A contractor at a job site
A contractor at a job site. Photo courtesy Black Contractors Association

On Tuesday the City of San Diego will consider allowing Project Labor Agreements that would kill the Black Contractors Association and further limit career opportunities for the inner city community.

For too long, the Associated General Contractors and the San Diego & Imperial Counties Labor Council, along with associated labor unions, have failed black people with discriminatory hiring and recruitment practices. We already know the 400-year history of how America has failed black people. The disparity within the construction industry continues and is getting worse. While Black Americans represent more than 13% of the population, less than 4% of construction companies are black owned, and these firms earn less than 1% of all construction revenue.

In 1986 the Black Contractors Association was founded in San Diego to break this cycle of discrimination. They fought to build their own apprenticeship program from the ground up — and have helped launch the careers of craft workers and company owners from their self-built headquarters on Imperial Avenue.

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Since 2009, the BCA has been under constant threat from Project Labor Agreements. These PLAs promise “local hire” and outreach to minority neighborhoods, but the unions’ promises have always been empty. Starting with projects for the San Diego Unified School District, the result of PLAs has been anything but a benefit to the community. Local hire numbers went down as workers from the neighborhood were shut out from projects on their own streets: schools that their kids attended and that were paid for with their own tax dollars. The BCA’s apprenticeship enrollment has been devastated by this lack of opportunity.

Now, the city of San Diego is listening to the same promises from these same labor unions as they try to repeal Proposition A – a measure put on the ballot in 2012 and passed by the people of San Diego to stop this discrimination. The deep-pocketed Building Trades Council, a lobbying group for construction unions, wants the City Council to undo the people’s vote and allow PLAs.

Shane Harris
Shane Harris

However, this time the City Council is listening to the union pitch in a changed environment. The death of George Floyd in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic sets the stage for a very different discussion about this issue. “I can’t breathe” and “get your knee off our necks” are the undercurrent of everything happening right now. George Floyd’s tragic death isn’t new to black people. For over 400 years, America had its knee on our necks, and that is what is at stake in the vote Tuesday. The question really is, “Will you take your knee off our necks?”

This PLA ballot item would also cost the people of San Diego $750,000. That money could be better spent on economic- and environmental-justice efforts, not undoing the voice of the people. It’s money that could in fact be invested in our city’s well known homelessness crisis, or in the same minority communities that have suffered from a knee on our necks.

The People’s Alliance for Justice is calling on the City Council to reject the Proposition A repeal movement that is coming before them and asks the Mayor to pledge his veto. Without that commitment to protecting Proposition A, our elected officials would be complicit in destroying the BCA and black opportunities in the construction industry in San Diego. The city of San Diego will be shamed as the city that killed economic opportunity for blacks and ultimately killed us softly with a knee on our necks.

After this measure is defeated on Tuesday, we call on all parties to come to the table: unions, contractors and city leaders, to draft reforms to Proposition A that work for everyone, especially black people. As a matter of fact, both parties actually owe black people a real conversation and agreement anyway. Much more can and must be done for the black community in San Diego. Changes to how the city shares its prosperity through construction spending need to happen, but on our terms.

Lessons learned through the history of protests, boycotts, and civil disobedience have taught us that the disadvantaged can’t give up what little leverage we have for future promises of reform. Tuesday’s vote to repeal Proposition A would be a multi-million-dollar gift to the already deep-pocketed and powerful Building Trades Council.  They would then spend those millions and more to elect a City Council and Mayor that would bend to their will, at the expense of black workers. What kind of city will we be?

We know that a vote to repeal Proposition A is a vote to kill the BCA and black economic opportunity. Our elected officials better know the same.

Shane Harris is the president and CEO of the People’s Alliance for Justice in San Diego. He is a nationally recognized civil rights activist and frequently appears on national news as an analyst on political and social issues.