Bankole: Unions must boost black participation in recovery

Bankole Thompson
Local 80 sheet metal apprentice Alex Elliott, of Wixon, tries her hand on a virtual-welding simulator at the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights School display Wednesday at Cobo Center.

One of the best-kept secrets in this town is that labor has a racial diversity and inclusion problem.

Even though Detroit is often branded the home of labor, it hasn’t translated into a full embrace of racial diversity within the leadership of many labor organizations. Most of them remain the exclusive domain of white men even as blacks remain a core and reliable voting bloc of the labor movement.

A report to the American Bar Association more than a decade ago recognized that inclusion has been a sticking point among unions in the nation.

“The AFL-CIO has taken additional steps to change the composition of its governing bodies to more closely resemble the racial and gender diversity of its membership. The federation’s Executive Council expanded to include elected representatives of the constituency groups as well as other elected union representatives. The federation strongly supported studies examining leadership paths within unions and recommending policy changes within affiliated unions, as well as the federation itself,” the report noted about the AFL-CIO’s own woes with diversity.

I once asked a prominent African-American political activist when the United Auto Workers will have its first black president; the individual looked sternly into my face and had no answer. It was an ironic exchange because even though union leaders like to beat up on conservatives during elections by accusing them of frowning upon racial diversity, they themselves have not had a very good record either.

The ugly fact about labor’s own tap dance around racial diversity issues even, as blacks continue to deliver the votes consistently for them during elections, is the reason I’m waiting to see who truly benefits from the $30 million skilled trades training center to be built on the city’s west side.

The announcement of a new center, expected to train up to 1,500 students per year by the Michigan Statewide Carpenters and Millwrights Joint Apprenticeship and Training Fund together with Mayor Mike Duggan, is being heralded as a ray of hope in Detroit’s complicated comeback.

If the program doesn’t have significant participation of black students, then the objective of the project as an anchor of economic empowerment at this crucial juncture in Detroit’s history will be defeated. Even the mayor himself acknowledged during the press briefing about the center that the skilled trades hasn’t been open to people of color.

“The reality is that men and women of color have not felt welcome in a range of trades,” Duggan said last week.

The Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights indicated that it wants to ensure that 25 percent of all apprentices during the first year are all Detroit students who will be earning $16 an hour, plus benefits. That is their goal. But in my estimation, they need to move beyond that lower threshold and set the goal at 40 percent.


Labor should lead by example. They’ve always made economic justice the anchor of their campaigns for political reforms and to create a better life for their members.

Detroit is ground zero of the economic equality fight as it undergoes a recovery that by any reasonable standard has proven to be uneven. Given the unacceptable levels of poverty in the city, 25 percent is not an impressive goal for any initiative that should be viewed as some form of a social and educational institution designed to economically empower young Detroiters.  

Consider the fact that the students who would benefit from such a program are coming from mostly disadvantaged backgrounds. If the state’s largest skilled trades union wants to have a bigger and positive impact on the revitalization by helping students who have the odds stacked against them, it would push for a higher participation rate among Detroiters in the first year.

In doing so it would be increasing much needed diversity in the lucrative construction industry. The history of union construction industry in this nation, is one that is fraught with a lot of racial diversity problems.

In fact, a 2017 report from the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute noted how most union construction workers historically did not pass through apprenticeship programs because they depended on family and friendship relations. The practice of “informal hiring and training structure perpetuated exclusionary ‘whites-only’ hiring and training practices,” in the construction industry, according to the EPI.

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