When Willie Shepperson walked into the bathroom of the D.C. Convention Center in June, he saw something that annoyed—and scared—him: A flier posted on the wall bore his picture and the caption “Reward. Wanted Dead or Alive.”
Shepperson, a longtime member and rabble-rouser of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners’ Local Union 1110, couldn’t laugh off the sign as a practical joke played by mischievous co-workers. It was a threat. And it wasn’t the first threat. Two years ago, someone taped the same flier on the convention center wall where union members sign in for work.
And the latest round of harassment didn’t end when Shepperson clocked out and went home that night. A couple of weeks later, Shepperson found an even nastier flier under the windshield wiper of his van, which was parked outside his home in Laurel. The flier read “Nigger get out of 1110 and take all the fucking niggers with you.” The Prince George’s County Police Department is investigating the incident as a possible hate crime and placed Shepperson’s home under temporary surveillance.
The American labor movement’s sorry record on race relations is well known. Until a generation ago, unions effectively excluded blacks from membership, either through bureaucratic roadblocks or local segregation laws. Management happily exploited union racism by hiring blacks as strikebreakers, further straining the relationship between African-American and white blue-collar workers. The civil rights movement finally opened unions to large numbers of African-Americans, just as America’s traditional industrial base began eroding. Today, blacks and whites all over the nation are battling for the shrinking number of well-paying blue-collar jobs.
And that conflict plagues Local 1110, say some of its black members. They claim that racist rhetoric and discrimination persist in the organization, which represents the workers who set up D.C.’s trade shows and conventions.
“In Local 1110, Plessy vs. Ferguson is still being debated,” says Shepperson. “And it begins at the very top.”
“There’s a lot of discrimination against blacks, but it’s getting unbearable now,” says Deryck LaRose, a black union member of nine years who says he regularly sees Ku Klux Klan symbols at job sites. “I make myself get along with [whites] because I need the work….Like every smart black person, you make yourself get along with them.”
Nothing explains the union’s racial tensions better than its membership rolls. Two years ago, a white member posted a “Federal Nigger Hunting License” at the convention center. But, as black members note bitterly, there aren’t too many targets to hunt. Of the more than 500 members in the local, fewer than 60 are African-Americans, Shepperson estimates. (Union officials don’t keep data on gender or race.) Union leaders choose members to serve as “shop stewards,” a much-prized and lucrative position. Of the 80 members who regularly work as stewards, only one is black.
The District’s population is 70 percent black. You don’t need a calculator to figure out that the numbers don’t add up.
Union executives deny that the scarcity of black members is evidence of racism within the organization. “Our membership reflects the diversity of the area,” says Edward Shaw, who was elected secretary/treasurer of the District Council’s Executive Board in 1994. The District Council comprises 13 locals with a total membership of 6,000. A labor-management committee chooses new members, using a confidential rating system, say the local’s officials. They add that the local is instituting a new application process to give preferential treatment to D.C. residents, a change that will presumably increase black enrollment in the union.
But black members say the union continues to systematically exclude African-Americans. They contend that applicants who don’t have connections to the union’s white leadership are often told that the membership rolls are closed, and they claim that the local recently scrapped an effort to start an apprenticeship program for D.C. high-school students.
Those African-Americans who do manage to win their union cards say they must toe the line or face unending harassment. Several black union members interviewed for this article requested anonymity, fearing for their safety and livelihood. Making formal complaints, says one member, is “economic suicide.” Shepperson, who has openly criticized union leaders, has had his tires slashed, sugar dumped in his gas tank, and bricks thrown through his windows.
The charges of racism extend beyond offensive fliers and harassment to a more fundamental issue: money. Black union members say the shop stewards and union officials exclude them from the best work. Under the union’s placement rules, the more work that a member does, the more work the member will be asked to do. (To remain in the “A-book” of those called first for jobs, a member must register at least 550 hours in a year.) Black workers say that if they don’t “buddy up” with bosses, they are often cut after working the minimum four-hour shift. Many African-Americans say they’ve been cut early by white stewards while less-experienced whites continued working the floor. (This short-shifting isn’t limited to blacks. Some white members say they’ve experienced the same treatment for associating with the “wrong” blacks or for filing complaints. “They four-hour you to death,” says Ronald Acors, a white member who says he’s been harassed for filing a grievance.)
Black members also complain that they are restricted from certain tasks, such as overhead sign rigging. “If you’re doing rigging…they’ll say it’s “nigger-rigging’ when they think you’re not listening,” says one black member who asked not to be identified.
But Shaw contends that the District Council has actively worked against discrimination during his year in office.
“I consider sexual harassment as well as racist remarks to be abhorrent,” says Shaw. “I’ve told the brothers—and the sisters—that we do not tolerate it. Letters and statements are put out. We try to take a real proactive stance.” When asked for copies of these letters, Shaw concedes that, for the most part, the communications have been verbal.
Shaw says that members who violate union rules must appear in front of the executive board, and those found to have committed racist acts face “public censure.” The person who posted the “nigger hunting license,” for example, was made to apologize at a union meeting and to promise not to do it again. (It’s doubtful the whole chapter got the message—meetings are not mandatory and many members skip them in order to work. About 60 people attended that particular meeting, says Shaw.)
The recent charges of racism, Shaw says, are “sour grapes of a few individuals” because of the local’s June 21 elections.
Shaw may be on to something. The recent complaints may stem as much from Shepperson’s bitterness as from any surge in union racism. Shepperson has belonged to the union for 37 years and served in key positions on the local, district, and international levels of the union. Three years ago, he ran for local business manager—a full-time position that would have granted him significant influence over union affairs—and lost by seven votes to a white candidate. After that election, Shaw notes, Shepperson wrote a newsletter downplaying the presence of racism within the union. “Just because L.U. 1110 has a majority white membership does not automatically make L.U. 1110 a racist organization,” Shepperson wrote. At that time, he attributed the racial tension to “rumors” and “stressful conditions” caused by poor leadership.
Shepperson ran for business manager again this year and lost by 14 votes to another white candidate, David Augustine. After this defeat, however, Shepperson reversed his position and began clamoring about racism.
Whatever the reason behind the harassment of Shepperson, the union’s record on race will certainly become an issue when the city finalizes plans for the convention center it hopes to build on New York Avenue. Local 1110 wants to continue setting up and breaking down exhibitions, but the local’s low number of blacks and D.C. residents may cripple its ambitions. D.C. Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis has hinted that unless the local adds more blacks and Washingtonians, it may find itself shut out of the new center.
In the end, Shepperson admits, the tension between black and white members owes less to personal prejudice than to economics. As unions lose their influence, their members compete more than they cooperate. “It’s not hate, it’s fear,” he says. “That fear comes about because [white members feel] “This is the only means I have of taking care of my family. And I am not ready to see that go down the tubes.’ ”
“The real issue,” says Shepperson, “is that you have a number of people in Local Union 1110…who do not have the educational background or the skills to go out and earn $17.75 an hour anyplace else other than Local Union 1110. There’s a tremendous amount of pressure to hold onto that $17.75 an hour.”