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Building Racism 

Segregation and racism are used to pit black and Latino carpenters against each other at a low-income-housing site

Wednesday, Mar 26 2008

As the Aguilar brothers remember it, one afternoon last August the management had some workers cook up shrimp soup and fried fish for the Latino construction men who were picking up their checks. It was a strange show of hospitality from the bosses who'd otherwise made work on Hunters Point Hill miserable from day one.

Fausto, 39, and Gonzalo, 41, knew meetings were supposed to be for all workers, not just the ones with roots south of the Rio Grande. Having toiled in this country for nearly 20 years, with a general knowledge of labor laws and an encyclopedic recall of carpenters' union rules, the Aguilars had been keeping close track of the growing tally of what they believed to be racist incidents at the job site.

The brothers say that the Latino and black crews were kept separate, with Latinos heavily outnumbering the blacks. Worse yet, many Latinos were forced to give cash kickbacks from their checks, which were shared among management.

And here was another example: "We have two really big problems," said foreman Ernesto Cunningham of San Rafael-based Bay Building Services, Inc. Cunningham spoke in Spanish to the dozens of men gathered in a warehouse, blocks away from the job site. According to Gonzalo Aguilar's testimony at a public hearing last month, Cunningham said the first problem was the "fucking union," which he said often stopped their work because many workers didn't have union cards. Cunningham said the second problem was the "pinches negros" (which translates roughly to "fucking niggers"). As he explained it, they want to work in the place of "you guys," and we (meaning Latinos) are at "war" with them. (The attorney representing the company Cunningham worked for said his clients will not respond to questions due to pending litigation.)

Gonzalo Aguilar says in his testimony that Cunningham had some solutions to these "problems." Cunningham allegedly said that when the union reps come around, the workers should ignore them, tell them "to go to hell," and refuse to show their union cards. Better yet, they could follow the example of one man who'd heckled the reps and thrown his identification cards at them.

Of the black workers, Cunningham is accused of saying they were "too slow" and that he wanted to fire them all.

If this was supposed to be a call for solidarity among the Latinos, it was lost on the Aguilars. In fact, for the Aguilars, who refer to black carpenters as "our black brothers," it just seemed plain wrong. So when Fausto returned to his Hayward home, he wrote down Cunningham's words.

The racist rhetoric wasn't just reserved for off-site meetings to which black workers were not invited. Gregory Hall, an African-American carpenter, met with company representatives on the job site to ask why black workers were not being hired even though the site was smack-dab in the Bayview, one of the city's few majority black neighborhoods. Experienced black carpenters had constantly inquired about jobs.

The answer, according to court documents, was that the site's bosses would give the "community" group, or African Americans, and the "core" group, meaning the Latinos, separate walls to work on. If the community group could "keep up" with the core group, then more black workers would be hired. This was 2007 in one of the most progressive and über-PC cities in America, but management appeared to be talking straight Jim Crow.

The racist allegations go on and on in the civil lawsuit filed in San Francisco Superior Court and sent out to be served last week on Denver-based Apartment Investment and Management Company (AIMCO), which calls itself the largest apartment owner in the country. AIMCO owns and manages the 604 federally subsidized units on the hill overlooking the Hunters Point shipyard. The properties are currently under extensive renovation after the city zapped the company with a 2002 lawsuit for negligent upkeep to force it to fix serious housing violations, including bad plumbing and toxic mold that residents complained was making them sick.

Having wrangled itself out of trouble by making the renovations and paying millions to the city and to a nearby Boys and Girls Club as required in the 2004 settlement, AIMCO undertook the current project to update units in La Salle, Shoreview, Bayview, and All Hallows Gardens with new windows, doors, flooring, bathrooms, kitchens, lighting, and paint.

Now the housing giant is being targeted again for alleged collaboration in wrong-doing during the new construction project, bankrolled in part by $73 million in tax-exempt bonds and $42 million in federal low-income-housing tax credits. The suit also names Fortney & Weygandt Inc., the Ohio-based general contractor AIMCO hired to coordinate the construction and hire of subcontractors, three of which are also being sued. The suit alleges that AIMCO, Fortney & Weygandt, and the three subcontractors created a "supermanagement team" that waged a campaign of racism and exploitation.

The 27 black and Latino carpenters who brought the suit decided they wouldn't tolerate what they say is an extreme example of the construction industry's "best-kept nonsecret," as one Bayview activist puts it, where black workers are passed over in favor of largely undocumented Latino immigrants who are more easily exploited.

As Latinos have passed blacks as the country's largest minority group, much controversy has ensued over whether one group's success means pushing the other out of jobs. A 2006 Pew Research Center poll indicated that blacks are more likely than whites to see immigrants as taking jobs away from Americans. Former Mexican President Vicente Fox created a media circus in 2005 after he commented that Mexicans take the U.S. jobs "even blacks don't want to do." In 2006, 28 percent of construction workers in this country were born in another country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But in San Francisco, even with the unemployment rate of African-American men hovering at three times that of Latino men, the alleged efforts at the AIMCO site to divide the two races instead had the opposite effect. The two groups have joined in a perhaps a uniquely American display of solidarity — suing their common enemy, the employer, as one.

About The Author

Lauren Smiley


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