By Sadakao Whittington---In Oakland’s current building boom, there is a great debate among residents and members of the local government about when union labor should be used at construction sites. Some people feel that unions add too much to the costs of building. In a time when available housing stock is low, we need to build, build, build. Others believe that the benefits unions provide help local workers gain the resources they themselves need to keep their homes in this increasingly expensive city.
I strongly believe the city will benefit from the enhanced participation of labor unions in the construction of its new buildings. I want to give my perspective on this debate. I spent 15 years in prison for armed robbery. If it weren’t for the help of the UA Sprinkler Fitters Local 483 union, I wouldn’t have been able to start a successful career or get my life back on track.
When I was nearing my release from prison, the challenges ahead of me were daunting. Though I had attended some college courses before I was incarcerated, and had taken some correspondence courses while locked up, I didn’t have the experience I needed to receive gainful employment.
Many employers also have implicit biases against former convicts, which made it tough for me to find jobs where my background wouldn’t get in the way of me being able to make a living. Just prior to my release, I wrote to many different construction trades unions, having heard that they could provide me with gainful employment, not just a job. Gainful employment allows a person to be self-sustaining, living without assistance or need.
The unions I wrote to knew my letters were coming from prison, as the envelopes were clearly marked with the return location. The way Local 483 responded to my letters really touched me. An officer with the union sent me packets full of information, including the history of the union, the details of its membership, and an explanation of its pay scale. The officer also sent me her card so I could keep in touch.
After briefly learning basic construction practices at another union’s training site, I was able to start my apprenticeship with Local 483 within a year of getting out of prison. My apprenticeship has not only given me on-the-job training—work that starts at $23 an hour—it has given me a career.
If I am laid off from a project, Local 483 will dispatch me to another job site to begin work. If after finishing work on a project and the union can’t find other work for me right away, I know its officers will keep fighting to find me another opportunity to use my skills.
Unions believe in not what you’ve done, but what you can do.
My experience can be copied all over Oakland. Unemployment among the formerly incarcerated in Oakland is 70 percent. Around 20,000 people in Alameda County are at risk of housing instability because of their past criminal history. It’s important that these people have viable career opportunities so they have a reason to stay out of trouble and not become part of California state prisons’ 44.3 percent recidivism rate.
Many non-union construction companies are unwilling to hire the formerly incarcerated because of their backgrounds. When these companies do hire former convicts, they tend to provide them with little training and small wages. They do little to ensure that workers’ rights are protected, or that the workers have other jobs lined up after they’re done working on projects.
All projects in Oakland could be built union, so the City Council ought to encourage, as often as it can, project labor agreements that incentivize developers to use a percentage of union labor on their projects. The unions will make sure apprentices with my background—of which there are plenty in Oakland—have an opportunity to develop new skills, build a career, and return to a normal life.
Sadakao Whittington is a 5th Period Apprentice with Sprinkler Fitters Local 483.