In clipped chants that reveal the accents from their native country, a group of Chinese construction workers stand outside New York University’s Bobst Library – as they have for nearly six months – chanting “No Racism, Fair Employment Now.”
Through weekly street protests, letter writing, and student-organized teach-ins, the group is trying to pressure NYU and building contractors to hire Chinese workers who claim that racism has shut them out of jobs building a $35 million university dormitory. Last month, the Chinese Construction Workers Association here filed discrimination charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against NYU and the project’s contractors.
“Though NYU doesn’t directly employ anyone, they are the developer, they’re the boss, and they have a legal and moral responsibility to guarantee fair employment,” says Kwong Hui of the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association, a local group that has led a series of campaigns against garment sweatshops. “By doing nothing, they are condoning racism.”
NYU counters that hiring decisions at this site, or any other construction site, are a matter between the contractor, Plaza Construction, and the various labor unions chosen to do the job.
FRICTION between minorities and American big-city construction unions is not new. In the 1970s, the federal government set up programs requiring unions that worked on federal projects to boost minority membership. But the programs collapsed because of union resistance and the distaste of Republican administrations for enforcing minority-hiring goals.
“This has been a way of life in the construction trades for a very long time. NYU is just the latest case,” says Jim Haughton, who heads Harlem Fight Back, a group that began organizing black construction workers in the early 1960s.
The role of racism in hiring was documented in a landmark 1993 study by the New York City Commission on Human Rights that examined the construction trades. The report found underrepresentation of minorities in trade unions greatest among Asians and Latinos. The report also said that white male workers routinely became union members after working at a job site for one to four weeks, while minorities often spend four or five years in an apprenticeship program.
But Eddie Malloy, president of the N.Y.C. Building and Construction Trades Council, says charges of racism are empty. Mr. Malloy says some 41 percent of those enrolled in city apprenticeship programs are minorities, and that Chinese community groups have failed to inform their members about the program.
“We’ve had debates on this, and unfortunately some people still like to beat that drum,” he says. “That the Asian community is not represented proportionately in the building construction trades, I don’t believe is a fault of ours.”
But last summer, Wayne Wong, a carpenter and member of his trade union, approached a Plaza Construction foreman at the job site and was told: “It’s not your time.” Plaza Construction officials declined to be interviewed for this article.
For workers from the city’s expanding Chinatown neighborhood, finding a job in construction is one way to break out of the cycle of low-paying employment in restaurants and sweatshops.
“Those people who are in Chinatown today realize the limitations of working in their neighborhood – you work in restaurants, you work in garments, you will never learn English and never get out,” says Peter Kwong, author of a book on Chinese immigrants and American labor. “This is not simply a legal case, or job issue; for these workers, this is a historic mission.”
Until a decision is reached by the NLRB, Mr. Hui plans to continue the rallies at the university and lead workers to city construction sites in search of jobs. “This isn’t about whether these workers are union or nonunion,” he says. “It’s about them being Chinese.”