The Persistence of Racial Conflict in American Labor Unions: The Case of Henry Bell

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On January 20, 2006, Henry W. Bell III, a 41-year-old
African-American journeyman electrician, resident of
Champaign, and member of the International Brotherhood
of Electrical Workers Local 601, filed a civil lawsuit
against his union. Bell’s allegations of racial discrimination
against his local, stemming from events of January 2005,
were presented to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission (EEOC), which subsequently issued a
Notice of a Right to Sue, resulting in a court trial by jury
scheduled for this coming November (2007) in the U.S.
District Court in Urbana.
Bell’s charges have been documented both in the court
records and in numerous interviews with the local mainstream
press, with Carol and Aaron Ammons on the
WEFT program “Higher Ground,” and with this writer.
Bell claims that in January 2005, his union’s local officials
violated his rights by failing to refer him to an electrical
contractor who had been hired to perform work at the
UIUC Alumni Center, and who had requested a minority
electrician in accordance with the University of Illinois’
“goals of good faith” regarding affirmative action in the
hiring of minorities and women. Bell’s lawsuit is based on
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which established
the EEOC as a means of evaluating allegations of workplace
racial discrimination for potential legal action.
As stated in the Daily Illini of February 23, 2007,
Michael Herbert, the union’s business manager and representative
in the lawsuit, denies charges of discrimination
and asserts that the union properly and legally followed its
referral procedures. According to Herbert’s comments to
the DI, IBEW Local 601 will defend itself in court. Herbert
declined to be interviewed for this article. In a letter to the
requesting contractor, Rich Grissom of Egizii Electric in
Decatur, dated January 26, 2005, Herbert wrote “there are
no available minority electricians at this time.”
A photocopy of the IBEW Local 601 “Job Referral –
Unemployed Position List” of the same date, provided by
Bell, has Bell placed in the 11th position of seniority, and
as the 1st minority listed. The same document indicates
that Bell’s union dues were paid through February 1,
2005. Central to Bell’s lawsuit is his claim that his union
failed to provide services for which he had paid—in this
case, referral to a local job opportunity to which he was
Aside from the merits or future outcome of this particular
case, it undoubtedly takes place in a well-documented
historical and social context of persistent exclusion and
discrimination on the basis of race in the American labor
movement in general and in the relatively more lucrative
building trades unions in particular. This history is reflected
in the presence, according to Bell, of only 12 African-
American electricians (and four white women) out of 550-
600 working members of IBEW Local 601, and in the only
four or five African-Americans of about 100 fulltime electricians
employed by the University of Illinois at Urbana-
Champaign as civil servants.
If the representation of African Americans among electricians
and the other skilled building trades poorly
reflects their 13% proportion of the local population, it
even more poorly reflects their percentage among the
working classes from which these vocations overwhelmingly
draw their prospects. This racialized occupational
structure is primarily the result of a history of white dominance
among established contractors most able to offer
low bids, informal recruitment into the vocations on the
basis of family relationships, union seniority referral procedures
that generally favor more experienced white
workers over less experienced black workers, informal
union procedures such as the interview process that may
consciously or unconsciously discriminate against African
American applicants, and an educational system that has
made little effort to prepare and recruit minorities and
women for successful entrance into the building trades,
and has been poorly coordinated with the recruitment
process of those trades.
It is illustrative that in 1998, the most successful black
contractor in Chicago noted that that $7 billion volume of
the top three construction firms in Chicago is more than
double the total revenues ($2.65 billion) of all African-
American construction firms in the entire U.S.
The late Herbert Hill, longtime (1951-77) Labor Director
of the NAACP (though white), struggled tenaciously in
the legal arena against racism in the American labor movement
for that period and longer, in relation to both the
more conservative trade unions of the AFL (including the
construction trade unions), and more radical industrial
unions of the CIO. In the former, African Americans were
discriminated against primarily by exclusion. In the latter,
they were discriminated against by inclusion and subsequent
segregation and subordination.
In regard to the 1963 March on Washington that led to
the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and specifically
Title VII regarding equal employment opportunity, Hill
wrote in 1998: “Notable for its absence from the list of
participants, or even sponsors and supporters of the
march was the AFL-CIO. This was no accident or oversight.
The executive council of the AFL-CIO, after extensive
discussion and debate, refused to give its endorsement
or even to recommend that affiliated unions give
their support. The best they could do was to leave it to
‘individual union determination.’”
A central aspect of the Civil Rights Movement during
and since the 1960s has been a struggle against
entrenched white privilege within organized labor, a condition
that could not but have contributed to the decline
of organized labor as a whole in the face of the neoliberal/
neoconservative and corporate globalization onslaught.
A primary tactic in that struggle has been affirmative
action in hiring in relation to publicly funded spending.
Another tactic must become the reform of public education
to better prepare students for more diverse academic
and vocational opportunities in a non-elitist school environment.
One would hope that in a community with a major
public university/employer and an ostensibly reformminded
public educational system, those factors would
converge to create a bottom-up movement for concrete
steps toward racial and economic inclusion in those sectors
that have been historically restricted against African
Americans. Again, whatever the outcome of Bell vs. IBEW
Local 601, one would hope that this would be seen as
indicative of the opportunity to more closely examine the
persistence of institutionalized racism and opportunities
for both the affirmation of rights and structural reform, all
in the spirit of non-racist solidarity.

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