Union Recruitment of Minority and Women Workers

Published September 29th, 2014 -  - 09.29.143


As the country recovers from the Great Recession, an increasing number of unions have turned their attention to those left behind by the recovery. In particular, many unions are now developing programs to attract and train minority and women workers. These programs provide “students” with skills and a job and employers with trained employees. While some of these programs predate the recession of 2008, many have been formed more recently to assist minority and women workers, the most vulnerable members of the workforce and those disproportionately harmed by the recession. This piece highlights two examples of recent efforts to incorporate minority and women workers into the workforce.

One example is United Here Local 26, a hospitality workers’ union that represents about 7,000 workers in Boston. Union members staff hotels, university dining halls, restaurants, and even Logan International Airport. This summer, Local 26 launched a program to reach out to the African-American community in an effort to diversify the hospitality industry. The program is in part an effort to bring jobs to minority and low-income communities, which have been disproportionately hurt by the economic downturn. In 2013, the unemployment rate among blacks was 10.6% in Massachusetts, while the rate was 6.6% for whites, and 7% for all workers. According to the 2010 Census, nearly 25% of Boston residents are black.

The program centers on workforce development and job-preparedness. Students are first selected through interviews and drug testing. Once the union recruits selected “students,” it puts the students in a four-week classroom course on hospitality training. Successful completion of the course involves job shadowing, and allows students to learn hands-on skills at some of Boston’s best hotels. After graduating, the students become full-fledged union employees and are placed into hotel jobs. These jobs normally pay about $18 an hour, and workers have access to low-cost health care, paid vacation and sick time, pensions and 401(k)s, and housing and legal services.

However, the program is not without its costs. Although the student-employees do not have to pay for training, Local 26 must pay $3,600 to $4,200 per person. Because these programs are so expensive, unions often cannot shoulder the costs themselves. Local 26 has applied to the city of Boston for funding.

Another example is Building Pathways, a program devised by the Building and Construction Trades Council of the Metropolitan District to attract “nontraditional” employees to the plumbing, painting, and other construction trades. Though open to all who wish to apply, the program expressly states that “[w]omen and minorities are encouraged to apply.”

Other examples of unions increasing recruitment for low-income communities either by themselves or in conjunction with other groups include the Green Justice Coalition and the project-specific “priority apprenticeship program” that was created in conjunction with the Sacramento-Sierra Building and Construction Trades Council.

The federal government encourages similar apprenticeship programs. Apprenticeship programs usually also involve classroom instruction and hands-on training, but they are paid. Passed in 1937, the National Apprenticeship Act §50 states that “[t]he Secretary of Labor is authorized and directed to . . . to bring together employers and labor for the formulation of programs of apprenticeship.” Lastly, states also support such programs. For example, the Massachusetts government’s website links to a guide for apprenticeships in the building and construction industries complete with application timelines.

Despite these gains, union programs and apprenticeships have a long way to go in achieving a critical mass of minority and women workers. In a December 2013 report, the Center for American Progress (CAP) states that the “percentage of low-skill workers who received employer-provided training between 1995 and 2001 dropped from 22 percent to 20 percent,” while increasing resources were used to train those with a bachelor’s degree. Unions have played an important part, and “joint programs with union participation have higher enrollments of women and people of color and significantly better performances as measured by attrition and completion rates.” Thus, the decline in union membership also means a decline in quality training programs.

Moreover, although some programs hope to draw in more women, the majority of the nation’s more than 1,000 apprenticeable occupations are in “traditional, male-dominated fields.” CAP notes that women made up only 6% of the active apprentices in the U.S. in 2012. The top ten apprenticed occupations in 2012 were traditional skilled trades such as carpentry, plumbing, construction, and pipefitting. These statistics are in stark contrast to those in England, where women made up the majority of new apprentices in 2012, primarily due to the inclusion of service sectors such as business administration and retail.

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