By Don McIntosh
Culture change is coming. At least, that’s the goal of a broad construction industry coalition that’s begun to meet monthly to talk about ending racial and sexual harassment on Portland-area construction job sites.
Conceived last summer after a noose incident on a downtown Portland construction site, the Safe From Hate effort brings together union leaders, general contractors, public agency construction project owners, trade groups, and pre-apprentice training program leaders. More than 60 of them took part in a Dec. 3 Zoom meeting, the group’s third monthly summit, and firmed up a steering committee with representatives from each sector. The goal—outlined in a job site culture pledge—is to cultivate a respectful workplace, safe from hate, racism, sexism, discrimination, harassment, and bullying.
Construction has historically had an overwhelmingly male and white workforce. In recent years, many local unions have been working to recruit women and minorities into the building trades as apprentices. But coalition members say that work can’t bear fruit if the industry doesn’t also do more to retain them once they get onto the job.
“We invest in preparatory training,” says Worksystems Inc. project manager Kelly Haines, who administers funds to develop the construction workforce. “If we’re sending people to a hostile industry and they can’t stick around for more than a couple weeks, then it’s a lost investment.”
Construction union business managers—elected to defend members and promote job opportunities— say when members mistreat other members, that violates the oaths they took when they joined. Unions want members to take pride in their work, set the industry’s highest standards for professionalism, and treat fellow members like brothers and sisters.
The idea with Safe From Hate is to repeat the culture change success that the construction industry earlier achieved with safety. Several decades ago, taking safety precautions could be seen as cowardly; today, it’s a top priority of every union apprentice training center, and proper use of safety harnesses, respirators, and other tools is seen as a sign of professionalism. As a result, accidents and fatalities on construction sites have dropped dramatically in the last few decades.
Nooses, casual use of the “n” word, and sexual assault may not be everyday occurrences on construction sites. But they’re not rare, either.
In September, swastikas and drawings demeaning to women were found in a porta-potty at an Adidas construction site in Portland.
“There’s a problem in the industry as a whole,” says Laborers Local 737 Business Manager Zach Culver. “It’s been a longstanding problem. It’s our job as leaders to step up and be leaders and not turn a blind eye.”
Union employers — and unions — are trying to get the word out that conduct like that will no longer be tolerated.
Laborers Local 737, for example, is letting its 2,800 members know that the union won’t be protecting those who harass others on the job.
“Our union constitution and our collective bargaining agreements don’t protect that kind of behavior,” Culver said.
Lauri Rollings, executive director of the union-signatory Plumbing and Mechanical Contractors Association of Oregon (PMCA), developed a webinar for PMCA contractors with a protocol for handling future incidents like the noose that was found by a Plumbers and Fitters Local 290 apprentice in May. She’s also been working with leaders of Local 290 to promote a more positive job site culture. The joint effort may begin with “respectful workplace” trainings for all members. PMCA and Local 290 are also talking about ways to intervene more effectively with members who perpetrate abusive behavior. In recent months, Rollings said, one Local 290 member was fired for using the “n” word on a job site, and another was fired for a homophobic remark to a fellow member. But when members are fired for harassment, they go back to the hiring hall and get dispatched to another employer.
“That means the same problematic behavior potentially creates liability for the next contractor,” Rollings told the Labor Press. To address that, PMCA and Local 290 are discussing ways to train and counsel offenders.
“It would be more one-on-one than a typical diversity training,” Rollings said. “We want to make sure we’re counseling why it’s important to behave respectfully toward co-workers.”
Via Zoom, Local 290 held a four-morning 16-hour training over two weekends in July, with both union leaders and contractors in attendance. Another training took place in November. The trainings were led by longtime labor lawyer Barbara Diamond and her associate Marina Moro. Diamond has been holding workshops on implicit bias and microaggression theory since 2012.
“We start by talking about peoples childhood,” Diamond told the Labor Press. “People haven’t communicated well with each other about what their life experience has been.”
Diamond, who since retired from her law practice, is hopeful progress can be made. What’s now considered sexual harassment was once just assumed to be how women would be treated in the workplace, until it gradually became unacceptable, Diamond said.
One training Safe From Hate is considering promoting industry-wide is a program called Green Dot. Used by general contractor Hoffman Construction on the recently completed Multnomah County Courthouse project, it trains bystanders to intervene when one worker harasses another.
“It took us 20 years to get safety where it is today,” says Penny Painter, a 20-year carpenter who now manages the BOLI-Oregon Department of Transportation Workforce Program. “The culture in the construction industry is not going to change overnight. However it is going to change. Those that want it to happen are ecstatic about this work being done. And those that don’t might want to think about getting on board.”
Safe from Hate Job Site Culture Pledge
- Training Signers will implement positive job site culture training for all current employees and/ or union members within six months. All employees, including supervisors and managers, journeymen and apprentices will receive the training, and unions will provide journey worker “upgrade” trainings.
- Zero tolerance Employers will work with labor partners, subcontractors, and others to hold accountable any employee who instigates, supports, or fails to report job site incidents. Employers will communicate clear protocols and enforce real consequences, including suspension and termination after prompt and thorough investigation.
[MORE: See the complete pledge, and signers, here.]