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Racism, Discrimination Complaints Mount Against Local Construction Union


The International Union of Operating Engineers Local 542, a union representing heavy machinery operators, is coming under heavy fire from its minority members over claims of racist behavior.

Local 542 has been under a consent decree from a federal court since 1979, after a series of incidents in which minority workers were beaten in the union hall. The union still sends periodic updates to a "special master" assigned to keep track of its practices toward minority workers, but at the union's biannual meeting in May, and through other complaints filed with its civil rights committee, workers of color have alleged a pattern of discrimination and hate speech from within the union, PlanPhilly reports.

At the meeting, according to PlanPhilly, a black union member stood up and said into the microphone that he would not tolerate any more racial slurs lobbed in his direction, punctuating his statement with, "I am not a monkey."

Separate complaints to the union, some of which were acknowledged by Local 542 spokesman Tom Danese, showed photos of the numbers 88 and 14 — coded symbols of white supremacists — spray painted at work sites, PlanPhilly reports. One minority worker reported seeing a noose hanging from a crane, and several reported white supervisors using racial epithets on job sites.

Perhaps more damaging to minority members of Local 542 is the disparity in their numbers against the jobs for which they are hired. PlanPhilly reports that over 21% of Local 541 members are people of color, but only 15% of job hours go to such members. While there is a civil rights committee in place to hear those concerns, one anonymous member called it a "dog and pony show."


“Minority members of 542 have long ago lost trust in the civil rights committee,” another union member told PlanPhilly. “Recently, however, there has been a surge in complaints given to the civil rights committee members.”

These allegations are coming to light just as Mayor Jim Kenney's Rebuild initiative, meant to both foster public development and improve diversity in building trades, has kicked into gear. Earlier in July, the city appointed Philly-based, minority-owned Talson Solutions to help ensure that minority-owned businesses get a fair shake at building contracts. It is unclear whether Kenney plans to cast a wider net into unions and job sites to address racial discrimination in Philadelphia's construction industry.