that she sees the same thing happening to new apprentice hires: she knows of a young woman who has been relegated to office work instead of learning the electricians’ trade. Another young man of African descent is cleaning instead of learning, while young white men follow the normal apprenticeship steps of learning the trade. When a complaint is made, Union Reps often parrot the "suck it up, buttercup" line (with all its sexist and homophobic connotations) and even if the union rep responds appropriately and the problem is rectified, it is only for a few days until no one's watching, and then the young man of African descent goes back to cleaning. Another barrier for women is access to appropriate toilet facilities. Even though the federal Occupational Health and Safety act requires separate toilets for woman and men, rarely are woman-only toilets made available to women who request them. A sick "game" ensues of denying access for women workers to their own toilet facilities, and forcing them to use ones that have been smeared with feces, lack toilet paper and are in a generally disgusting and unsanitary state.

At every step of the way there are barriers for women, people of varied ethnic back grounds, not just those of African descent, and 2SLGBTQIA+ people, both in the hiring mechanisms and in the culture that prevails on construction sites. One of the solutions that has been put forward is for there to be Human Rights Representatives in all unions on construction sites whose job is to respond to complaints around harassment, abuse and exclusion based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. The duty to uphold equity and fairness on worksites would be the prime role of these representatives, accountable to the membership of the union they represent. Each worksite could have a Human Rights committee consisting of the reps from each union on the site. Furthermore, given the fragmentary nature of construction sites, we need more workers in unions across all the trades on construction sites to work together in cross-sectional unity from below to ensure that worksites are safe for women, BIPOC and 2SLGBTQIA+ workers. Ultimately, any guidelines, rules or possible quotas would have to be enforced by activist workers fighting for unity against oppression and for inclusion. Connecting these networks to the community-based movements for racial justice is a path forward towards an anti-racist culture of inclusion.

Police finally act

On a December 7th press release, Toronto Police Services detailed mischief and criminal harassment charges against a member of IBEW L353, Jasan Lahay, for the placing of nooses on the MGH construction site. The release describes these charges as the result of their "hate-motivated mischief and criminal harassment investigation" which calls for appealing to the Attorney General to apply the hate crime designation "if necessary".

Despite this downplaying by the police, it seems necessary to consider these hate crimes when considering the meaning of nooses for people of African descent: it is a threat of racist violence bringing to mind the anti-Black racism of the US South.

IBEW L353 member Kimoy Francique was "insulted as a Canadian of African descent. If it had been a swastika it would have been automatic charge of a hate crime. But when it's perpetrated on people of African descent it's just mischief."

This mirrors the culture on worksites that treats racism "as a joke".

Kimoy added that there "should have been 2 members held accountable" as a union representative on the site downplayed the seriousness of the act when it was drawn to their attention. The failure of the union local leadership to reacted quickly to bring their own members to account for these nooses, leaves it in the hands of the police.

While some union members understandably are calling for the simple expulsion of the perpetrator from the union, Kimoy disagreed. She sent a letter to the union's business manager against this measure, arguing that the union local needed to implement policies and mechanisms to ensure that these racist behaviours are addressed actively, that it was not just down to the behaviour of these workers and that individual workers needed to be given the chance to modify their behaviour before expelling them from the union.

Relying on the police for justice in these cases is problematic given the racist nature of these forces and their role in protecting the rights of bosses to employ scab labour - workers need to develop their own mechanisms to counter racism in the industry, whether by bosses or workers.

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