How Discrimination Impacts Our Union
“If we can’t figure out how to make America better for our children, where is hope for us? It’s not going to get better unless the change is better for everybody.”
–Journeywoman Nickeia Hunter, LU 146
We often say ‘an injury to one, is an injury to all,’ but what happens when the injury is committed by your own Union Brother or Sister?
On June 17, 2020, Executive Secretary-Treasurer Evelyn Shapiro released a statement voicing support of the Black Lives Matter movement and combating racism within our industry. Two days later, on Juneteenth, the Local-elected Executive Board passed a unanimous resolution to support BLM protests.
To shed light on the discrimination some of our members still face on job sites today and why this decision was so momentous, we spoke with Nikeia Hunter, a Black Union Carpenter who has experienced discrimination in her career in the construction industry.
“Nobody is saying Black Lives Matter and nobody else. It’s also not okay to break into businesses and loot because you’re angry.”
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
My name is Nickeia Hunter. I’m a journeyman from EIS Local 146. I’ve built grid ceilings for 10 years.
Our Union has come a long way and made some good changes, but there’s still a long way to go.
Most of what I’ve learned as a carpenter has been from watching others work. Early on, I realized people didn’t want to teach me because I’m a Black woman. One day I said to myself, “No more crying. I was going to figure it out.” I was going to get it done. I might have had to step back and take the time to figure it out, but now I can do it safely and three times as fast. It takes each other to be successful.
I’ve seen so many people come into the union. It’s a great way to change the foundation of your whole life. I have built a great life for my family. My kids have my trust, insurance, and more—things I could never have given them until I joined the Carpenters Union.
“I quit letting people make me mad because I realized I would internalize it… someone else’s self-hate has nothing to do with me. I’m not gonna let anyone do that to me.”
To help others understand, can you share what sort of discrimination you’ve faced on the job site?
I don’t think I can list them all.
I’ve had people hide my tools, and I spent the morning walking around the whole job site trying to find my stuff. I’ve been harassed, called names like “Baby” and “Mama” and other less-polite names. I’ve had a foreman make it clear I wasn’t welcome on a job site.
If you are facing discrimination on your job site, reach out to your Steward or union representative. Be sure to document any harassment you encounter.
There are so many justifications made for people who don’t work as hard due to feeling privilege of relation, but if I don’t work hard, they tear my work apart, talk about me like I’m an idiot to each other and make mocking jokes.
I had one guy tell me, “You’re only here because you know the foreman.” He tried to make me feel like I was unnecessary. He wanted me to feel like I wasn’t there on my own merit, but because it was by the grace of someone else.
I’ve gotten in the habit of leaving my shit at the door. Meaning the things I’m going through in my personal life. Once I walk on a job, I’m a carpenter, nothing else. Some people will try and poke to see what your life is like. They’ll ask things like, “What made you want to be a carpenter?” which leads to “What does your husband think of that?” Ultimately, they’re trying to figure out if they can get with you or harass you because no one’s home.
And it’s not just me. I have a son who’s also faced similar troubles on his jobs as well. As a first-term apprentice, he was put in a forklift with a heavy load and no supervision. He had no experience, but they left him on his own to transport a heavy load. He ended up tipping the load, something that wouldn’t have happened if he’d had a supervisor. They put his life in danger, and then they let him go because of their mistake.
Now he has been laid off and has trouble getting on no matter the lead, yet other people will get a job before him at a company that wasn’t hiring when he called. He’s so fed up he’s about ready to join the military.
Some people would quit under those circumstances. How have you continued despite the harassment?
When I told my dad I wanted to be a carpenter, he told me I couldn’t do it.
He told me, “Do you understand you’re looking at working in a union full of white men who don’t want you there?”
He wanted me to understand how rough they were going to make it for me. It hurt my heart, but I’m glad he said it because he warned me. Because of that, I knew it was going to happen. It didn’t hurt so bad that way. Because of that warning, I could say, “Oh, I knew you would make it hard for me.”
It was the mentality I had to hold on to so I could stay strong and confident. I quit letting people make me mad because I realized I would internalize it. I’d start picking myself apart. I would ask myself what I was doing to deserve this hate. But someone else’s self-hate has nothing to do with me. I’m not gonna let anyone do that to me.
If we can’t figure out how to make America better for our children, where is there hope for us? It’s not going to get better unless the change is better for everybody.
Some people don’t think the Black Lives Matter movement–a movement calling for an end to police brutality disproportionately targeting communities of color and addressing the racism still faced by Black Americans today–aligns with union values. What are your thoughts?
It’s beyond sad that people can’t put aside their pettiness. Nobody is saying Black Lives Matter and nobody else. We’re saying we’ve been put under the boot, the bat, the baton, and the dirt for far too long. Our lives are being snuffed out on TV and in broad daylight as if it were some game… This is life and we’re done letting it go.
We’re being treated as if there are separate rules that govern us because our skin is black. The laws have to be equal, no matter your color they need to be color blind to have justice for all. We must first be seen as the same.
It’s also not okay to break into businesses and loot because you’re angry. It’s not okay to tear down monuments to deface your community. I only have one brother, and he’s dead. But that doesn’t give me the right to suit up and kill more people. Because he was allowed to be killed by the police my tax dollars pay.
Because of George Floyd’s murder, his tragic loss of life, in that devastating life-altering moment that people caught on film, there is light being shed on the police murdering our brethren. I recognize the police have a job and a purpose. For them to do their job, we have to make sure they’re being held accountable. We need justice for their actions because justice brings about the end of injustice.
“There’s a way to make people feel included without kissing ass. The best way to be an ally is not to allow the hate into the workplace. There can be no room for it!“
Until I joined the union and started making the money I did, I couldn’t move out of the neighborhood I lived in, it was important to me to find a new start for my daughter. The district she attended school in Kindergarten to 4th grade was rough for her. Every day she came home with a new situation, being bullied, and leaving her questions of why she doesn’t fit in with the other kids. They would pour milk on her, call her all sorts of terrible racist names. She dealt with that every day at school. Kids are taught that sort of thing, and kids learn about themselves through peer interactions at school. This allowed behavior is not acceptable anywhere or it allows injustice to be done to the groups deemed not good enough.
There needs to be change everywhere–in the schools, the job site, in the home. If we don’t stand together, we’ll fail to teach the next generation the simple empathy for life, the life of everyone. You have to have unity of some kind.
You personally have been affected by police violence in your area. Can you share your story?
Right now, we’re getting ready to send a letter to the governor. We’re demanding a new investigation into the death of my brother. He was gunned down in his car by police. He left behind six children–one of whom never got to meet him. They kept repeating he was a gang member, but he’d left that life behind to focus on family. They tased him 4 times in 25 seconds and then shot him 16 times. He didn’t even have his seat belt off.
There’ll never be an end to these protests. They’re not going to let up. The demands people are making are for the livelihood of our families. We’re done burying our family while watching people with white skin kill dozens–hundreds–of people in daycares, movie theaters, malls, and schools across America. You tell me how many of these killers get shot with so much as a rubber bullet. These people are still waiting for their day in court, while our people are dead.
We see the difference with how we’re treated and how we’re slaughtered. And we aren’t going to stop protesting the slaughter of our children.
What can we do, as Union Brothers and Sisters, to help support women and minorities on our job sites?
There was an apprentice who killed himself, but not one of the good old brothers took the time to see if something was wrong. All it takes is not being a jerk or acting like someone did something to not be allowed to sit at your lunch table. We’re here to lift people up. That’s what a union does. Not to make jokes of and tear down the spirit of the apprentices.
When a noose is found on a job site, it means people are going out of their way to make you feel uncomfortable on a job. There’s a way to make people feel included without kissing ass. Diversity can be a thing without it being the elephant in the room.
I’ve stopped people from hazing others. Yeah, it makes some people feel good bringing somebody else down, but it hurts us all in the long run. We lose the trust we have in one another because you don’t know if what you’re being told is right or if someone’s just messing with you.
The best way to be an ally is not to allow the hate into the workplace. There can be no room for it!
Northwest Carpenters Union is dedicated to fighting inequality for all workers. Click here for steps on how to document harassment or discrimination on your job site.