Construction unions push for job site culture shift


Two years ago on May 20, a noose was hung on a downtown Portland construction site. The incident, and its aftermath, sparked a local construction industry push to combat racism and sexism in job site culture. Several unions have implemented anti-harassment training since then, and one enacted a policy in which offending members are suspended and retrained. 

The initiative known as Safe from Hate began after a UA Local 290 apprentice, a woman of color, came across the noose when she arrived at work on a public construction project at Southwest Fourth and Montgomery. She reported it, but got little response from foremen working for her employer TCM or for general contractor Andersen Construction. Weeks later, after trying to follow up with higher-ups and being brushed off, she contacted Oregon Tradeswomen, a nonprofit that recruits and prepares women to enter skilled trades. In summer 2020, Oregon Tradeswomen set in motion what became an informal Safe from Hate Alliance, based on an industry-wide pledge to cultivate a respectful workplace, safe from hate, racism, sexism, discrimination, harassment, and bullying.

Oregon Tradeswomen worked with unions, general contractors, public project owners and other groups to develop the job site safety culture pledge. The pledge commits signers to enforce a zero-tolerance policy when workers initiate or fail to report job site discrimination. It also commits them to hold job site trainings fostering a positive work environment and to hire a diverse workforce and to get more minority workers into leadership positions. 

Sixty-three organizations signed the pledge, including eight unions: United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 290, IBEW Local 48, Boilermakers, Carpenters, Ironworkers Local 29, the Laborers, Painters, and Operating Engineers Local 701. A number of employers and contractors’ associations are also signatory.

How signers fulfill the pledge is largely up to each organization.

Laborers Local 737 is implementing an anti-harassment training for all members. The training, approved by the Bureau of Labor Industries (BOLI), is offered by instructors at the union’s joint apprenticeship training center. Nearly 400 members have gone through it so far.

IBEW Local 48 has introduced a RISE (Respect, Inclusion, Safety, Equity) training at the IBEW-NECA training center, facilitated by Oregon Tradeswomen. 

The Pacific Northwest Carpenters Institute developed a Positive Jobsite Culture training program focusing on unconscious bias and the impact of bullying and hazing, and tools to respond to those on the job.

Respectful workplace training programs, such as the RISE Training, are being used on major public construction projects including the City of Portland’s under-construction Columbia Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The attention may have led construction managers to take concerns about workplace culture more seriously. In December 2020, a noose was found on a Hoffman Construction job at Intel. The worker who tied it, a Painters union member, was removed from the job and banned from the site the same day the noose was found.

On June 23, the Safe from Hate Alliance will hold a summit meeting to present progress and highlight the four pillars of the pledge. Attendees can register at Signers will report on what they’re doing to fulfill the pledge in a document to be shared online with other signers.

Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 290 try new approach

In the two years since the noose incident that started the conversation, the region’s largest construction trade union has made a particularly bold push for workplace behavior change.

UA Local 290 had already formed a diversity committee, shortly after Lou Christian was elected business manager in 2018. By the time the Local 290 apprentice discovered the noose in 2020, the committee had been meeting to discuss in-house changes fostering diversity.

UA 290 leaders examined how discriminatory conduct was treated in the local. They found that workers who were terminated from a job for misconduct would simply sign the “out of work” list and go to work for a different union employer.

“In a lot of cases, there was very little repercussion other than that they could not work for that contractor for a specified period of time,” Christian told the Labor Press.

The misconduct included racist behavior, sexual harassment, bullying, and more.

UA Local 290 already had language in its hiring hall rules covering egregious conduct by members. If behavior was deemed detrimental to the owner/contractor relationship, the union could require training before a member could be re-dispatched. So after the noose incident, UA Local 290 began applying that mandatory training to harassment cases.

Now, when a member is fired from a job for egregious conduct, union leadership is notified and the worker is suspended from the Local 290 hiring hall list during an investigation. Once that concludes and the facts are verified, the hiring hall agent decides an appropriate remedy. Typically, that’s a “respectful workplace” training, funded jointly by the union and contractors’ association.

Local 290 works with two consulting firms that put on workplace training classes that address why harassing behavior is not appropriate. UA Local 290 also suspends members for periods ranging from 30 days up to a year.

“That is a very, very serious penalty, and they’re not just going to come back in the hiring hall and go out for somebody different,” Christian said.

After the training and penalty period, the worker is eligible to return to work. In the last two years, seven Local 290 members have gone through this process. None have had repeat offenses. There’s also an appeal process, and one member filed a case with the National Labor Relations Board, but the finding was upheld.

Kelly Haines, a senior project manager at the workforce development nonprofit Worksystems, has helped organize the Safe from Hate effort from the beginning. She says the UA Local 290 program is a great example of holding workers accountable for their conduct in a productive way. It aims to stop the conduct through behavior change, rather than passing the problem along to another job site.

“That’s a super tangible thing that unions can do to intervene and work with their members,” Haines said. 

At least one other union, Laborers 737, is finalizing its own policy changes around worker dispatch.

Christian stressed that the local’s work is far from complete. UA Local 290 is preparing a respectful workplace training program for apprentices, looking to ensure the next generation of workers come into the job with a respectful mindset.

“We want to make it a culture where we go to work, we do our jobs, we respect each other, and people feel that it’s a safe place to work,” Christian said. “That is going to take a lot of work, and continued work.”



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