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Going around in circles over minority hiring

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Back when the $1.3 billion Buffalo schools reconstruction was launched in the early 2000s, the project labor agreement that one official called “groundbreaking” was supposed to create a new pool of minority construction workers to diversify the industry.

By the time future projects – today’s Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, waterfront and SolarCity – rolled around, there would be an ample supply of minority workers. Or, as another official said then, we would have “the workforce of tomorrow.”

Tomorrow is here – and so are yesterday’s complaints, reflected in the recent minority hiring protests on the Medical Campus and at SolarCity.

The source of that early optimism was the PLA guaranteeing the unions work on the schools project, while the locals, in turn, would pursue membership goals of 35 percent minorities and 10 percent women.

What happened? The project’s final figures show that most didn’t come close. The unions’ last census report showed half of the 16 locals below 10 percent for minority members. Highest, at 32.43 percent, was the 74-member plasterers local, whose small size made it easier to reach the goal. Next were the roofers at 22.86 percent and the ironworkers at 18.91 percent. None made the goal for women, either.

Some said that they got little work on the project and therefore didn’t bring in many new members.

“How do I hit a goal if I can’t put people to work there?” said Dan DeCarlo, business manager for the boilermakers, which was at 5.22 percent minority.

Similarly, the elevator constructors – at 4.12 percent – got “minimal” work on the project, said business agent Donald M. Winkle Jr., who said they’ve “only put on one member” since 2007.

Others say they are more diverse today than the numbers show. More importantly, at least one – the carpenters – appointed an inner-city recruiter.

Chris Austin says his local has reached out to minority groups and is starting an inner-city “back to basics” math program to show prospects what it takes to succeed as a carpenter and deal with an obstacle that cuts beyond race: local schools’ failure to teach basic skills. “Kids today cannot read a tape measure and add and subtract fractions,” Austin said.

Paul Brown, who heads the council of local trade unions, said that they are trying, within limits imposed by the state, and that the community should work with them instead of trying to stick it to them. He said that the unions want to staff a training facility like the short-lived Clyde Street program begun early in the schools project, but that he can’t get the city or anyone else to cooperate in supplying a building and equipment.

“We would put at least 40 kids through that program,” Brown said. “Everybody should be focused on that.”

But the numbers are the numbers, and the protesters won’t stop focusing on those until they see more people who look like them working on the projects that are remaking Buffalo.

Somebody – does Buffalo have a mayor? – needs to pull the protesters, unions, contractors and project managers into the same room and come up with a verifiable plan, with the dollars to make it work. Otherwise, we’ll see the same finger-pointing over lack of diversity versus the call for more training.

And another billion-dollar opportunity – just like the schools project – will have come and gone.