United States

Three-Tier Race-Based Wage Scales

A Black Agenda Radio commentary by Glen Ford

Racial apartheid has reared its head in New York City’s construction industry. State Attorney general Andrew Cuomo has charged a major Manhattan contractor with creating a three-tiered wage scale, with Irish construction workers on top, African Americans a distant second and Latinos at the bottom. The company allegedly cheated workers of all ethnicities out of overtime, while forcing them to work as long as 70 hours a week.

Attorney General Cuomo is seeking $4 million in back wages and overtime and demanding an end to racial discrimination on the job. Members of the carpenters union found blatantly illegal and racist practices at about ten Manhattan construction sites. The race-based wage scale paid Irish workers $25 an hour; Blacks made about $18 an hour, and Latino workers, most of them immigrants, were paid just $15. According to union organizers, the Irish workers were also upset that Latinos did the same work but were paid $10 an hour less.

It should be noted that these glaring violations of labor and civil rights laws occurred before the Crash of last year, at the height of Wall Street’s housing and office construction bubble, when employment in the building trades was relatively high. The conventional wisdom is that management’s ability to divide workers along racial and ethnic lines by favoring one group over another increases as job opportunities decrease. But here we have blatant workplace crimes occurring at the height of a Manhattan construction boom! The sheer flagrancy of the violations indicates that the white business class feels neither shame, nor fear of prosecution.

There is something in the air, and it’s not the blooming of a new, “race-neutral” America. And the racial environment can only get worse as high unemployment becomes a permanent condition for workers of all races. The fact is, worker insecurity has become a permanent condition of the American economy—a direct and purposeful result of corporate domination of both major political parties. If the business class has its way, all workers will be made to feel insecure all of the time; management calls that a favorable business climate. In a political economy that is guided by the demands of business, job security has no place, and the whimsy’s and prejudices of management hold sway. If you give the bosses enough leeway, they’ll bring back slavery.

Lawlessness runs amok throughout the corporate culture, which rewards the victimizing of others. A study released in early September showed that 68 percent of low-wage workers believe they were cheated out of money by their bosses at least once in the past week, with an average loss of 15 percent of their pay. Blacks are cheated three times as much as whites. Black women are robbed by their bosses more frequently than any other workers.

These are facts of life in the American workplace. A rising tide does not lift all boats. Judging by the crimes committed by employers during boom times, rising tides may even encourage employers to steal and discriminate with greater enthusiasm.

Glen Ford is Black Agenda Report executive editor.

—Black Agenda Report, October 19, 2009