Fundamental culture change sought for building industry

By: Josh Kulla in Oregon Daily Journal of Commerce | March 16, 2021 12:29 pm

Transformation of an industry’s culture is a herculean task.

But Andersen Construction CEO Joel Andersen believes the construction industry can become one that rejects racism and discrimination, even if it takes a generation to do so fully. In Portland, that laborious process began with the launch of “Safe from Hate” – a contractor-led initiative developed in response to an incident on an Andersen Construction jobsite in which a rope noose was found hanging conspicuously.

Almost three weeks passed before Andersen Construction executives even became aware of the incident after it was reported. But then Andersen and others were spurred to seriously tackle the racism on jobsites that has been all too prevalent for far too long.

“We realize we have to do something to help try and transform our industry,” Andersen said. “If we keep doing what we’re doing, not only is nothing going to change – there is a good chance it gets worse.”

After the Metropolitan Alliance for Workforce Equity (MAWE), Oregon Tradeswomen, the National Association of Minority Contractors’ Oregon chapter (NAMC), the Urban League of Portland and other groups called for the contractor to explain what happened, Andersen realized there was an opportunity to do more than that.

“Everyone was hurt and frustrated, and rightfully so,” Andersen said. “But they were like, ‘Yes, we are absolutely willing to do something to make it better.”

A rapid response
The Safe from Hate campaign quickly attracted a wide variety of groups, including those involved in advocacy, the public sector, trade unions, designers and of course contractors and subcontractors. These groups have continued to meet for several months and reached agreement on four central pillars: 1, zero tolerance for discrimination; 2, education; 3, recruitment; and 4, advancement.

“They documented their commitment as owners, and all of this has really built momentum,” said Kelly Haines, a senior project manager with Worksystems and a MAWE representative. “We met every few weeks from that incident and we coauthored the pledge. From there, we know that’s just words on paper. So, to hold people true to that commitment, that’s what the alliance is meant to be – the implementation and the accountability.”

Then participants realized that such a large group needed to become smaller ones in order to foster more efficient communication. A steering committee was formed to oversee subcommittees comprised of apprentices, public owners, a labor caucus, subcontractors, trade associations, contractors, pre-apprenticeship training programs, public agencies and community-based organizations. The steering committee held its first meeting Feb. 4 and will continue on a monthly basis.

In addition, an executive council comprised of labor representatives will oversee the steering committee. This will also help guide future training and anti-discrimination efforts on the labor side.

“Everyone felt that those most impacted by jobsite culture needed to be leaders in that work,” Haines said. “So, everyone is essentially reporting back to that council. That’s the goal – to be a friendly competition, where everyone comes together and shares what they’re doing and coordinating.”

The Associated General Contractors’ Oregon-Columbia chapter is serving alongside NAMC Oregon as a shepherd of sorts, providing guidance to help advance the entire process.

“The generals (contractors) … want to do the work individually to their companies, but they are looking at how you pull together as a structure, and that’s why they’re looking to us,” AGC Executive Director Mike Salsgiver said.

But there are no illusions that the work will be easy.

“I think even when you start to really think about what got us here, it was the noose,” said Nate McCoy, executive director of NAMC Oregon. “But what’s a bigger issue is the bias on the jobsites and who should be here and who shouldn’t.”

Building momentum
Jobsite racism affects Latinos as much as any other minority group. Further, they now represent around 30 percent of the construction workforce – a proportion that is growing.

“It’s always there,” said Leanna Petrone, executive director of trade association LatinoBuilt. “Discrimination and hateful acts against our community have been a huge barrier for Latinos.”

Incidents such as the noose are just the tip of the iceberg, Petrone said.

“There’s been a lot through the years, and it’s been this way as long as I can remember,” she said. “My father worked in trades, and he worked in a field, and it’s always been a segregated work environment. The white males tend to stick with their own kind. The women tend to stick with their own. The Latinos, generally men, stick with their own kind. They’re not really included.”

Safe from Hate is by no means the first attempt to address racism in the industry, McCoy said. The difference now is that participation is widespread.

“There have been many decades of conversation around this subject,” he said. “It’s just now the larger GCs are diving into it, which is totally what we want; we want to operate together.”

Haines, Oregon Tradeswomen Executive Director Kelly Kupcak and other industry figures have been working for some time to also implement Rise Up, Green Dot and other programs that aim to eliminate harassment and discrimination on jobsites. Safe from Hate simply builds upon those efforts, said Afton Walsh, community outreach director for Walsh Construction.

“This was in the works even before Safe from Hate,” she said. “So, to say this all started in June is wrong. There has been a lot of groundwork and a lot of work that the community has been doing for a long time.”

This process informed how Safe from Hate took shape, Walsh added.

“We spent months working on the language to make sure it was broad,” she said. “Each company has ways to implement these broader principles. We wanted everyone to join in the journey wherever they are, so it works for nonunion, union, large or small contractors. Everyone can use these as guiding principles to find where they fit in.”

Essentially safety
Kupcak said she and others have been in communication with the Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industries about harassment on jobsites for some time. She hopes to eventually see enactment of regulations that treat discrimination as a formal health and safety issue enforceable by Oregon Occupational Safety and Health.

“We have shifted the way we approach it as an intervention,” she said. “OSHA convened a task force a couple of years ago about harassment, and we are part of that conversation. Not only do we lose really good people – they love their jobs; they just don’t want to deal with it day after day – but people have died.”

A quarter of a century ago, safety began to become an everyday focus for contractors and clients, Andersen said. It was a slow process, but one aided by acknowledgment that it benefited the entire industry. The effort to eradicate racism and discrimination is no different, he said.

“That was a vernacular that was easily understood; it’s part of the everyday DNA of every jobsite,” he said. “The idea to build upon that with the campaign of Safe from Hate was to say let’s just include that in the definition of safety.”

There is no question that discrimination in construction is fundamentally a matter of health and safety, according to parties involved in the Safe from Hate effort.

“It is absolutely a safety issue,” said Michael Burch, the community relations and outreach representative for the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters, which represents over 28,000 union carpenters in Oregon, Washington and four other states. “But it goes deeper than that.”

Beneath the surface
A crackdown on graffiti and casual use of racist language is just a start, Burch said. A broader effort must be made to recruit and retain people of color and women in the trades, he added.

“Instead of hiring folks and letting them languish out there, (firms’ leaders) need to be intentional about the leadership paths they put them on,” he said. “There’s a problem with porta potties and lunchrooms, but that’s low-hanging fruit, and we can do that. It’s a problem when you walk onto a construction site and there are 100 workers and they are all white males.”

Changing that is not only the right thing to do, Burch added, but also good for business. The Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters implemented positive jobsite culture training some time ago, and Safe from Hate fits neatly within those parameters. The goal is to strengthen the workforce and increase the flow of skilled labor to contractors and jobsites.

“We talked to the apprentices about whether or not they would go back to work tomorrow and asked if they would enjoy it, and most said no, they go for the paycheck,” Burch said. “We spent 18 months developing this curriculum. It’s in the safety class, which all apprentices take, and it’s a training that goes to jobsites.”

The carpenters’ union has even made this training mandatory at its jobsites. Some members have participated multiple times.

“It works for a while, but it’s a marathon, because our work is transient,” Burch said. “They are on the site when the training happens; (then) their work ends and they are off to other areas, and it’s right back to business as usual. So, you have to continue to water those seeds that you planted.”

History shows organized labor is strongest, Burch added, when everyone – “Black, brown, BIPOC folks” – comes together.

“It keeps being pointed out that the industry is weaker because of the divisions, and we’ve done quite a bit of work in that area,” he said.

Optimism for change
In the end, this is only a start to what promises to be a long and potentially frustrating process. But in Portland, at least, a tipping point may have finally been reached.

“We are just beginning, but, man, does it feel exciting to be where we are,” Andersen said. “I say that with this mixture of ‘Here I am, a white guy pumped about what we’re doing.’ But the part that sickens me is, for so many of our peers in the industry and those who have found themselves not welcome, this has been their life’s existence. And we haven’t done enough.”

Open acknowledgment of the problem is encouraging, McCoy said.

“It’s a marathon and not a sprint, and some may not be as equipped or have the systems in place to wrestle with this reality that there is racism and discrimination, big time,” he said. “This is not the first attempt at this, but typically we don’t have the top dogs using their time in the room and saying, ‘It starts with us.’ Now we’ve got that commitment, and it’s a beautiful thing.”

Already, there are signs of progress. Haines noted that several months after the noose was discovered at the Andersen Construction jobsite, a similar incident occurred at a Hoffman Construction jobsite. This time, there was a much more serious response. It was treated like a crime scene, she said, and the person found responsible was removed from the project immediately and disciplined.

“Part of the work is we don’t want to sweep it under the rug, and we found that Hoffman reacted night and day differently than Andersen,” she said. “They shut the site down, called the police, and we have tried to share that example. It was a painter, and the union wrote a letter right away and said they won’t defend members who engaged in this behavior. It was a coordinated effort and transparent.”

That’s why Petrone and others are optimistic.

“I’m not sure it will take 30 years to really shift the way we think of our current jobsite culture here,” she said. “I think it can be done. It might take a Coca-Cola ad, but we’ve already seen awareness and change come in this short period of time.”

After all, it’s about working for a better industry.

“It can’t just take people that look like us,” said Twauna Hennessee, who will soon take over Burch’s position at the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters. “We need everyone not being afraid to speak truth and putting action behind what we hear.”

Did You Know?

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