Despite Arthur Tucker’s 17 years of construction experience, people often assume he’s an unskilled laborer. He rarely gets hired to complete the more lucrative “gravy work,” or finishing touches, on a project. Arthur Tucker is black. He thinks this might be why.
Though Tucker didn’t attend City Hall’s public hearing on minority construction hiring in early March, he was represented in absentia by a full house of people with similar complaints. In an impassioned and unexpected twist, these minority construction workers pitted themselves against a woman who has done more to help them find jobs in New Haven over the past six years than anyone has in the city’s recent history.
ew Haven’s Commission on Equal Opportunities is located in a bustling City Hall office that has long been too small for its occupants. Nichole Jefferson, president of the CEO, has tucked pitchers of fake flowers between the heaps of paper that cover her office. As she plucks bulging files from the visual chaos, it is clear that she loves her job and does it well.
The Commission-though founded in 1964, and one of the oldest municipal civil rights agencies in the country-has not always hummed as it does now. Before Jefferson was hired in 2001, she says, “nobody ever did anything. Zero, zip, zilp, blah, blah, blah.” With only five staff members, Jefferson notes, “the office didn’t really have a clear mission.” Now, the CEO investigates employment discrimination, enforces construction contracts, and inspects sites to ensure regulations are being followed. During Jefferson’s second year on the job, the CEO conducted 508 inspections. Last year, it completed 1,061.
In addition to these duties, Jefferson runs a construction training program that was transferred to her office after its rocky start at the Workforce Alliance. Between 1999, when the Construction Workforce Initiative began, and 2001, when Jefferson took the reins, less than one hundred residents graduated from the program. This tally was surpassed within the first year of Jefferson’s tenure. Ideally, CWI graduates are matched with contractors working on City projects, a set-up that benefits all parties-the minorities need jobs and the contractors need minorities-as New Haven law mandates that 25% of the hours spent on City-funded construction projects must be logged by minority workers. Jefferson also assumed control of the previously un-enforced Project Labor Agreement, which states that 25% of the hours spent on city construction projects must be completed by New Haven union workers. In yet another gesture of confidence last fall, the City gave her office employment supervision duties at all New Haven Housing Authority worksites.
Six years after these structural shifts, the CEO has pushed New Haven contractors’ minority hiring rates higher than any other city in Connecticut. Countless people have received training and landed well-paying construction jobs through Jefferson’s office. So why do so many minorities still feel that they can’t get or keep jobs because of their race?
iscrimination is everywhere,” Jefferson says, her face framed by letters hanging in her window that spell out “INTEGRITY.” “It’s in this building, it’s on this floor-but you’ve got to have proof.” Though her office receives myriad casual inquiries into what constitutes discrimination, only about ten formal complaints are filed each year. Jefferson constantly meets with people who fume about racist employers, and she often believes them. But if workers won’t divulge their names, much less the details of their experiences, she can do nothing.
“I only deal in facts,” Jefferson explains. “When you discriminate against someone, you gotta be able to prove it. You have to have facts, write down times, have witnesses-you gotta give me some ammunition.”
She has facts on the disgruntled workers who complained about discrimination at the public hearing, and they aren’t pretty. One black woman who claimed she was laid off for no reason has a history of drug abuse, and Jefferson wouldn’t be surprised if she’d begun using again. Another African-American man, also recently laid off, was blacklisted by his union for evading its educational requirements. Jefferson dug up payrolls to prove that another worker, who’d passionately argued that black men were being laid off a particular project once the contractors had filled their quota, had been flat-out lying. She knew these details all along but didn’t think them appropriate to announce to the crowd. “It would be black people against black people,” she says, “and I don’t want to do that.”
Instead, Jefferson hinted at these issues in a more general way, reminding those at the hearing that “everybody is not going to be a perfect employee. The people who are constantly laid off, it’s usually not about race-it’s about being a bad employee.”
Jimmy, the white foreman of a plumbing subcontractor working on the construction of a Fair Haven school, confirmed this trend-he usually lays people off when they don’t show up to work or do as he asks. That’s not to say that he’s never been accused of discrimination. He once addressed a black employee as “boy,” which caused a stir despite the fact that Jimmy said it “in the way I wanted to say it because he was younger than I was.”
An important component of the CEO inspections includes confidential interviews with minority workers to verify that they are paid and treated appropriately. Lisa Mu�iz and Hope Davis, CEO inspectors, confirmed that a recent CWI graduate who’d begun working under Jimmy on the Fair Haven project only a couple of weeks before hadn’t experienced any unfair treatment. Mu�iz and Davis filed a report for the CEO records, adding to Jefferson’s currency of “facts.” When discrepancies are found, the CEO calls in the contractors and, if necessary, enforces fines or takes legal action.
lan Felder, a local subcontractor, does not deny that Jefferson and her office have provided New Haven minorities with a slew of opportunities. But he feels that black men in particular are slipping through major holes in the city’s construction policy. Born and raised in New Haven, Felder has 22 years of plumbing experience. His small subcontracting company is folding, however, as Felder focuses his energy on Man-Up, a new advocacy organization for African-American men working in construction. Man-Up hopes to instill a moral obligation in New Haven construction firms to hire black residents and to better integrate themselves into the community-a lofty goal. On a practical level, the organization plans to act as a community that trains and supports black men trying to gain upward mobility in the construction industry.
A couple of days before the City Hall hearing, Felder staged a rally at a large, privately-funded construction site in Westville. He protested the project’s lack of minority subcontractors and accused the general contractor of hiring illegal Mexican workers instead of black New Haven residents.
For Man-Up members, the Westville site exemplifies a primary flaw in city regulations: as a private development, it is not subject to any minority or resident quotas. The CEO does not supervise it and, according to Felder, this means that this project and others like it get away with hiring illegal immigrants in the place of black New Haven residents.
Another of Man-Up’s grievances centers on the difficulties black men face in climbing the construction salary ladder. Felder does not deny that black laborers can generally find work through the CEO. But Felder is not a laborer-he’s a subcontractor. There are no minority quotas on the subcontracting level, and despite the efforts of New Haven’s Small Business Initiative, he feels that it is next to impossible for small, black-owned operations to survive.
efferson, though busy enough preventing discrimination on a labor level, understands the problems Felder confronts. She says the minorities at the hearing “needed someone to be angry with. And I understand-I’m passionate about my job.”
Lowering her voice to a maternal murmur, she reveals that their anger, and Tucker’s anger, and Felder’s anger, stem from the same source: an inability to reach the “next level.” Whether the wall that stands between them and this goal is racial, attitudinal, political, or an indissoluble mixture of the three is debatable. But after the rally and the hearing and six years of Jefferson’s tireless supervision, New Haven is beginning to contemplate tearing it down.