The Chicago Building Trades and
the Building Bridges Project
of the Chicago Interfaith Committee
on Worker Issues

What Happens When Training Becomes Organizing?

Beyond "skills training"

Education for work does not have to be narrowly defined skills training that excludes exposure of students to the social, political and historical aspects of the workplace. However, narrow skills training has more and more become the standard form of education for work. This tendency began to define the U.S. national jobs programs with JTPA in the early 1980s; today, under the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, (WIA), narrow skills training, for which the employer is envisioned as the purchaser of the human capital produced by the training, is almost exclusively what is available.

This paper reviews an alternative example of education for work called the Building Bridges Project (for a comparison of WIA, apprenticeship programs, and the Building Bridges classes see Appendix #1). It is a project of the Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Issues. While the core of the Project is an 11-week math class that meets one night per week, the context in which it explicitly situates itself is social and political. The goal of this math class is to increase access to unionized (called "joint" because they are jointly supported by union and industry) building trades apprenticeship programs for women and minorities, to increase awareness of union apprenticeship programs in minority communities, and to increase unionized construction work in Chicago, especially in minority communities. The math class itself is technical in content, but the logical next steps implied by the goals of the project are made part of the class. These include mentoring by members of minority union caucuses, negotiating apprenticeship positions, leveraging the influence of community development corporations to hire union contractors, and direct organizing of non-union jobs. These steps are made possible because of close support from several strong building trades unions, as will be more fully described below.

All three of these goals involve change and point to the kind of "creative" conflict that Dr. Martin Luther King talked about. Therefore this study of the Building Bridges project will focus on the resistances encountered by Building Bridges students upon graduating from the first two cycles of classes (between January 2001 and March 2002) as they have applied to apprenticeship programs.

Reports of minorities and women in the trades: case studies flesh out limited quantitative data

Since the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and various subsequent executive orders requiring an increase to a certain percentage of women and minority workers on publicly funded projects, there has been an effort to collect data on the numbers of women and minorities in the trades. However, figures below the national level have proved hard to collect. This means that data to confirm or refute the numerous myths about access or retention on a local level is lacking. The Illinois Department of Labor lamented in its 2001 Report on the Progress of Women and Minorities in the Trades :

Unfortunately, after expending the resources to contact (by e-mail, phone, fax and through personal references) objectively hundreds of people affiliated with labor unions and apprenticeship programs, and the agencies that gather respective data, we received only limited data to analyze and include in this report (Chapter 2:6).

Bilginsoy (2001, 2002) has carried out several studies of retention of minorities and women in apprenticeship programs but has had to base them on data from the Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training (BAT) that was tracked only between 1989-95. The alternative has been to do surveys such as that of Chicago Women in the Trades (1992) or case studies such as that of Eisenberg (1998) or Byrd (1999). These studies, like ours, used interviews; they invite apprentices to give their own opinions about their experience once accepted into programs. Ours differs from Eisenberg's and Byrd's in that we are looking at access: the transition from the Building Bridges math classes into the apprenticeship programs. Ours also looks at this transition process through the eyes of the other groups of people linked to the project: minority mentor journeymen, teachers, spokespersons for the apprenticeship programs, and community development corporations that have the potential to hire Building Bridges graduates. While many of the resistances that this transition encounters occur in the relationships between and among these other participants, we assume that as the project progresses, some degree of change and learning will take place throughout the network, eventually making the full circle into organizing more work into which apprentices can be hired.

The structure and context of the Building Bridges Project The Building Bridges Project is sponsored by the Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Issues, part of a national organization called the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice. One staff person, Reverend Anthony Haynes, is assigned as Director of Building Bridges. The Chicago Labor Education Program provides strategic support. Currently, the project has four sites (previously five) at churches in Chicago. The churches provide overhead, space, and help recruit teachers. At each site, students, recruited by word of mouth, attend 11 weeks of evening classes. The class prepares them to take the pre-apprenticeship test and assemble the documents required to get into the unionized construction trades apprenticeship programs. The key presumption is that the work for which they are being prepared will be union work.

The primary unions supporting the project are the Electricians and the Carpenters. Both have given money to fund the project. The Carpenters explicitly view this project as part of their overall organizing strategy and have used organizers to teach the math classes. The churches where classes are taught have also been used as sites where workers employed in the community by sweatshop construction companies (defined as in violation of various employment laws on matters of safety, recording keeping, hours of work, etc.) come to speak with organizers. Some of the students have also worked construction non-union and are using these classes to get into a union. The link between access to apprenticeship programs (training) and the need to increase the size of the labor market (organizing to increase union work) is made concrete and specific in this way.

A group of interested people including organizers from the Carpenters, representatives from the Interfaith, apprenticeship directors (Carpenters and occasionally Laborers, Plumbers, Pipefitters and Painters), representatives from Chicago Women in the Trades, and pastors has formed an Advisory Board, met regularly, and planned a small conference that took place in February 2002 to which representatives of community development corporations were invited. From this conference an organizing committee involving a subgroup of union and community development corporation (CDC) representatives emerged. A third cycle of classes is underway as of Spring 2002 but is not reported here.

All this takes place in Chicago, a city that the New York Times describes as "hyper-segregated" (March 16, 2002). A program like Building Bridges, in a "hyper-segregated" city, has to be explicitly anti-racist. When "education for work" is designed to be anti-racist education for union work, it will meet initial resistance from anti-union power brokers, sweatshop employers, racism within the faith community and racist union practices and ultimately the Chicago political establishment. Changing these relationships within this context will involve individual and collective learning, not limited to the learning of the students in the math classes.

Key questions to be answered in analyzing the Building Bridges Project

When setting up this project, we identified six questions to be answered. Each question related to a group of people or organization involved in this project. Each is distinct from the others because it has its own goals, resources and practices. Some of these goals are inconsistent with the goals of other groups. Some interactions will go easily and some will become "hot spots" as the project continues. When we consider where these groups or organizations will work well together and where their interaction will produce friction, we want to be able to compare these goals, resources, and practices.

The questions are:

1. Who are the Building Bridges students? Where did they come from? Once they graduated, did they get into union apprenticeship programs? What obstacles did they encounter on the way?

2. Who are the clergy and what church communities do they represent? Why did they get involved with Building Bridges? What does this program do for their churches?

3. Who are the teachers? Why do they volunteer? What was their teaching like? Did they get the support they need?

4. Who are the "mentors"? What was their message to the Building Bridges students? What kind of political base or structure do they have in their unions?

5. What union apprenticeship programs got involved? Carpenters, bricklayers, electricians -- Why them and not others?

6. What community development corporations (CDCs) have responded to proposals to hire graduates out of the Building Bridges Project? What does their participation consist of?

These questions were framed early in the project as a way of organizing data as it developed and as a way of developing a strategy. The theoretical rationale for choosing these questions is explained in the next section.

Project method

Given the difficulty of the project - making a small but significant change in a highly structured situation where race, gender, poverty, the collective power of unions and the billions of dollars spent in Chicago on construction all meet - we chose to focus not on the successes of the project but on the resistances. The successes, after all - individual graduates of the Building Bridges Project who were accepted into union apprenticeship programs and then found steady work in the trades -- might be few. The resistances, however, we were sure would be many; we expected them to light up all across the landscape touched by the project. A report of these resistances would then give us the outline of our project.

The theoretical framework which can track and support and analysis of resistances created by a slowly changing system, and around which we organized our data, is Activity Theory (Blanton 1995, Engestrom 1987, Raethiel 1996). AT enables us to identify groups of people engaged in shared activity who have in common a motive or purpose, a set of resources, and a set of rules or customs and history. Activity Theory (AT) presumes that certain characteristics (motives or goals, resources, rules or customs, and history) define the activity of a group. This gives us an activity system as a unit of analysis. The characteristics of individual systems can be quantified and analyzed using standard statistical methods, or described and analyzed using qualitative methods. The research cited above used these approaches. However, it is the mapping of multiple interacting activity systems that enables us to observe both individual systems as they change over time and the interactions among systems. To understand a system as a whole, we look at inner contradictions created by the collective subjects as they work to accomplish their goals. These contradictions are expected to be the sources of change. Similarly, the pressure points that develop as nested or neighboring systems break through, influence or block each other are expected to be the source of change within the combined system (Blanton 1995). The power of AT to anticipate points of stress helps us approach expected resistance strategically and provide supporting structures where possible.

Illustration A

The relationships among elements in the Building BridgesProject.

  1. Construction trades unions;
  2. Apprenticeship programs;
  3. Minority caucuses (with arrows showing attention to apprentices and BB students);
  4. Union organizing departments, with arrows to communities and tochurches that host BB classes;
  5. Building Bridges classes, with arrows toapprenticeship programs and union signatory contractors;
  6. Churches and clergythat host BB classes;
  7. Communities in which these churches are located;
  8. Teachers, who come from communities and churches (note their lack of support);
  9. Community organizations, including development corporations that hire union(a) or non-union (b) contractors.

Illustration A shows the relationships among elements in the Building Bridges Project. We consider each of these elements an activity system. The evidence of desirable change would be as follows: The typical path for a member of a minority community (7) who looks for work in the building trades is through a non-union or sweatshop contractor (9b). The path we are trying to establish is one that moves from the community (7) through a church (6) to the Building Bridges Project (5) and then either directly into a union apprenticeship program (2) with possible work for a union contractor (9b) hired by a community development organization (9), or else through sponsorship by a union contractor (9a) into a union apprenticeship program (2). So we are asking, what happens when someone tries to follow this path rather than the other? What obstacles or encouragement does he or she encounter?

Our study involves participant action, requiring observation, participation, attendance at classes and meetings, document analysis, surveys and interviews. Tracking of student outcomes began in January 2001 when Reverend Haynes became Director (the Project itself was initiated in 1998 under the direction of Reverend Dr. Richard Bundy, who started classes at his own church but did not do follow-up on graduates).

In presenting our work to the Advisory Board of the Building Bridges Project (made up of clergy and representatives from the Carpenters apprenticeship and organizing department, and Electricians union apprenticeship programs), we emphasized that we anticipated discovering resistance. We wrote:

How does one evaluate the impact of a training program? The obvious answer is that how you evaluate a training program depends on what it is trying to do. The Building Bridges program has an advocacy, system-changing goal as well as a training goal; it should not be evaluated like a traditional training program. The success of the majority of training programs, especially since the passage and implementation of the Workforce Investment Act in 1998, has been measured by efficiency: numbers of placements, wages of persons placed, job retention. These measures reflect the expectation that training will increase the number of workers that can be absorbed into the existing workforce at various skill levels but they do not reflect ways in which the entry into the workforce of these new or re-trained workers may change the internal relationships of the workforce itself. Such changes would include increases in numbers of unionized workers, increases of African-American workers in traditionally white workplaces, increases of women in traditionally male workplaces, increases in the number of training programs or workplaces where English was not the only language spoken, increases of entry of historically low-wage workers into higher-wage jobs. Missing from the measures of success under WIA are ways to value changes like this, changes in the internal relationships of a workplace or workforce.

We might think of this program, the Building Bridges program of the Interfaith Committee, as a motor. The ignition of this motor - a very small but essential element of the motor - is 11 weeks of classes, one evening per week, focusing on math with some attention to reading skills, interviewing skills and worker's rights. ...Although the content of the class is technical, the context of the class is intensely political. The motor is set to jack up a building; as it rises, the frame of the building shifts. Where will the points of stress appear? Will something snap? Will it rise equally on all sides? What will look different from the new height?

Economic and social context of the construction industry in Chicagoland

The Construction Industry Service Corporation (CISCO) estimates that $7 billion of construction happens each year in Northeastern Illinois (CISCO:2001). In the Chicago area, the construction industry is the only one given a "favorable" outlook for the near term by the Illinois Department of Employment Security (Putnam and Almousa, October 22, 2001:15). But construction is not recession-proof; it too "leveling off." As of Spring 2002, many union tradespeople are not working (one union reports 10% of its membership not working). When there is not enough work to employ a union's full membership, there is a disincentive to add new members through apprenticeship programs or to organize non-union workers into the union. However, another way to look at organizing is organizing the work , not the workers. According to the Carpenters, non-union construction accounts for 50% of residential construction. (The Plumbers say 65%). The re-hab construction industry is virtually union-free. Increasing the share of the work that is union will increase the number of union jobs. The Building Bridges Project takes the point of view that bringing people from minority communities into the unionized trades will contribute to organizing work that would be otherwise non-union.

However, organizing in minority communities cannot be done without acknowledging that least three major Chicago apprenticeship programs were under well-publicized consent decrees resulting from Title VII lawsuits dating into the 1980s. The news that unions are interested in organizing in minority communities may be greeted with skepticism. The perception in minority communities is that union contractors bring in white male tradespeople who commute from the suburbs, while non-union contractors hire minorities from the community to do work in the community. In minority communities, non-union contractors may be viewed positively because as unemployment mounts, even low-wage non-union jobs are valued. Thus the goal of bringing minorities and women into union apprenticeship programs, and putting them to work in their communities for union contractors, becomes an imperative not only for the workers who need jobs but for the unions that need to mend relationships with minority communities.

Part of the building boom in Chicago consists of the various kinds of development that is taking place on church-owned lands. While churches look to these lands to produce income from sales of houses and buildings, they also have to consider the financial return. As it turns out, several churches that declined to participate in Building Bridges are linked to non-union or sweatshop contractors.

The Building Bridges students and the first two cycles of classes

The outcomes of this project that are available now come from tracking the graduates of the first two cycles of Building Bridges classes to see what their experience applying and entering union apprenticeship programs is has been like. Here, we will describe the students and the Building Bridges classes; later we will describe their experience.

Two hundred and forty five people total applied to the five sites during the first two cycles of the Building Bridges classes. The people who came to each first class had been informed about the classes through word of mouth originating at the churches where the classes were to be held. They appeared at the first class where they were interviewed by volunteers as to their prior work experience and future plans. They ranged in age from 19 tp 50; the average age was 29, also the average for apprentices in joint programs. Many of them had brought with them the documents that would be required for applying to an apprenticeship program: high school diploma or GED certificate, driver's license, social security card, birth certificate, immigration papers. Before the second class, numbers dropped by one third. During the second class in the sequence, a math and reading placement test was given. Typically, while one or two students would work all the math problems, the majority would fail to solve problems involving decimals and basic algebra and half would fail the problems involving fractions. During the second class, mentors from various unions would come and speak about what their trade was like. Minority journeymen addressed the issues of working in the predominantly white building trades explicitly. Their message could be summarized as being that while they experienced racism within the union, the rewards of the job - pay, benefits, high-skill work - were worth it. We will elaborate on their message below.

Many more students then dropped out. Of the original 245, only eighty-two completed the eleven weeks of classes. Of these, thirty-three have not as of April 2002 begun the process of applying to apprenticeship programs. However, forty-nine did apply (or commit to applying) to apprenticeship programs. The students whom we have tracked are those forty-nine.

Applied to Building Bridges 245 100%
Completed BB and graduated 82 33%
Did not apply to
apprenticeship programs
33 13%
Did apply
(or commit to applying)
49 20%

Table 2
Numbers of students who applied to BB,
graduated, applied to apprenticeship programs.

While most of these students have only worked non-union, a few have worked union, for example as warehouse workers, grocery clerks, or in assembly in manufacturing. In the session reserved for a discussion of workers' rights and what it means to be a member of a union, many horror stories get told about previous experiences with union-represented workplaces. The most salient fact about these stories is that they show that these students never understood how to effectively get their union to come to their aid, never knew what it can mean to be a member of a union. For these students, the primary motive for entering the trades is the work and the money, not the union representation.

When the project began, students were recruited from within each parish or congregation. However, as word spread, students began to come from other referrals. One class began with a crowd of over 150; the local alderman had advertised the class as "union jobs" and placed flyers on car windshields. While the class attracts unemployed because of the link to union apprenticeship programs, not all unemployed persons need a math class. We interpret the dropout rate (at least 50% between the first and second classes) as a symptom of an overall need for good jobs.

The churches

The sites are identified here by initials. With their characteristic ethnic community base, they are:

The commitment of these churches varies greatly. For some, providing a useful service to the community is reason enough to participate. Others have been less comfortable with having the classes meet on their premises, especially when it comes to holding organizing meetings in the church. Others have experienced pressure from people from the community who either are from or have alliances with non-union minority construction or development firms. Here, the historical racial exclusiveness of the building trades unions comes home to roost.


The teachers, who are (with one exception, who is receiving $25 an hour through a local community college) unpaid volunteers, have to draw on reserves of personal commitment in order to continue with the project. Several come from the adult education and adult literacy world. One of these is an adult educator who teaches math at a local university; another works in the Chicago public schools and brought his son and daughter to help him in class. Of the teachers with union backgrounds, one is a retired bricklayer. Two organizers for the Carpenters have also been teachers.

The most pressing problem they say they face is lack of materials: textbooks, blackboard, scratch paper, pencils. The Carpenters union has provided free of charge an unlimited number of packs of skills worksheets but these do not contain enough instructional text to enable a student whose math learning has to begin with fractions to work on his or her own. While there are books appropriate for classes like these (for example, Key Curriculum Press, Math Skills for the Workforce , and Martin and Serich, Pre-Apprenticeship Basic Skills Training ) they cost money. Lacking take-home books, students cannot study effectively between classes or telephone each other and work out problems together. The lack of money for materials translates (in a way that is familiar to public sector workers as well as volunteers) to a sense of the lack of societal respect for important work.

Teachers have warned that time allotted for each subject was not enough. Fitting math, interview skills, reading comprehension, the "mentoring" and the workers' rights sessions into 11 weeks seemed impossible. They also said they knew how to approach fractions, algebra, positive and negative numbers, but blueprints and mechanical reasoning were not part of typical adult math. While these comments suggested that a session to train teachers was needed, the teachers themselves declared that they would not get together to practice teaching. One session of training in math teaching for adults was arranged by the teacher who is an adult math teacher, but only one other, the bricklayer, came and participated.


On the second night of class, representatives from the various building trades have attended and talked to the students about their trades. These have included elevator mechanics, pipefitters, painters, electricians, bricklayers, carpenters and others. Two minority caucuses (African American and Hispanic) have sent speakers. The difference between the students' attentiveness to the white male speakers and the African American speakers is dramatic. The most intense attention is paid to the presentations by minority tradespeople who speak explicitly about their experience as members of a minority in a predominantly white trade.

A mentor from a minority caucus in the Electricians union said:

When I was coming up in Chicago you could quit a job today and go across the street and get a job tomorrow. I'm talking about benefits and pension plans, the whole piece, jobs you could take a bus to. When I was a young person you could fumble and bumble until you were 35. If you could walk straight, you'd get in. That's all gone. Remember Clinton - all those jobs? Those jobs were all in the service and tech industry. They didn't build too many steel mills. Now, we're coming off a ten-year boom in construction. Affirmative action is on its way out. It's a more difficult time. The racial piece is more exacerbated: people are competing at the top. They see me, they think: "You're taking my job." There was an image out there that we can't do electrical work because we're black. That's still out there.

He spoke directly to the issue of racism:

If you're going to make a salary in America, you're going to work with white people. It can be pretty disturbing. In the morning, you get up, dress, shower, shave and put on your armor and go to work. It's war. But don't let it take you out.

Another mentor said:

When I came to work, someone said, `Look at the nigger done stole somebody's tools.' They threw bricks. At the next job, they threw human waste. Now, when I look at my paycheck, it's exactly the same as the white man's paycheck. Did you ever see a black man surf? Waterski? Jump out of a plane? I said, if he can do it, I can do it."

When these journeymen from the building trades speak explicitly about racism within the trades, their own survival within the trades, and give advice about how to manage the stress that this generates, the students listen respectfully. The information does not appear to discourage them but is viewed as valuable guidance someone who has survived and succeeded within an often hostile environment. The lesson of this perspective can make or break a student's potential to succeed.

In addition to visiting the Building Bridges classes, the minority caucuses exert political influence within the union. The caucus would watchdog the assignments of apprentices to job site and check that cancellations were made without prejudice. One mentor told how they had managed to get some things changed: for example, an apprenticeship program had required high-school algebra. "This cut out a lot of our people," he said. They managed to get the program to accept a year of algebra done at a community college, so that a person who had failed to take algebra in high school was not permanently cut out of a trade.

Apprenticeship programs

Getting into a joint building trades apprenticeship program is not like going to high school or even going to college. The boundaries of the program are complicated, shaped by history (in some cases, by consent decrees that govern how applications are made available and filled out) and the labor market. Access is not driven primarily by the desire to recruit and enroll a lot of students; it is driven by the need to produce enough workers to control the work of a trade and therefore depends a lot on the market for the work of that trade. But other factors matter, too. The experience getting into union apprenticeship programs and obtaining work, either on the job training as apprentices or as journeymen, depends on four sets of critical factors. These are, very generally:

  1. Individual qualifications: GED or high school diploma, score on entrance exam, etc. The Building Bridge Project attempts to prepare students for these factors.

  2. Individual job readiness: The ability of the applicant to get to the apprentice school, show up for the test, get a physical exam, finish the paperwork and attend regularly.

  3. Program accessibility: The frequency of the tests given by the different programs, the competition for slots, the location of training sites (suburban, urban), frequency with which new classes start up, costs (application fee, initiation fee, periods without pay), legal requirements vis a vis per cent of minorities, women, other requirements.

  4. Labor market: The ability of the union, usually the apprenticeship director or designee, to get positions for apprentices either directly with union contractors or through community development organizations that use union contractors. The tight connection between the availability of work and the size of the apprenticeship class is one of the non-negotiables of these programs. One apprenticeship coordinator called the union's commitment to find work for those it trained a "moral commitment."

These factors are clearly not all within the control of the applicant. For example, items in the third set are a matter of policy set by the apprenticeship program, shaped in turn by decisions made sometimes decades ago about the location and structure of training programs , by regulation under the B.A.T., and by the labor market in that trade at that particular point in time. Items in the fourth set vary with the contractor. Some contractors (in particular, contractors doing work in minority communities or contractors hired by or managed by community development organizations) are eager to accept apprentices from the community. Others are resistant. Items in sets three and four, which are outside the control of the individual applicant and which link the apprenticeship system with the labor market can be thought of as system-level factors. This means that they have as much to do with the likelihood that an individual will succeed as his or her own personal qualifications or effort have, but that they apply to everyone and are not realistically under the control of the applicant.

The apprenticeship programs are proud of both their relationship to the labor market and their demanding curriculum. Pride in the quality of the training is connected to the search for "qualified" applicants. A journeyman explained to the Building Bridges students that 1,800 to 2,000 people apply to the Electricians apprenticeship program in one 11-month window. This number gets whittled down to 1500 who are called to take the test; of these, only top 400 will be called for an interviews; this is then followed by physical exams and drug tests. Those who pass these hurdles then spend 11 weeks in class, during which they do not get paid; the apprentice has to have resources elsewhere to live on during this time. This combination of intense pride and commitment in a highly regulated environment resulting from historical problems of exclusivity means that apprenticeship programs do not bend easily; however, they are motivated by the need to organize, if not workers, then certainly the work.

Community Development Corporations

In Chicago, Community Development Corporations (CDCs) often represent a neighborhood or a collection of neighborhoods and channel federal, state or local funds along with private investment into construction projects, often using tax breaks of various sorts. While these CDCs operate in minority communities, they do not have any particular predisposition to hire union contractors. Yet if they hired union contractors, they could also front load the agreement with the requirement that a certain number of people from the community would be placed on the project as apprentices.

As part of preparation for a small conference in which we brought together representatives of unions, community-based organizations, visited nine CDCs and CBOs to find out how they viewed the potential for either hiring union contractors in order to get apprenticeship positions for Building Bridges students or applying pressure on CDCs to achieve that goal. The organizations we visited ranged from anti-union to having their own local of Carpenters.

The director of one CBO said:

The unions are the main obstacles to getting minorities into good paying jobs in the neighborhood. They care about the wages, not about our folks. Contractors use lack of training so as not to hire our folks. They put training in inaccessible places. The only way you're going to get anything out of the unions is to have another organization pressure them.

The director of a CDC in a Hispanic neighborhood, said:

Success in construction can be defined by the ability to exploit a worker. Depending on your point of view, a contractor is a super-exploiter or a canny business person. The building trades are close to the machine; the race barrier is hard to break. How would you get X (a well-known Hispanic sweatshop contractor) organized? He works hard. He grows, he keeps wages in place while accumulating wealth, he keeps a reserve pool. He will buy a worker a cup of coffee on Wednesday and loan him grocery money until he gets paid on Friday.

He spoke of how he envisioned change happening:

People who work in the field go into business, apply what they've learned on a bigger scale, develop some parameters, build in fairness and economic justice. One of the challenges is that workers must acquire skills, be exposed to unionization ideas, develop a sense of collective bargaining,. This is long-term thinking, part of a larger working class perspective. Contractors - you have to give them enough trouble.

Some CDCs, as the table below shows, are committed to working with unions; others view their role entirely as producing financing for projects with little regard to union or non-union status of contractors.

Type of Community Organization Ethnic/geographic participation Example Type of activity Uses signatory contractors in projects
1. Community-based organization (CBO) City-wide; African-American, Hispanic, Eastern European ACORN, Washington Park. Grassroots lobbying, pressure, neighborhood communications Most do not do construction projects themselves. A few do.
2. Community Development Corporation Local neighborhood; Hispanic Little Village Channels funding for local projects; enterprise zones No.
3. Community Development Corporation Local neighborhood Bickerdike; Resurrection Project Manages low-income housing units; has 25-person local of UBC (Carpenters); has agreements with unions to hire apprentices from community. Does not do training. Finds language (Spanish-English) the greatest barrier. Yes. Has a loan fund to enable small contractors to finance payout. Is starting to go after construction project contracts itself.

Table 3
Characteristics of Three General Types
of Community Organizations

Community organizations (CBOs) of Type 1 may target a construction project to get community people hired on as apprentices. They have the political leverage of grassroots organizations. Examples of such projects would be those planned by the University of Chicago which reportedly has $1 billion in construction planned, or the State Street Corridor (public housing, mostly African-American), or a nearby church (one such church has 2,600 units of housing under construction). These organizations do not report much success getting people into apprenticeship programs, even for city contracts; one was able to get a few people into Laborers, which does not have an apprenticeship program and historically is accessible to minorities. A similar CBO in a west side neighborhood reported that on one $3.5 million job, they were able to get only 8 jobs for community members but those 8 lost their jobs due to poor attendance at work. The leader of that organization said "Contractors would rather pay a fine than hire minorities."

A few organizations CBOs have a training program. For example, one has a 6 hour a day, 5 days a week hands-on "broad sweep" across all trades. This organization reported that when their people apply to apprenticeship programs, the "math kills them." This organization does some construction projects itself, works closely with non-union minority contractors and says, "We're in favor of unions, but we go non-union," making the economic and flexibility argument that non-union workers are cheaper and easier to fire.

Community development corporations (CBCs, Type 2) act as financial channels for funding for community development, gathering state, federal funds and benefiting from tax incentives of various sorts. One such CBC in a Hispanic neighborhood said that non-union contractors were considered "patrons" in the community - "They are hard-working men." There is apparently no Hispanic unionized construction firm in Chicago at present.

Community development corporations (CBCs) of Type 3 do more than merely act as financial channels. One ins particular manages low-income housing units; has its own 25-person local of UBC (Carpenters); has agreements with unions to hire apprentices from community. It does not do training. It reports that language (Spanish-English) the greatest barrier to getting people from the community into apprenticeship programs.

These organizations, and others like them, have the potential to channel enough work into union contractors to make a substantial difference in the number of minority and women apprentices brought into the unionized trades. Yet, as can be seen from their comments, not all are ready to think of themselves as part of that effort.


The outcomes we have tracked at this time relate to the students who have come through the Building Bridges classes. In Appendix #2 we list the 49 graduates of the first two cycles who have committed to apply to apprenticeship programs, along with what we have been able to find out abou t their experience in so doing. The follow-up was carried out in telephone interviews. The outcomes are of three types:

1. Success. The graduate is working in a unionized building trades job either as a journeyman or as an apprentice, or else is progressing normally through the testing and enrollment process, having passed the initial test. Sometimes "progressing normally" means waiting, possibly up to a year. Out of 49, 15 graduates fit in this category.

2. Problem of individual qualification: The graduate failed an apprenticeship test, failed a physical test, or got into apprenticeship program and was let go due to academic failure (in one case, inability to read well; in another fear of heights), language barriers, etc. Out of 49, as of today, 10 fit in this category.

3. System-level problems. System-level problems can be seen as a combination of items 2 and 3 in the list of critical factors listed above. Out of 49, 8 fit in this category (several overlap with outcome #2).

Outcome BB graduates
Success: is in pipeline to
enter apprenticeship program or
working unionized trades
Problem of individual
System-level problem 8 (at least 2 overlap with
"success" category)
No current information
as of April 2002

Table 4
Outcomes for Building Bridges graduates

System-level problems is the category which will give us the most information about where the problems in this project lie. We call a system-level problem any problem that is not exclusively or historically of the individual's making, including lack of transportation, lack of information, lack of familiarity with suburban geography, and reluctance to work outside the immediate neighborhood. Assignment of experiences to this category will be debatable: does the Building Bridges graduate who arrived five minutes late to take a test and was refused admission a problem of individual qualification or a system-level problem? While many of these problems can be solved by an individual graduate, they are also problems system-wide and can be alleviated system-wide. Sometimes we simply assigned a problem to two categories.

Following are some summary notes about the graduates of the first cycle. Individual status of these graduates is listed in Appendix #2.

1. The age range is from 19 to 55, with a median of 29, which is the same as is reported to be the average age of apprentices in apprenticeship programs.

2. The graduates are predominantly male: 44 male, 2 female, 3 unidentified.

3. By race they are 31 black, 10 Latino, 4 white, 4 not identified. Of the whites, one is the oldest, at 55 years old.

4. Nearly half were working at the time they applied to Building Bridges. Sixteen were working full time, seven part-time. Twenty-three were not working, and there was no data on three. Six are ex-offenders: five convicted of felonies, one of misdemeanors.

5. Only three of the 23 not working were receiving unemployment insurance benefits. One had exhausted benefits. Two were on public aid: one on TANF (welfare, general assistance), one on food stamps.

6. Two were veterans.

System-level problems

System-level problems are best revealed when we look at how the problem is viewed from two or more parts of the overall system. We will look at four of them, transportation, cost, language and timing, first from the point of view of the Building Bridges students and then from the point of view of the apprenticeship programs. We will see that these perspectives differ strikingly.

For many students, transportation is a major problem. One Building Bridges graduate told us that he wanted to work in his own neighborhood, Cabrini, or at least "within thirty miles of the city." Several others simply said they did not have transportation. Another arrived five minutes late to the test (tests are given at suburban sites miles from the inner City) another wrote down the wrong address. One student's mother drove him to the program for a while. Reverend Haynes drove seven students himself from one class site to one apprenticeship program (about 40 miles) where they could fill out the application forms.

The difficulty of getting transportation is easy to appreciate. Below a certain income level, people do not own reliable private cars. In addition, for people who have spent their lives in the inner city, the suburbs are unfamiliar territory. Travel to this unfamiliar territory means crossing into neighborhoods occupied by people of a different color because Chicago, which is "hyper-segregated" itself, is surrounded by white suburbs and for African-Americans from Chicago's predominantly black South Side (or near North Side, or West Side) traveling to these white suburbs should be understood to hold real dangers. In both directions - minority to the suburbs, whites to the inner city - this is the geography of racism. However, most of the big apprenticeship programs (electricians, carpenters, operating engineers, ironworkers, etc.) are located in these suburbs. Bus and train transportation to these areas is not good.

From the point of view of the apprenticeship programs (or the organizers, who are likely to be speaking for the union), one of the basic requirements of being able to do the job of a construction worker is that you have a good car and understand that you may have to drive a hundred miles each way to work. Jobs are located all over northern Illinois; it is not unusual, say Carpenters organizers, to travel from Wisconsin to Indiana (across Chicago, in other words) to work. Several of the apprenticeship programs list "reliable transportation and driver's license" in the application requirements. As far as being unfamiliar with and uncomfortable about venturing out of the city into the suburbs: organizers say that this is something that one simply has to get over. Behind comments like these is the consciousness, held by many union journeymen, that they belong to an elite group, highly-skilled and highly paid, true "journeymen" able to go anywhere and use their valuable skills.

The fear of traveling through unfamiliar neighborhoods and the lack of "a reliable car" are not things that the Building Bridges students were comfortable talking about. In meetings where there were spokespeople from both sides of this question, the language sometimes got hot and the topic was dropped. The Carpenters, in the meantime, have built a new satellite training facility in a Hispanic neighborhood southwest of the Loop and the Electricians have an apprenticeship site on a West Side community college location (West Side Tech).

The question of cost came up for many of the Building Bridges students. There is usually an application fee, a union initiation fee of some hundreds of dollars, a period of some weeks during which they are not getting paid at all, or an investment in tools that may run into hundreds of dollars. The required physical exam costs money, too. While some were able to pay these costs, for other Building Bridges students, these costs were simply insurmountable. From the point of view of the union journeymen, these costs are a loan against the future, a tiny percent of what a journeyman's pay will be; surely someone could borrow these amounts from a friend or relative, if one did not have it on hand or saved up. Once again, the obstacle looks different depending on which system one is looking at it from.

Language is a formidable barrier for some students. Chicago has a vast Hispanic community and there are, as of this writing, no Hispanic union contractors. For at least one Hispanic non-union contractor the pay in $8 a day, cash, with no benefits, little safety equipment. Building Bridges organizers (primarily from the Carpenters) have managed to "run" some of these contractors off. But doing so means losing jobs for Hispanic workers from the community. One Building Bridges site is in a Hispanic community and full of Hispanic students. These students need to enter apprenticeship programs where teaching is bi-lingual. While the Carpenters offer a number of classes in Spanish, most unions do not provide any Spanish instruction and some take a principled position against using any language but English.

The timing issue is the source of many misunderstandings about getting into an apprenticeship program. Twelve students talked about "waiting." Getting into most schools or community colleges means enrolling at the beginning of a regular semester. All across the country, people know when a "semester" begins. Apprenticeship classes sometimes put on regularly, but may be "put on" when the need determined by the labor market arises. To applicants, this is a mystery. Again, the two parts of the system collide. The people in one -- the students - have their own goals: to get into a program; the programs have different goals: to train enough apprentices to satisfy the demand for union workers.

These four system-level problems, which our students experience as lack of personal qualifications or resources, or just bad luck, can be addressed to a certain degree at the level of the Building Bridges classes through the mentor program. However, as our discussions with representatives of other players in the system have indicated, these other players can be expected to address them as well. The responses of the apprenticeship programs and the CBOs and CDCs will be studied as we attempt to bring these other players into actives roles in this project.


The Building Bridges Project is now entering the second year in which tracking the experience of students will be possible. However, the project itself is only in its first phase. The goal is to create agreements between apprenticeships, contractors and the project through which graduates can get union work. Implementing these agreements is yet another phase, to be followed by enforcement. Each phase will generate "hot spots."

But we must not forget that we are looking at something bigger here. First there is the problem faced by the building trades generally: the price of historic exclusion, loss of market share, the impending retirement of a generation and the general threat to unionized work. There is also the problem of the unorganized construction workers, vulnerable to exploitation. Third, we have the problem of unemployed inner-city people in minority communities. Yet although these are clearly system-level problems, we cab see from our study thus far that the points of stress where these problems converge are felt primarily by the students as individuals. This is not right. Our analysis enables us to see where else the stress should be felt and what direction change may need to go to shift the pressure to apprenticeship programs (many of which have already responded) and to the CBOs and CDCs. Our analysis also enables us to look at the resources and customs or regulations of the other players and evaluate their power to resist or change.

But beyond this group of players is the background against which this is all taking place: a powerful political machine and a dynamic industry worth billions of dollars, tightly linked to the national economy. The 11-week Building Bridges math class links the individual student to this whole picture. The question we are asking is, "How far can this lead?" For the individual Building Bridges student who is waiting to hear whether he will be called to start an apprenticeship, the question may be, "How long can this go on?"

The Building Bridges Project Director is Rev. Anthony Haynes who envisioned the project, made the contacts, and has developed and maintained the many complex individual and collective relationships that constitute the project. Helena Worthen, Assistant Professor of Labor Education at the University of Illinois Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations, attended classes and meetings, prepared the math curriculum plan, collected teaching materials, solicited volunteers, provided written feedback to the Interfaith Committee and to the Building Bridges Advisory Board, prepared a strategic analysis of constituency groups, conducted (with Rev. Haynes) a small conference to bring participants together, and interviewed participants at various levels of the project. Jocelyn Graf, research assistant at the Chicago Labor Education Program, prepared the student database, did interviewing and attended classes and meetings. Stephanie Smith and Marisol Cruz from the Chicago Interfaith Committee did additional interviewing.


Bilginsoy, Cihan. 2002. Minority Shares in Skilled Occupations and Trade Unions: Evidence from Construction Trades Apprenticeship Programs . Paper presented at !RRA 54th Annual Meeting, Atlanta, GA 2002.

Bilginsoy, Cihan. 2002. The Hazards of Apprenticeship Training: Quit, Completion and Duration. Unpublished paper. Department of Economics, University of Utah.

Blanton, Bill. 1995. "Engestrom trajectory."

Chicago Daily News. "Contractors Back Union's Bias Fight". July 18, 1963. No page number visible.

Chicago Reporter. Illinois FIRST: Swing Districts Favored Over Minority Areas . Musgrave, Beth and Whitson, Jennifer (

Chicago Tribune. "Race-bias case ends quietly" , February 18, 1986 . Warren, Possley and Tybor. Business: p. 1

Chicago Women in the Trades. 1992. Breaking New Ground: Worksite 2000. Prepared by Laurie Wessman LeBreton and Sara Segal Loevy under ETA Grant 99-1-3603-75-002-02. CWIT: Chicago, IL.

Construction Industry Service Corporation (CISCO). Build Your Future with a Career in Construction: A Guide to Apprenticeship Programs in Northeastern Illinois . 616 Enterprise Drive, Suite 100. Oak Brook, Illinois 60523. 630-472-9411. June, 2000.

---------------. 2000 annual report. 616 Enterprise Drive, Suite 100, Oak Brook, Illinois: 2000.

CISCO Communicator. "Minority contracting to be closely watched." 616 Enterprise Drive, Suite 100, Oak Brook, Illinois: September 2001. p.3

Eisenberg, Susan. 1998. We'll Call You if We Need You: Experiences of Women Working Construction. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Engestrom, Yrjo. 1987. Learning by Expanding: An activity-theoretical approach to developmental research . Helsinki: Orienta-Konsultit.

Illinois Department of Labor. 2001. Progress of Women and Minorities in the Workforce .

New York Times. "Chicago, in Black and White." March 16, 2002. Op ed A-26.

Putnam, G. W. and Almousa, W. Local Economic Impact of Terrorist Attack. Presentation at Governor's Workforce Development Conference, October 22-24, Springfield, IL. Illinois Dept of Employment Security

Raethiel, Arne. 1996. "On the Ethnography of Collaborative Work." In Yrjo Engestrom and David Middleton (eds), Cognition and Communication at Work . New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Information personally communicated by Dennis Cook and Dan McMahon, UBC; Russell Ponder, Geri Harston, IBEW; John Drozdek, UBC; Lewis Stokes, Rich O'Connor, UA; Donnie Starks, Bricklayers.