Lack of work concerns some Black carpenters

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When Eric Woodard read in the New Pittsburgh Courier about apprentice carpenter Alexandra Gilmore telling the crowd at a recent union trades job summit that she went to seven job sites and couldn’t get hired at any, he wasn’t surprised.

During times in his 30 years as a journeyman carpenter for Local 165, Woodard has had to leave the state to find work because for a number of reasons, Blacks are not getting enough of the available union work, he said.

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PASSING IT ON—Carpenters’ Union Business Agent Harold “Mac” McDonald with first-year apprentice Tyrone McCray pose after McCray and classmates built and dismantled a house inside the Union’s new training facility on Ridge Road.

“In New York, they don’t mess around,” he said. “If there are out of town guys on a job and one of their local guys is on the bench, one of those out-of-towners has to go. We don’t have that here.”

Woodard said he’s been on several job sites where carpenters and tradesmen from well outside Pittsburgh were working while people he knew sat idle.

“I was working on a job for UPMC down on Second Avenue in the Summer, and there were guys from Sharon, Pa. on that job,” he said. “Now, by the book, Pittsburgh guys should be there, but it doesn’t work that way. It used to be that seniority mattered, and that the guys on the out-of-work list the longest were the first called back.”

In addition to any jobs his local might steer his way, as a journeyman, Woodard can solicit his own work from contractors he has worked with over the years.

“I call contractors I know and, by the grace of God, they sometimes need me,” he said. “And Harold McDonald, our business manager, is a good guy and he’s gotten me work.  But it’s not like that for everyone. I know people who’ve had to quit because they couldn’t get work.”

McDonald, however, is puzzled by Woodard’s complaint because, he said, Woodard works all the time. As for out-of-town guys working on Pittsburgh jobs, he said that’s up to the contractor.

“That’s what we do, we’re here to service the contractors,” said McDonald. “If a contractor is from out of town, he may want to bring in guys he trusts in a few positions. Sure he has to pay them to travel too, but it’s his reputation on the line.”

He also said though there is less work this year than last, most of the members, including Black members, he represents are working.

“Of the roughly 6,000 union carpenters we have in the nine-county region, 300 are on the out-of-work list,” he said. “Six of those are Black. We have about 850 Blacks and 240 women in the region.”

During a tour of the council’s new state-of-the-art training facility off the Parkway West, McDonald said idle workers are called back based on their skills and contractors’ needs. As a rule, residential carpenters cannot work on industrial projects because the building code requirements and required training are different. Cabinet Makers only fabricate cabinets. Heavy Highway carpenters only do concrete forms for roadwork.

“But the great thing about the union is, if you want to upgrade your skills, you can always come back here and get the training—for free,” said McDonald.

Several first-year apprentices at the new facility said they love being in the union. Tyrone McCray of the North Side is building senior housing as part of the UPMC Passavant expansion in North Hills. He said he recommends joining the union to people all the time.

Maurice Ford, another first-year apprentice who is working on the Bakery Square project in East Liberty said there are four more Black carpenters on that job.

“I’m loving this,” he said. “I love going to work. I used to be an over-the-road trucker—that job I didn’t mind calling off.”

Steve Woods, who is working on refurbishing dormitories at Bethany College, said he joined because, as a salesman, he could only advance so far regardless of his numbers.

And about Gilmore telling folks she couldn’t find work, McDonald was at that meeting and spoke with her.

“That was odd because I didn’t know her—and I know everybody. It turns out she’s a first year apprentice from New York,” he said. “She’d only been in her local for three months—you can’t transfer from a local for at least six months—I mean this training is expensive. So, things aren’t always what they seem.”

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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