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These days, office buildings and condos sprout faster than grass. So why isn’t there more work for black hard hats?

Photographs by Darrow Montgomery

With all the cranes competing for skyline space with the Washington Monument, David Mincey, 52, figured work in D.C. wouldn’t be hard to find. Mincey has been a carpenter for 30 years. He has built and remodeled houses. He can draft blueprints. His going rate is $40 per hour. His kids are all grown, but he still has to support himself. And lately that hasn’t been easy. “I catch what I can,” he says.

Mincey hasn’t exactly been slacking off, either. About a month ago, he set out each morning for about a week with a neighbor for construction sites in the District. They hit a spot on Good Hope Road SE, where KSI Services Inc. is building Woodmont Crossing, an apartment complex. The man in the trailer there told Mincey they weren’t hiring. The next day, Mincey and his friend went to Howard Road SE, where Bank of America is financing the construction of some new homes. No openings there, either. Then they tried over at 6th and Chesapeake Streets SE, where some apartment buildings are being renovated, but the project manager there told them they weren’t ready to hire anyone yet. Finally, the two stopped at the East of the River Community Development Corp. office to see what job opportunities might be coming through the pipeline. Again, nothing.

“I was upset about it. I just couldn’t understand how could people be building in Southeast and people aren’t getting jobs. They’re just foolin’ with people in Southeast,” says Mincey, who also failed to find work at a couple of sites around Chinatown. In all, he pressed his case at nine sites.

Mincey is a black man, and his tale is far from exceptional. Construction sites around town have turned toward nonunion labor over the past 20 years, in a trend that has all but banished skilled and unskilled African-American workers from local hard-hat areas. So guys like Mincey experience the construction industry these days from the wrong side of the fence. “No explanation. They just say, ‘No, we’re not hiring.’ Then you ride back and see all the Hispanics working, but no blacks,” says Mincey.

In D.C., where racial politics is the raw nerve that runs through all civic debates, the disappearance of African-Americans from construction sites is dividing unions, contractors, and the D.C. government. All the players in this conflict disagree over whether and how to restore African-American representation on work sites to anything approaching its demographic share.

Onlookers simply can’t abide the notion that the area’s thriving construction industry offers so few opportunities for the District’s roughly 13,000 unemployed black residents.

“At construction sites, you see every other ethnic group other than black. It alienates the whole black community,” says Cardell Shelton, a lifelong construction worker and vocal job-training advocate who lives in Ward 8. “In the District, we’d rather lock up our black brothers and sisters, or let them kill themselves or use dope, than take some time to train them and give them some life skills.”

At 450 Massachusetts Ave. NW, workers are laying the foundation for a luxury apartment building. Looking down at the site from the sidewalk, you can see many Hispanic faces, but a good number of African-American ones as well. When asked about the site’s racial makeup, Jeff McCoy, the general superintendent, says his company, Paradigm Construction, an “open-shop” contractor—one that works with both nonunion and union firms—doesn’t keep numbers. But he says that in recent years, thanks to the area’s labor shortage, the construction workforce has become increasingly immigrant and Hispanic.

A couple of blocks up 5th Street, between H and G Streets NW, workers for the residential division of Clark Construction Group, an open-shop firm, and Miller & Long Concrete Construction, a nonunion firm, are building the Avalon at Gallery Place, a mix of apartments and shops. Nearby, at 7th and F Streets NW, workers for Clark are also building Terrell Place, a massive office and retail complex. Clark, which is headquartered in Bethesda, doesn’t keep an exact demographic breakdown of its workforce either, says spokesperson Elizabeth Tuico, but she estimates that 75 percent of the company’s field employees are Latino.

This sampling of downtown projects isn’t scientific, but it suggests that the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) may need to update its figures. According to the BLS, the District has no shortage of African-American construction workers. As of 2000, African-Americans made up approximately 76 percent of the roughly 11,000 construction workers who live in D.C.; Hispanics made up about 15 percent and whites 9 percent.

How to reconcile those figures with a survey of D.C. construction sites? A quick inquiry at the BLS Local Area Unemployment Statistics Information and Analysis office yields the answer: The agency’s set of figures “has limits in terms of demographic data,” as senior economist Ken LeVasseur puts it. Among them is sampling size. LeVasseur reckons that BLS researchers spoke to only about 800 households for its D.C. data. “Only a small percentage would be black or Hispanic,” he notes.

And how big was the pool of Hispanic workers interviewed by the BLS? “[P]robably in the single digits,” says LeVasseur.

The puny sample size can hardly be blamed on the agency: Many local Latinos are recent arrivals. Immigrants, who often have documentation problems, are notoriously squeamish about responding to interviews. And the BLS’s own figures show that as much as 17 percent of the construction workforce is “unauthorized.”

Yet in others ways the BLS statistics make a certain sense. Just ask around. Plenty of black D.C. residents boast construction skills. Every day at the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV) shelter downtown, temporary agencies pick up residents for day labor—often construction work. Many of those who don’t work the labor pools still claim to know a building trade.

On a June afternoon, Allen Maroney, 41, reflects on his troubles getting construction jobs. Maroney has worked as a steel hanger, a painter, and an environmental technician. But he hasn’t done any of those things in a while because he was in a federal prison in Petersburg, Va., until a few weeks ago. Since he’s been back in D.C., he’s not been able to find work. Contractors tell him they can’t hire him because he doesn’t have transportation to job sites in Virginia. But as he sees it, something bigger than sprawl is keeping him from a steady paycheck.

“It’s all about the crackers,” says Maroney. “They’re trying to keep the black man down. A whole lot of these guys got trades. But they refuse to hire us, because we’re black.”

Maroney’s comments spark a round table of sorts among the assembled CCNV denizens. A man in a wheelchair selling cigarettes to the shelter residents for a quarter insists that Maroney should look inward for an explanation of his problems. “As a people, we have a tendency to bitch and do nothin’. They’re not trying to snuff out the black man. The black man doesn’t want a job as a laborer,” says the man, who refuses to give his name.

Before he began hawking cigarettes, he says, he used to be a skid-steer operator for a small contractor that built strip malls in Northern Virginia. He stopped working a few years ago after complications from diabetes forced him off his feet.

“I remember when all the trash jobs were black. All the cabdrivers used to be black and white,” he says. “Contractors used to go to blacks, and now they go to Latinos. I don’t blame the Latinos.”

Another man in a wheelchair, William Alexander, pipes up. He says until 10 years ago, he was a union hard-hat and that at some point he worked for many of the area’s biggest contractors: Tompkins, Clark, Miller & Long. He says in the late ’80s, the workers on the projects he worked on were “80 percent black.” “We saw the change coming,” he adds, referring to the increase in immigrant workers, “but there was nothing we could do.”

Ask contractors why there aren’t more African-Americans working on construction sites and they’ll say it’s not their fault. Americans—black and white—just aren’t interested in going into construction anymore.

“All people ever see is the dirt and people working in the field,” says Cherie Pleasant, executive vice president of the Associated General Contractors of Metropolitan Washington D.C., a trade group for union and open-shop contractors.

The industry’s image problem has resulted in a severe shortage of skilled labor. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that the industry must hire 240,000 workers each year just to keep pace with current demands. But younger generations are less likely to pursue a job that requires wearing a hard hat. According to the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), a national trade organization for nonunion contractors, a recent survey showed that when presented with a list of 250 jobs, high school students ranked construction 249th—between exotic dancing and migrant farm labor. As the young flock to other professions, the average age of a skilled construction craftsman—49—heads toward the retirement years.

Kids are more interested in being the next Bill Gates. Vocational-education resources, accordingly, have shifted heavily toward computer skills and away from traditional topics such

as construction.

Today in the District, fewer schools offer courses in the building trades than did a decade ago. The school board in 1996 voted to close three of the city’s six vocational high schools: Armstrong, Burdick, and Chamberlain. One of the remaining “career development centers,” Phelps, was closed recently for renovations, its classes scattered to other locations, leaving only two traditional vocational schools. Booker T. Washington Public Charter School for Technical Arts, a 3-year-old charter high school, also offers courses in the building trades.

The University of the District of Columbia (UDC) has spearheaded adult vocational programming in D.C. since 1997. In 1999, UDC also assumed control of vocational education for the public school system. Contractors send apprentices to UDC for their legally required hours of classroom training. More than half of last year’s 107 UDC students were D.C. residents and about 80 percent of the students were black, says Dwayne A. Jones Sr., program coordinator for the D.C. Apprenticeship Training Program.

Contractors and workers alike lament that with the decline of vocational education in D.C., a once-effective pipeline for supplying black D.C. residents to the building trades has dried up.

Local contractors are trying to remedy matters by outfitting fifth-graders and high school kids with building kits, designed with the help of Scholastic Inc. Contractors hope that what the kids find inside the bright-yellow plastic toolboxes will eventually help lead to their knocking on the trailer door. Among the contents of the boxes are a video that explains all the different jobs on a construction site and—if that’s not enough to entice them—popsicle sticks to build a bridge with.

A lack of early exposure to the building trades, though, isn’t the only thing keeping African-Americans off local construction sites. Those who long to pour a concrete floor or install rebar in the new convention center need some training. Although some workers learn on site without formal instruction, an apprenticeship in a skilled trade offers the opportunity to earn credentials in a fixed amount of time. Depending on the trade, after two to four years, apprentices graduate to journeyman status and higher wages.

The Department of Employment Services (DOES) sends a steady stream of black D.C. residents to building apprenticeship programs. In theory, the residents should then have an excellent chance of landing a job. Under the District’s First Source Employment Agreement Act, contractors on city-financed projects must strive to make sure 51 percent of new hires and 51 percent of apprentices are D.C. residents. But the number of apprenticeships is limited, for various reasons. The small market share of union contractors means fewer opportunities for union-sponsored training. At the union-run Francis L. Greenfield Laborers’ Training and Apprenticeship Institute in Cheverly, Md., instructors keep the waiting list down to about 40 names, because it’s pointless to tell people to wait if there’s no work at the end of the tunnel, says Director Kelly Lapping. According to the agency, 85 percent of the roughly 700 D.C. residents in apprenticeships attend union-sponsored programs.

Nonunion contractors have fewer D.C. residents as apprentices because many find the DOES requirements for apprenticeships cumbersome. For example, contractors must employ three journeymen for every one apprentice—a regulation designed to protect the safety and ensure proper training of apprentices. Running an apprenticeship program is expensive, costing thousands of dollars per worker. Contractors say that as a result, many of them have apprenticeship programs only on paper.

The local chapter of the ABC has been trying to get its own apprenticeship regimens approved for the past 10 years, so that its members can take advantage of a centralized program and share the costs of training. Critics of the ABC proposals say they would erode current training standards by letting contractors teach apprentices a narrow set of skills that limit their job choices. ABC members deny that the skills learned in ABC programs aren’t transferrable and note that other states have approved their programs. The ABC submitted formal proposals for training programs for different trades to the DOES in December. The agency has yet to approve them.

“We’ve always attempted to hire as many local people as we can,” says James Russ, the chairman of the board of the ABC’s metro-Washington chapter. “We’ve been hampered because we’ve been trying to get our apprenticeship programs approved by DOES.”

Community leaders such as former school-board member Benjamin Bonham and Columbia Heights Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Lawrence Guyot have lined up behind the contractors against the DOES in the name of removing barriers to employment for impoverished D.C. residents.

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Guyot says the demands that the city places on would-be apprentices remind him of Jim Crow-era literacy tests designed to keep blacks from the vote. “I’m interested in getting people hired—illiterates. No one can satisfactorily explain to me why you can’t hire people who can’t read and write to pour cement and build buildings,” Guyot says. DOES Director Greg Irish, says Guyot, “talks about apprenticeship as a collegelike experience. That doesn’t apply to the population we’re dealing with. What do we do with the man or woman who has a family to feed who is ready, willing, and able to work but can’t read?”

At an oversight hearing last year, DOES officials reported that D.C. residents in apprenticeship programs are typically educationally deficient and aren’t able to pass qualifying aptitude tests. Even if the city approved a wider array of apprenticeship programs, job-training experts note, illiteracy and poor schooling would still remain impediments to learning higher-skilled trades.

Regardless of the educational and social deficits that some D.C. residents may face, Dennis Desmond, former director of the Greenfield Institute, argues that the worst solution is to allow contractors to get around existing standards.

“That’s like being in elementary school and telling your teacher you like addition and subtraction and can that be your math course,” Desmond says. “The nonunion developers… want to train their employees in as few skills as possible so [the employees] can’t leave and work somewhere else for more money. They’re not interested in the social mobility of workers. They want to keep the worker in his place.”

The Rev. Lionel Edmonds, pastor of D.C.’s Mount Lebanon Baptist Church and co-chair of the union-affiliated Washington Interfaith Network, contends, like Guyot, that black D.C. residents are getting shafted, but unlike Guyot he doesn’t blame the DOES. What some developers and contractors are doing “is kinda racist if you ask me,” he says. “We’re talking mainly about African-American workers, and they don’t want to give them the training. I have members of my congregation who should be journeymen by now. They’re still being paid apprenticeship wages. The developers only care about making money. They don’t care about hiring D.C. workers. Even Ray Charles can see that that ain’t right.”

T wo black construction workers stand by a cement mixer near the MCI Center, where developers Herbert S. Miller and John Akridge III are building a $275 million shopping and entertainment center. Sitting on a row of Jersey barriers are several more black construction workers taking their midmorning break.

Stephen Lanning, an organizer with the Laborers’ Mid-Atlantic Regional Organizing Coalition (MAROC), contends that there are more African-American workers on this site than on most others around town because the project is financed by Union Labor Life Insurance Co., a union pension fund, which mandated that union contractors handle the construction.

Lanning can’t back up his hypothesis with any demographic data. Inside the J.A. Jones/Tompkins trailer on site, employee Abby Tekle tells me, “We don’t keep information like that.”

Lanning bases his theory on the notion that back when union contractors handled the majority of building work in D.C., more African-Americans worked on construction sites, and as the union share of the market has declined, contractors have turned to cheaper, predominantly immigrant labor. The wage differential is substantial. For example, a nonunion carpenter in D.C. might make about $15 per hour, whereas a union carpenter would make about $24.

As proof, Lanning says that in cities such as Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, where union contractors are still responsible for the majority of commercial and industrial construction, larger numbers of white and African-American workers remain on work sites.

Older black construction workers don’t all buy the notion that the union is their savior. Many have had bad experiences with organized labor—especially the higher-skilled trade unions, which resisted federal government efforts 30 years ago to boost the number of blacks among their ranks. Veteran black construction workers insist that no matter what happens with the labor force, they’ll never return to the heyday of the ’70s. Back then, African-Americans, who dominated the basic building-trades unions, could count on plenty of work. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority directed its initial $5 billion outlay for subway construction primarily to established union firms. “Money hasn’t jumped like that since,” says CCNV resident Alexander.

So strong were the unions back then that strikes could silence almost all the work sites in D.C. “They used to strike all summer. Nobody would work,” recalls John McMahon, chair of Miller & Long. McMahon says that when he started out in construction working summers as a laborer, “I would have to go to Maryland and work the night shift because no one was working in downtown Washington.”

The greatest strike of them all occurred in 1975, at the peak of Metro construction, recalls ABC chair Russ. Starting in May, the cement masons, heavy-equipment operators, and dump-truck drivers went on strike for higher wages, forcing delays in the Metro’s opening.

“The unions would make sure that a nonunion company couldn’t work on any building that needed an elevator,” says McMahon. No elevator company, apparently, would install elevators in a building unless it was built by a union contractor. “So [real estate mogul and Washington Wizards owner] Abe Pollin started his own elevator company, and we started building for him,” says McMahon. “Since then, there’s been a slow migration toward merit-shop [nonunion] construction.”

The 1981 recession hastened the migration away from union labor. In September of that year, 400,000 union members marched on Washington for a Solidarity Day. But by then a high unemployment rate had already produced a robust supply of nonunion workers. Nonunion contractors and developers from Virginia and Maryland that had grown and thrived on suburban work also entered the D.C. market. The rise of these nonunion shops began to drive comparatively expensive union contractors out of the market. By 1983, the Washington Post was reporting that 9 out of 10 construction projects in the tri-state area were being built with nonunion labor.

The local construction industry’s reliance on nonunion labor became more entrenched as large union contractors opened nonunion offshoots, in a practice called “double-breasting.” In 1977 Hyman Construction, one of the oldest and largest union contractors in the area, launched a nonunion offshoot called Omni. Hyman and Omni often competed for the same work, with the latter frequently undercutting its corporate parent. Omni grew to a $400 million business. Hyman eventually became an open shop. When the two companies merged, in 1995, they formed Clark Construction Group, an open-shop behemoth, the third-biggest construction company in the country.

The slow real estate market of the early to mid-’90s accelerated the unions’ decline. Nonunion workers—largely Hispanic immigrants who were then settling in D.C. in greater numbers—swelled the ranks of laborers, carpenters, and bricklayers. Today, Lanning estimates that the market share for union laborers is an anemic 5 percent, a far cry from the unions’ more than 65 percent of the market in 1974. (The higher-skilled craft unions, such as those for electricians and plumbers, retain higher market shares and have fewer recent immigrants among their members, because training and licensing in those trades rely more heavily on language proficiency.)

“The unions grew complacent,” says Lanning. “They stopped organizing. They didn’t think they needed to. They just became concerned with getting work for members they already had.”

T he 20-foot rat balloon first made an appearance by the Navy Yard sometime in February. The inflated rodent, with its pink ears and teeth the size of Bibles, took up position next to the construction site of Maritime Plaza, a massive office building and hotel. Inquisitive pedestrians who ventured for a closer look were met by the rat’s handlers—organizers with the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), an affiliate of MAROC. The reward for their curiosity was a black-and-white flier.

The rat is a union mascot for “rat contractors” who employ nonunion labor. The rat on this particular day was Oncore Construction, a Bladensburg, Md., concrete company working on the site.

“Now is the time to hold developers accountable!” reads the handbill. “With the unemployment rate in South East DC at 14.2%, we must demand that these developers hire area residents when they build in our area.”

The flier denounces Oncore’s hiring practices as “deplorable.” The proof, according to the union literature, lies in the faces of Oncore’s mostly Latino employees. “Among their hundreds of carpenters and laborers they have only a tiny percentage of African American workers.” The local chapter of the laborers’ union is half black, half Hispanic, says Lanning.

MAROC has been focusing its energies on Oncore since last year. In December, Oncore was up for a $12 million contract at the Kennedy Center. The union successfully lobbied Kennedy Center officials to award the contract instead to a union firm. And now it’s trying to organize Oncore’s workers. Calling attention to Oncore’s hiring practices “lays the foundation for us to try to organize these contractors,” says Lanning. “We have to first hold the contractor accountable before we can even organize the workers.”

The public spectacle didn’t have the intended effect on Maritime Plaza’s developers, Lincoln Property Co. So in the spring, Lanning says, union organizers decided it was time to “show [Oncore] we’re serious.”

On April 9, several dozen union organizers and volunteers appeared at the Maritime Plaza construction site—the first stop in a three-day blitz of various Oncore projects.

On a videotape of the protest made by an Oncore employee, the protesters wear identical blue T-shirts with a “Union Yes” logo emblazoned in white across the front. A few wield bullhorns and communicate in Spanish. For the most part, however, the protesters appear to be white men.

The union members smile for the camera. One woman makes kissing noises. Other protesters gruffly show the lens the insides of their hard hats.

“You know you deserve better,” one protester says directly to the camera. “You need a union, too,” says another. “Everybody needs a union.”

At first, the protest looks like a bit of cheerfully orchestrated mayhem. But things get ugly fast. Even as one organizer repeatedly says, “We’re here peacefully,” another cries out, “Don’t let scabs work!”

The employee holding the camera becomes the butt of abuse. For a while, all you can see is the neck of a man who is blowing a whistle into the cameraman’s ear. He stops blowing only to mutter, “Now, if I had a baseball bat…”

“Do you film your old lady like that, you fat ass?” one union protester asks him.

A little later, the same man’s voice can be heard off camera asking, “Wanna kiss me, faggot?”

“You’re a dopey-looking motherfucker,” the belligerent protester says, before stepping back into a crowd.

“We are the union,” the protesters chant. “The mighty, mighty union/Everywhere we go/people want to know/who we are…”

The protests, the fliers, the rat—none of it has anything to do with African-American construction workers, says Oncore President Robert J. MacDaniels.

“It’s about extortion,” he says in his office one afternoon in July.

MacDaniels’ description of MAROC’s efforts to organize his workers or else destroy him sounds like something out of On the Waterfront.

Besides chanting and verbally abusing the Oncore employee taping them, he points out, the union protesters blocked trucks in an apparent violation of national labor laws. And, he alleges, they assaulted at least one of his workers. Lanning denies that any assault took place, though he concedes that some of the behavior of the protesters was “boorish.”

MacDaniels says union members have also gone to the homes of the owners of Donohoe Construction and Donatelli and Klein, the general contractor and developer, respectively, of Ellington Plaza, a retail and residential complex that Oncore is helping build, in an attempt to convince them to fire Oncore from the job. He says union organizers have also handed out fliers with quotes from current and former employees bad-mouthing the company—which he alleges are fabricated. He says that at least one employee quoted has never been on his payroll, and one former worker has signed an affidavit denying he ever said the words the union attributes to him. Lanning counters that the union has signed and dated statements from both workers, now union members, who he says stick by their statements.

The conflict came to a head in May, after MAROC organizers parked the rat at the Ellington Plaza site, at 13th and U Streets NW. MacDaniels obtained a restraining order against them. This month, the two sides voided the restraining order with a negotiated

settlement.

“I’m angry about this crap,” MacDaniels says. “It’s bullshit. It has no bearing on my credentials as an employer.

“My workforce is 86 percent minority,” he notes. “I don’t discriminate.” He adds that he recently hired four black D.C. residents through the Jobs Partnership Greater Washington, a job-training program run by several District churches.

The unions, says MacDaniels, should mind their own record on minority hiring. A decade ago, he points out, black workers successfully sued a local chapter of the laborers’ union in Ohio for discrimination. Though he’s no fan of the District’s First Source hiring law (“I believe in the free market,” he explains), he says Oncore complies with it. MacDaniels estimates that 51 percent of Oncore’s hires in the District are D.C. residents, as well as 51 percent of its 10 apprentices, though he says he can’t recall how many D.C. residents work for Oncore, out of its 340 employees.

MacDaniels has gone on the counterattack, drafting his own fliers to “educate his workers about the union.” He also has one for his customers, titled “Our Employees Mean the World To Us.”

In one handout, MacDaniels offers the highlights from LIUNA’s less-than-vaunted past, such as former President Arthur Coia’s guilty plea on federal fraud charges two years ago. He notes that 14 men associated with LIUNA Local 91 were arrested in May in Niagara Falls, N.Y,. on federal charges of racketeering and using “goon-squad tactics” to intimidate contractors, workers, and developers. MacDaniels is also fond of mentioning that in 1996, LIUNA had to undertake reform measures under the watchful eyes of U.S. Department of Justice officials to free itself of the grip of La Cosa Nostra.

MacDaniels says the union’s argument about the dearth of African-American workers is an organizing ploy, nothing more.

“[The unions] don’t care if anyone hires blacks or not,” he says. “They want more market share.”

As proof, MacDaniels produces a copy of an e-mail in which an organizer quotes Dennis Martire, LIUNA’s mid-Atlantic vice president and regional manager, praising Oncore’s loss of the Kennedy Center contract. “This is just the beginning for good things to come to the D.C. area,” Martire writes. “We are committed to turning D.C. back into the union city it once was.”

Even more damning, MacDaniels says, is the fact that the union protesters who “stormed” his job sites in April weren’t exactly a rainbow coalition themselves. “How many African-Americans do you think they brought?” he says.

“Six.”

The closest thing to a construction site that hews to the District’s demographics is the union training site in Cheverly. On a hot, humid day at the Greenfield Institute, seven men and one woman—all black, all D.C. residents—are learning how to break pavement with a jackhammer, work a skid-steer, lay pipes, and assemble scaffolding.

By virtue of being in a union apprenticeship program, all of them will become union members. But none of them seem concerned about the intricacies of labor relations in D.C. They’re just tired of going from job to job, scraping by. Most of them are older; the average age is about 40. And most of them have families. They’re looking for work that pays a living wage, and training is one way to get it.

They don’t all necessarily need it. Many of the students have done construction work before, like Jerome Johnson, 39. Growing up in D.C., Johnson says, he watched his father and brothers work in construction; his dad owned a cement business. Instead of following in their footsteps, though, he says he got into some trouble with the law. And now, he has kids of his own to support.

“In the city, they don’t have many jobs for us who have records,” he says.

“Everywhere you go, you see construction sites,” says Timothy Johnson Sr., 41. “It make me want to get these classes more.”

Timothy Johnson says he’s worked all kinds of jobs before—for Metro, on the waterfront, at the convention center—mostly for minimum wage or less. He says the most money he ever made was as a professional boxer. “I had a few cable fights,” he says. “But I kinda let it all go to my head. I fell in with the wrong type of people.” He’s been home from prison for three weeks. He and his wife, a nurse, live by RFK Stadium and have six kids to support.

Timothy Johnson says he’s done construction work before, too, and has learned a critical lesson: Bring a skill when you show up at the construction trailer. “I’ve been turned down because I had no experience, or I was paid less,” he says. “You’re just being used if you don’t have a trade. You’re just a strong back.”

He says he’s optimistic because he heard there’s a city law that “guarantees” D.C. residents jobs. He hopes to take advantage of it.

“We don’t have many jobs in our town just for us D.C. residents,” he says. “It gets kind of depressing when you be trying to do right.” CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.