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On a September afternoon in 2009, two union carpenters, a man and a woman, were in a Philadelphia Housing Authority vehicle near the PHA Scattered Sites Maintenance office in Southwest Philadelphia. The man, according to a police report, grabbed the woman’s thigh, exposed himself and demanded that the woman perform oral sex.

The woman refused. She then wrote a letter to her PHA supervisor concerning the incident. When nothing was done, court documents say, she went to the police, and things worsened from there.

The alleged victim, Theresa Howard, would not speak in public about her case, citing the fact that it is pending. But in documents filed with the court her lawyers state that the sexual assault was part of an ongoing pattern of harassment and retaliation she faced on the heels of a federal discrimination lawsuit that she and three other women filed against the Carpenter’s Union.

Howard, Tanya Mitchell, Ellen Bronson and Shenecqua Butt filed the suit after completing the Carpenter’s Joint Apprenticeship and Training Program (CJAC), a PHA-Carpenter’s Union effort designed to train public housing residents for union jobs. CJAC was supposed to give those who successfully completed the training the chance to work themselves into good-paying jobs in the construction trades. For a time, it worked that way, but once the women got their union cards, they said work was scarce and that it was because they are black females.

In the early stages of the women’s lawsuit, the Carpenter’s Union agreed to numbers that seemed to bolster those claims. The figures showed that male union members’ hours increased during the economic downturn of 2007-2008, while the black female carpenters in the suit experienced decreases in hours worked ranging from 62 to 88 percent. I called the Carpenter’s Union and asked them to explain why men’s hours increased during the economic downturn while women’s decreased so greatly. The union’s lawyer, Marc Gelman, said the numbers were wrong.

I was floored, because the numbers were based on work history reports provided by the Carpenters Health and Welfare Fund of Philadelphia and Vicinity. In other words, Gelman claimed that the union’s own numbers were inaccurate.

Why, I asked, would the union agree to use incorrect numbers in a federal court case? Gelman said that the union agreed to the numbers in order to avoid the cost of further analysis in a case that was about to be dismissed through summary judgment.

As it turned out, the first federal judge did dismiss the women’s suit, but they appealed and the federal Appeals Court granted them a new trial, which is due to be held next year.

Still, Gelman’s argument about the numbers being wrong made no sense to me.  So,  I pressed him for a more plausible explanation. He accused me of playing games. But as I look through the documents associated with this case, it appears that the only games being played are the kind that women and minorities have long complained about when it comes to obtaining equal treatment from Building and Construction Trade unions.

For example, Howard and the other women claim that when they asked for union assistance after their hours were greatly decreased, Carpenter’s Union business agent Mark Durkalec told them things like, “my people are still out of work,” or,  the contractors who make final hiring decisions “don’t want to hire you,” intimating that it was the contractors and not the union engaging in racial discrimination.

Those kinds of excuses are common, according to female and minority union members who declined to give their names because they feared union retaliation for speaking publicly. The reality, say union members and others familiar with the hiring process, is that the unions — while not doing the actual hiring — effectively select the members to answer a business’s call for a certain number of carpenters. Workers get jobs based on relationships, and when those relationships crumble, the opportunities dry up, and the jobs eventually disappear.

That’s what Theresa Howard alleges happened to her. Howard, who began the CJAC apprenticeship program about nine years ago, at first got work through PHA and the Carpenter’s Union, but was laid off by PHA in 2005. In 2008, Howard returned to PHA. She joined the lawsuit alleging discrimination by the Carpenter’s Union. Because of this, her lawyer states, she was the victim of retaliation on the job by fellow union members.

Howard filed another discrimination lawsuit against the Carpenter’s Union earlier this year, this time naming PHA as an additional defendant. In that suit, Howard alleged that the harassment she faced while working for PHA went well beyond the sexual assault she reported to police in 2009. She said she was also assigned to work under hazardous conditions, denied the tools she needed to properly do her work, and subjected to sexist comments by her male co-workers. Worse, she said in court documents, nothing was done when she complained to her PHA supervisors, who also happened to be members of the Carpenter’s Union.

The harassment came to a head, Howard’s suit alleges, when she was threatened on a PHA job site by a male co-worker in March 2011. She reported the incident to the police, to PHA, and to the Union. Though no charges were filed, action was finally taken following that complaint. Howard was fired.

The suit says PHA cited fighting as the reason for Howard’s termination, but Howard and her lawyers say she was fired because of retaliation for her earlier lawsuit, and for complaints of racial and gender discrimination on the job.

I contacted PHA with a list of questions regarding the suit last week.

“PHA’s policy is not to comment on any active litigations,” PHA spokeswoman Nichole Tillman said in a prepared statement. “Over the last two years, PHA has required that all its employees are trained in its EEO and anti-discrimination policies.”

As for the Carpenter’s Union, a judge partially dismissed the claims made against them in Howard’s suit, leaving race and gender discrimination claims in place. Gelman, the Carpenter’s Union’s lawyer, said the union has done nothing wrong, and will vigorously defend all claims.

I’m sure they will, but that’s not the point. The point is that a well-meaning initiative like the CJAC program, whose stated goal is to train PHA residents for solid union jobs, can’t possibly succeed if the participants’ job opportunities are stymied by racism and sexism. And in an organization so thoroughly dominated by white males, to the near-complete exclusion of other groups, there is bound to be some bias. That’s an uncomfortable truth, and one that needs to be aired.

Perhaps, as the claims made by Howard and the other women are argued in court, both that and other truths will rise to the fore. Maybe someone will realize that a work environment where harassment and violence can take place is not safe for anyone, no matter their race or gender. The fact that there is strength in diversity might dawn on someone with the power to affect change.

But if those truths don’t occur to someone in that courtroom, perhaps it’s time for the rest of us to say that those truths matter to us.

Click here to read Part 1 of Where There’s Smoke … 

Cover Photo: A tee-shirt created by the women involved in the discrimination suit. Photo by Solomon Jones