Perspective: Building Equality Within Our Union
“The era of Jim Crow is formally over, but racism continues to drive a wedge between people who have more to gain by standing together than apart.”
–Meagan Day, “Unions Are Essential for Eliminating Racism“
Our union prides itself on many things; the skill and efficacy at which we do our work, the change we bring to families, and the good we do within our communities. Our pride is our strength as we guard against attacks that would weaken our union and our rights as workers.
If we do not make a change to address the inequities within our industry, that same pride will be our downfall.
The Jim Crow laws were laws at the state and local level that allowed communities to enforce racial segregation in many of the southern parts of the United States. It wasn’t until 1964, that the Civil Rights act legally ended the segregation institutionalized by Jim Crow laws.
Few minorities hold leadership roles, and women even fewer. Apprentices are relegated to clean up, rather than being taught the necessary skills to advance to journeyman status. Women and people of color are met with hostility and made to feel like they do not belong.
These actions destroy the trust of our Brothers and Sisters. They do not feel safe on the job, they are not given the opportunity to grow in their careers. So they decide to leave. Often sacrificing their union pay and benefits for a safer, more welcoming workplace. If we are to build the future of our union, we have to expand who we allow in. Who we mentor and grow in an already challenging industry. If we do not, our retention numbers will continue to be dismal, and we will continue to lose our most precious commodity–our pool of professional carpenters. What is the future of our union if we continue to lose a majority of our apprentices to bad culture?
We spoke with Jason Downard, a former Neo-Nazi who joined the union. As someone who had come from a group driven by causing division and hate, we asked him to share his perspective.
Why Fear Cannot Drive Us
“I became a Skinhead in 2009. I’ve done my fair share of hate crimes. I left that movement in 2016, when I left prison for the last time. I got tired of hurting people, and I was tired of hurting myself.”
Jason Downard is a 3rd term apprentice from Local 1503. He joined the union a year and a half ago. As well as volunteering with the homeless, Downard also works with the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crimes and has appeared on CNN, the Samantha B Show, and documentaries educating people about how hate groups recruit members.
“The more people who come out about their story and how they were involved in these groups, the more we’re able to call attention to it.” Downard mentions how he and his colleagues have received death threats for publicly discussing the things these white supremacy groups use as tactics.
“Skinheads often recruit younger people and get them good-paying jobs in blue-collar work. They’re grateful for that opportunity, and they stay loyal. As they continue to move into more powerful positions, they help the movement.”
“These [white power groups] think that by committing hate crimes and perpetuating these beliefs, they’re making the world a better place.”
A Change in Perspective
When asked what changed his mind, Downard brings up how they were trying to turn him into a career criminal, where he would likely spend the rest of his life in prison if he got in trouble again. He went to treatment for a while and met other people who had faced hardship like him–some of them were people of color. “They helped change my views. I realized they were going through the same problems I was, and I started to ask myself why I was judging them for their skin color.”
“We see it on social media, people criticizing but not offering to help. We have to change that.”
There was another factor that helped change Downard’s mind–someone much closer to home. “My sister had a son who was half black and half white. The kid was two maybe three years old, but the way he would look at me… It felt like I was seeing myself through his eyes. I always felt guilty around him.” Downard recalls, “He would look at me funny and, even at that young age, he seemed to know what I was about. If you know me, I can’t hate family. I couldn’t hate my nephew.”
“I saw the Black Lives Matter statement from Evelyn Shapiro. I want to be a part of that. I have that outreach experience, and I want to help it happen.”
When asked about some of the division within our Union, Downard had this to say:
“It’s surprising how divided we are. We have a lot of older people who don’t want to teach people because they’re worried it’ll put their position at risk.”
With the American unemployment rate sitting at 11.1% as of June 2020 (Statista), Downard believes many are stressed and worried about future employment, feeling like their colleagues are a threat. But this has been ongoing for longer than the pandemic, many have jealously guarded their trade secrets since the dot com crash of 2000.
“You see negativity in the union– some men discriminate against women because they think they don’t work hard, so women get stuck cleaning. And a lot of apprentices get stuck cleaning when they could be learning. When you’re only doing that, you’re not getting trained on what you need to do. The quality of work suffers. A lot of companies are taking advantage of that.”
“People sometimes don’t ask because they’re afraid to ask. A lot of people won’t ask because you get a lot of people lashing out on job sites. We see it on social media, people criticizing but not offering to help. We have to change that.”
But Downard has hope. “I believe if the union wants things to change, we need to speak to the new and younger members coming in and those who are in now. We can push it to be a better place. We can break the status quo and be better. If people want things to change, they need to attend their meetings and help that change happen.”
How Do We Move Forward Together?
“If I see something on the job site or in my community, I speak up.” Downard says, “As union brothers and sisters, we can stand up and not sit back and watch. If nobody takes the time to step in and say something, nothing changes, you’re just as guilty. More people need to say ‘No, that’s wrong.’ and diffuse the situation.”
One solution, Downard suggested looking into your company’s harassment and discrimination policy. Some contractors have departments dedicated to handling disputes. If nothing is done about the situation, then it is time to call your union rep.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re an apprentice or a foreman, you’re entitled to say what needs to be said if something is wrong.”
Facing harassment on your job site?
We put together a guide for how to best document and report issues on your job.