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Racism is like smoke. It rises in an instant, choking the life out of everything it touches. Then it disappears, leaving only its stench behind.

Four African American women who joined the Carpenter’s Union after completing a Philadelphia Housing Authority apprenticeship program say their experience with the union reeks not only of racism, but of sexism as well. And in a lawsuit that will be returned to U.S. District Court sometime next year after the plaintiffs won an appeal, the women say they were denied the one thing they sought most earnestly—the opportunity to work consistently as union carpenters.

The program they participated in had promise.  The idea was to give  public housing residents training as carpenters, and—if  they passed muster—they would become full-fledged apprentices, then journeymen. Through their hard work and with the help of the union, they would work themselves out of poverty into good-paying jobs in the construction trades.  It didn’t work out that way, according to the women’s suit.  They did the training, they became members of the union, and for a time, the work came through. But eventually, the black women who filed suit saw their work hours reduced by as much as 88 percent, while men saw their hours increase.

The women say it was because of discrimination.

In their federal lawsuit against Business Manager Ed Coryell, Business Agent Mark Durkalec, and the Carpenter’s Union, Theresa Howard, Tanya Mitchell, Ellen Bronson and Shenecqua Butt say they were subjected to “disparate working hours showing unfavorable treatment to women in general and even greater disparate treatment to themselves, discriminatory comments, admissions that women could have the jobs the men don’t want, [and union representatives] taking care of their people before getting jobs for black women carpenters.”

The women’s allegations in the lawsuit are centered on union work assignments during the economic downturn of 2007-08. As a result of the downturn, “men’s hours increased while women in general, and the plaintiff black female carpenters specifically, were assigned many fewer hours in 2007-2008 than in prior years,” the women claimed in court documents.

The overall decrease in hours for female carpenters was just over 25 percent during the downturn, according to numbers used in court documents for the purpose of summary judgment, but for the black female plaintiffs in the suit, the decreases were major, ranging from 62 to 88 percent.

I reached out to the Carpenter’s Union for comment, and while no one could be reached by deadline, I obtained a copy of a union court brief filed in connection with this case. In that brief, the union faulted the plaintiffs for their decrease in work hours, saying the women did not avail themselves of further training after completing their apprenticeships. Such training, the union said, would have made them more attractive to prospective employers.

But how to explain what Ellen Bronson was told when she complained to the union about her lack of hours?

“I would leave messages on [Mark Durkalec’s] machine, let him know that I’m out of work, I really need work,” Bronson recalled in court documents. “After not receiving an answer from him, I continued to do that. I’m on my way, that’s the only way he would call me, if I called and said I’m on my way to his office. I’d leave that message, then he would call me back. He’d say, Ellen, I just received your message. I’d say, hey, Mark, I’m out of work. I need work, He’d say, Ellen, my people are still out of work. When he said that to me, I said, what do you mean, your people is out of work? I thought I was your people. I was told that you’re my business agent as well. So that conversation, like I said, it did not sit well with me and I didn’t call him after that. Once he told me his people was out of work, that led me to know right then and there I was not considered his people.”

The plaintiffs quote Durkalec saying things like, “I’ve got jobs, but I can’t give them to you,” and telling Shanecqua Butt that he was giving her “jobs that men don’t want to do.” Durkalec allegedly told the women that 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.

But while it’s true that contractors make actual hiring decisions, unions can still be held responsible for discriminatory hiring practices. In United States v. International Union of Elevator Constructors, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals imposed a quota of work referrals for blacks after the Eastern District of Pennsylvania found that “whatever may be said of the employers’ recruitment practices, the uncontradicted evidence discloses that Local 5 has exercised its partial control of work opportunities in the trade to the complete exclusion of blacks.”

No one is asking for quotas here. They’re simply asking for fairness. And given the fact that this battle has been fought again and again, by one generation of black workers after another, fairness is the least that they should ask.

It’s fair for women who were promised the chance to work their way out of the projects to have the opportunity to do so. It’s fair for union members who’ve gone through the apprenticeship process to be hired on merit rather than race or gender. It’s fair for the courts to look at the numbers and conclude that in the case of these women, racial and gender bias is painfully evident. It’s fair for the rest of us to look at the history of Philadelphia’s building trades and call for more racial inclusion. Either that, or toss the building trades out of all publicly funded projects.

But there is a price for speaking up. Both Shenecqua Butt and Tanya Mitchell are no longer affiliated with the union, they say, because they were blackballed as a result of the lawsuit. However, Butt is still employed as a housing inspector for the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA). So is Tanya Mitchell. Theresa Howard? She was fired from her PHA job after the initial lawsuit, and has since filed an additional employment discrimination lawsuit naming both the union and PHA as defendants.

According to court papers filed by the union, PHA and the union enjoy a “unique arrangement” in which the union provides carpenters upon request and PHA is free from any union control of its workforce. This statement may prove to be important down the line since Howard’s suit is rife with accusations of discrimination and more against both PHA and the union.

With charges and counter charges being tossed about, however, one thing is certain. The appearance of race and gender bias in this case is not an illusion. It is borne out by the numbers, and by the women’s continued inability to get what they sought when they initially became involved with the union.

As for what they are seeking in this case, all four women voice a common theme. It’s not solely about them.

“It’s basically for the next sisters that are coming behind us,” Tanya Mitchell told me as we stood outside the Carpenter’s Union headquarters on Spring Garden Street. “We’re doing it so they don’t have the same outcome as us.”

Click here to read Part 2, where Solomon Jones examines the explosive allegations in the suit against PHA and the Carpenter’s Union.