Join the Fight for I-81 Jobs! Speak up for Racial Equity in the Building Trades!

From the May/June 2019 PNL #866

by Aggie Lane

The 154-page Racial Equity Impact Statement (REIS) report
gives a detailed analysis of imbalance in the building/con-
struction workforce in various recent projects in Syracuse.
This report is available online at


The Hancock Airport, Lakeview Amphitheater and I-690 construction projects had 87.9% of the workforce white (823 of
936 employees),and 86.8% of paid hours going to white workers, 50.5% of the City of Syracuse's population is
non-Hispanic white (and 55% is whiteincluding the white Hispanic population).


Do you drive by Syracuse construction sites, craning your neck to check out who’s working, to see how many are black and brown faces, to see how many are women?
I do. Urban Jobs Task Force (UJTF) members do, too. Our take: there’s mainly white men “on site.” And we have reason to believe most of them aren’t Syracusans. If we are correct, then the I-81 Viaduct Project with its thousands of construction jobs won’t employ city residents, especially minorities living in the Viaduct’s shadow
and struggling daily with concentrated poverty.

Since 2012, the UJTF has been advocating, and mobilizing residents, to demand an inclusive construction industry and to push for local hiring goals on publicly-funded construction projects. Two of our successes have been the city’s 2016 Resident Employment Ordinance and the current $300 million city school renovation project. Both the city ordinance and the school renovation have a 20% city resident hiring goal. So, why not demand a local city resident hiring goal for the Viaduct project with its good-paying highway construction jobs?

Unfortunately, the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) stipulates that there cannot be any local hiring goals, when it funds any portion of a highway project. Since the USDOT will be funding 80% of the I-81 Project, this stipulation will significantly narrow construction job opportunities for Syracusans. What can be done to ensure that impacted city neighborhoods benefit from the good I-81 jobs in their backyard? The UJTF’s response is a three-pronged strategy: organizing the community, documenting the lack of diversity in construction trades, and recommending solutions.

The UJTF Racial Equity Impact Statement (REIS) team. Left
to right: Andrew Croom, Athena Last, Peter King, Jamison
Crawford, Paul Ciavarri, Aggie Lane Deka Dancil.
Photo: Libby Croom


First, we have educated and rallied Syracusans, and even county residents, to petition the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) in charge of the I-81 Viaduct Project to not grant a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) to the construction trade unions unless these unions diversify their membership with capable city residents. (Note: A PLA is a contract between a lead agency and the building trade unions, guaranteeing that most of the project’s work goes to their members. So, if Syracusans were union members and the project is governed by a PLA, they would have a chance to work on the project.)

Second, we created a Racial Equity Impact Statement (REIS), addressing disparities in the local construction trades—both union and non-union—which we intend to present at the I-81 Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) hearing. The 150-page REIS was a joint effort of the UJTF and Legal Services of CNY, a non-profit agency dedicated to social justice. Our 16-month long effort confirmed our hypothesis that the local construction industry is mainly a rural/suburban white man’s bastion. We examined data from five large, local, publicly-funded construction projects governed by PLAs. We tabulated and graphed the project data showing who worked, by race and gender, how many hours were worked, how much in wages were paid and how many workers came from the city. We held 30 interviews with politicians, academics, community leaders, construction company executives, minority construction workers, workforce developers, and trade union representatives.

But that’s not all. We also researched the history of Syracuse’s racial segregation: redlining, Urban Renewal, the 1960s construction of I-81 through Syracuse, and the destruction of the 9th and 15th Wards. We created a profile of Syracuse today, its demographics, its poverty, and its low-wage workforce. We marshaled demographic data to demonstrate that the trades are overwhelmingly white. We explored the reasons for the racial disparities in the trades and what prevented minorities from pursuing a trades career, including systemic racism and concentrated poverty. We showed how PLAs, when stipulating minority and women workforce goals, can help diversify construction worksites, although not always. For example, on federally-funded highway projects such goals set in the 1970s are very low: the minority workforce goal is 3.8% and the women workforce goal, 6.9%.

Regarding “our take” on who’s working: the REIS’s project data shows that on average 87% of the workers employed on the three municipal projects we studied in-depth were white. Two projects gave us worker’s home zip codes—and these showed that 2% and 7% of the white workers, respectively, lived in Syracuse. Of the two dozen blacks who worked on these projects, over half lived in the city.

This past March 14 at the Marriott, the former Hotel Syracuse, with research in hand and with funding from UJTF member Greater Syracuse Works, Legal Services and UJTF invited 100 dinner guests to the “unveiling” of the REIS. Our guests were UJTF members, community and political leaders, and those who we had interviewed. UJTF president Deka Dancil along with Legal Services staff attorney and REIS team leader Andrew Croom presented an AV overview of our study. To personalize the data we listened to “stories” from four minority Syracusans, all hoping for a trades career. Finally, Lamar Middleton, president of Hope for Us Housing Corp., which trains city minorities in the building trades, challenged our guests, asking them “to make a difference.” He said doing nothing would feed the despair that many city residents trapped in poverty feel.

Along with the REIS’s Executive Summary, we distributed to our guests the UJTF recommendations, which encompass three main areas. The first deals with barriers preventing city people from completing a trade training program. Such barriers include transportation, child care and the need “to pay the bills.” We suggest a shuttle service or bus routes to training worksites. During construction training, we recommend child care subsidies and program stipends.

The second area addresses trades training and construction jobs for city residents. Citing the case of the Colorado Central 70 highway project, where USDOT granted $400,000 in construction training funds, we see an encouraging precedent for the I-81 Viaduct project and recommend a $450,000 USDOT workforce grant. We recommend that training programs introduce their graduates to unions and construction contractors. Funding a centralized, city-wide database could be another way to connect city resident construction workers to job opportunities.

The third area concerns the mechanism to make equity a reality by convening a “Big Table,” a monitoring and enforcement device used in some cities. The table should include trade union leaders, community workforce developers, employment equity advocates, relevant federal, state and local political leaders, and the UJTF as a resource and watchdog of community interests.

Besides petitioning and creating the REIS and its followup recommendations, the UJTF has been pressuring the city to get going on Syracuse Build. Mayor Ben Walsh announced this initiative upon taking office in 2018. Its inspiration and model is San Francisco’s City Build, in place since 2006. We are frustrated with Syracuse Build’s slow start, and we are also concerned the Mayor’s initiative will not offer in-depth training, thereby preventing many city residents from becoming electricians, carpenters, masons, ironworkers, plumbers, welders, or equipment operators.

We are demanding that the city not repeat Syracuse’s recent history of construction training programs which prepare city residents to merely be laborers. We’ve researched how other cities have created effective and accessible trades programs for residents coming out of prison or otherwise trapped in poverty. Currently, we are pushing for a local Big Table so the trainers, funders, trade unions, political leaders and equity advocates, such as the UJTF, can design Syracuse Build together.

So what can you do to ensure that Syracusans, and especially city minorities, benefit from the good-paying I-81 jobs?

• Go to and sign our petition, or download a blank copy and ask for signatures. Make it a goal to get a full sheet, or more, filled out. People don’t need to be city residents to sign, just Onondaga County residents. We will deliver them at the DEIS hearing.

• You can download and read the REIS report and our recommendations at:

• Come to the DEIS hearing, and speak up for I-81 jobs for city residents. Wear a UJTF t-shirt or hold up one of our signs.

• Answer a UJTF call to contact our elected representatives.

• Become a UJTF member.

The powers-that-be must hear that “business as usual” is not acceptable, as that will only perpetuate the racial disparities in the building trades and intensify the city’s already notorious poverty. Our federal representatives should push for raising the USDOT’s minority and women workforce goals each to 10%, reflecting the city’s workforce goals. The NYSDOT must make rules that create job opportunities for those in trade apprenticeships. According to our REIS, apprentices on the I-690 Teall Avenue Interchange Project got only 4% of the total available work. And minority apprentices got less than 1%. What is particularly disappointing is that the I-690 PLA had a section encouraging apprentice utilization. If the city trains workers for I-81, rules employing apprentices must be stronger and enforceable. Otherwise, even if city-resident apprentices are in the union, they may get little of the I-81 work. Getting rules that create an inclusive project will occur only if every one of our political leaders hears the demand. We need you to help them realize the they are morally obliged to make it happen.

Los Angeles county supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said it beautifully:

An investment in our physical infrastructure is incomplete without a similar investment in our human capital. Anything less is not only economically unsound, it is immoral.



Aggie is UJTF’s (Urban Job Task Force) treasurer and co-chair of its policy
committee. The UTJF is a Syracuse-based, volunteer-led, non-profit working
for local economic justice. For more information, please visit