Labor experts and union organizers discussed the complicated history of race and ethnicity in organized labor before about 35 students at the Asian American Cultural Center Tuesday night.
The discussion, held before a largely pro-labor audience, addressed the issue of race and unions at both the national and local level. In particular, the panel, which included professor emeritus David Montgomery, sociology professor Christopher Rhomberg, and labor organizers Dan Smokler ’01 and Local 34 member Antonio Lopes, considered the ways in which New Haven’s diversity affects Yale’s workforce.
“On the one hand, unions are one of the very few institutions where people of different races meet for a common cause. On the other hand, many unions have a history of racial exclusion,” said Montgomery, a labor historian.
Lopes, who has worked for Yale for more than 11 years, explained that while overt discrimination may be rare, jobs are not evenly spread among different ethnic groups.
“We know that there’s no doubt that however this has happened, minorities for the most part are doing labor-intensive jobs and everybody else is doing higher-skilled, higher-paying jobs,” Lopes said.
Lopes is a member of the negotiating team representing locals 34 and 35 in contract negotiations with Yale.
In addition, Lopes said he has been encouraging the University to provide minorities with greater opportunities for skills training and job promotion.
“If you look at the numbers, labor grades at Yale are overwhelmingly segregated,” said Smokler, who worked with Students Against Sweatshops as an undergraduate and currently serves as a community organizer in New Haven.
Smokler distributed figures showing that over 70 percent of entry-level service jobs are performed by minorities, while less than 20 percent of skilled tradesmen are black or Latino. While New Haven is over 20 percent Latino, people of Latino descent comprise less than five percent of the Yale workforce, the figures showed.
Rhomberg and Montgomery explained that racial issues at Yale reflect changes that unions across the country have faced. While union members are historically characterized as white males, Montgomery said that the growth of the labor movement was also spurred by African-Americans in the American south and Japanese-Americans in Hawaii, among other ethnic groups.
In addition, Rhomberg explained that while there is “something very democratic” about the way union officers rise through the ranks, the leadership of organized labor has only recently begun to reflect a more racially diverse body of workers.
Ward 1 Alderman Ben Healey ’04, who attended the panel, said that while New Haven has made an attempt to create a diverse workforce throughout the city, it cannot change Yale’s hiring practices.
“All we can do is work to educate our citizenry the best we can,” Healey said.
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