Kettle Bell Karma – These Are Not Your Daddy’s Building Trades


Recently on a Sunday morning I sat on the infield of the track at Piedmont High School. I was exhausted from a brutal kettle bell workout devised by our coach and master trainer Roy San Filippo. I had done 1 440-meter lap, 10 reps of plank push-ups and 40 reps of 35-pound kettle bell swings repeated three times in a span of a little over 17 minutes. I was the senior guy at age 63. The energy all flowed from the youth, one of who, my son Nelson, shamefully lapped me during the training routine.

I listened in on a fascinating exchange between Nelson and a journeywoman union electrician named Emily, a Taiwanese-American in the East Bay International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 595. She was advising Nelson, a newly minted first year apprentice in the San Mateo local, on handling lay offs and lack of work. She told him, “When I get asked to sit at home I prefer to take the layoff and then I go back to the hall and sign up for work with a new company. I don’t wait around and hope that my present employer will call me back. My attitude is that I work for the Union not the Company, and I have learned the hard way that this is the best way to get work”.

The Business Manager of Emily’s local is Victor Uno, a Japanese American who as a young apprentice was initially barred entrance from a union meeting by the Sargent at Arms, who tore up his dues receipt, refusing him entry. When he finally was able to get into the meeting, a member commented “hey Fred, are we allowing Chinese in now?” Indeed we have come a long way from the Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1882 and championed by the old American Federation of Labor and its leader Samuel Gompers. This was a measure that the barons of labor of the SF Building Trades Council supported and that Dennis Kearney, the mayor of SF on the Workingmen’s Party ticket fought for.

“We would be false to them and to ourselves and to the cause of unionism if we now accepted privileges for ourselves which are not accorded to them…” J.M Lizarras, 1903

Victor Uno gave me a great bit of history that dramatizes the conflict between class solidarity and race bigotry: “When the Japanese Mexican Labor Association tried to affiliate with the AFL in 1903, Gompers directed the union to bar Japanese and Chinese from membership. J.M Lizarras, the association’s Mexican President refused, stating: “We would be false to them and to ourselves and to the cause of unionism if we now accepted privileges for ourselves which are not accorded to them…We will refuse any kind of charter, except one which will wipe out race prejudices and recognize our fellow workers as being as good as ourselves.” Gompers never responded when Lizarras returned the AFL charter.”

My son’s IBEW apprentice class of 30 in San Mateo is majority people of color with 7 women. The SF Ironworkers have taken in over 100 Chinese workers as journeymen in order to deal with the growing non-union ironworker sector. What would Dennis Kearney say about that? The trades when I came into labor in 1972 were lily white and in my home City of Boston a new union of African American workers, United Community Construction Workers, was created to combat the exclusivity and racism of the construction unions. They would march on to all white job sites in Boston and shut down the project seeking a commitment to hire black construction workers.

Perhaps the most common image of the building trades emblazoned in the consciousness of young radicals like myself in the early seventies was of the mobilization of hard hats on May 8, 1970 to beat up peace protesters in lower Manhattan. The march was led by Peter J. Brennan of the New York City Building Trades Council, later to be appointed by Nixon to be US Labor Secretary. Almost 42 years later in March 2002 on the day that the bombs started falling on Baghdad as Bush initiated the war on Iraq, the California Labor Federation and State Building Trades opened their annual legislative conference at a hotel in Sacramento. The assembled leaders were abuzz with talk of the war. The speeches from the podium however were about workmen’s compensation reform and other dross labor matters. Then Bob Balgenorth, an IBEW member and the leader of the State Building Trades approached the dais. He launched into a stirring and memorable speech entitled, “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges” in which he, denounced the impending criminal loss of life and treasure in Iraq. Here is a lengthy quote from Balgenorth’s speech:

“In a memorable scene from the classic western, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Humphrey Bogart demands to know if the men about to rob him are bandits or lawmen as they claim. Their response is the famous, “We don’t need no stinking badges!”

Might makes right.

Bush will have his war, Congress will have to give him the $90-100 billion he demands for the cost of war. The billions to rebuild Iraq will add to that sum. And, underlying all of this is the current $400 billion deficit projected for this year alone.

We support our troops anywhere in the world in which they are in harm’s way. We pray for their safety particularly in Iraq and the hornet’s nest that will develop around that doomed region. In the turmoil that follows we can only hope the loss of life will be minimal. But wars have a strange habit of getting out of hand”

Balgenorth was so prescient. Some things indeed have changed. These are not your daddy’s building trades!!

The kettle bells wiped me out, but the conversation between Nelson and Emily rejuvenated me. I’ll be back for more.

About the author

Peter Olney

Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director of the ILWU. He has been a labor organizer for 40 years in Massachusetts and California. He has worked for multiple unions before landing at the ILWU in 1997. For three years he was the Associate Director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California. View all posts by Peter Olney →

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9 thoughts on Kettle Bell Karma – These Are Not Your Daddy’s Building Trades

  1. The unionized trades have long been an entryway to the middle class. As income disparity grows — and because a solid middle class is essential to a healthy nation and democracy — trade unions offer an important way of strengthening our country.

    As a representative of unionized construction contractors, I am proud that the employers I represent pay their workers decent wages and benefits. The trouble we face is “the race to the bottom.” It is very difficult competing against a non-union plumbing company – especially when they pay their workers half (or less) what we pay ours.

    This is why it is essential that unionized construction workers be well-trained and productive. The more often we demonstrate our value to those who are building projects, the easier it becomes to justify our higher costs.

    My old friend Peter is on the right track here: as we expand work opportunities for the broad, true cross-section of America — we really are strengthening our communities and the nation at large.

    Hugh Kelleher, Executive Director
    Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Assn. of Greater Boston
    Master Plumber / UA card holder

  2. In my comment below, I incorrectly identified the LA County IBEW Local as Local 6. Local 11 covers Los Angeles.

  3. Glad to see that my kettle bell coach, Roy San Filippo has weighed in with an important and balanced perspective on the situation in the trades with respect to racial diversity. Very insightful analysis that tempers my post. Solidarity!

  4. Thanks Peter, for this thoughtful piece (and the shoutout to Oakland Kettlebell Club). I’ve had the privledge of working with building trades unions in Southern California, southern Nevada and San Francisco for a decade assisting with communications.

    Thanks to popular struggle (and lawsuits) the trades (and other unions) were forced to open their doors beyond the existing racial, ethnic and family ties and deliberare exclusion of non-white workers and women workers from blue collar union jobs. Particularly in the Southwest a lot of progress has been made in many building trades crafts in diversifying their membership. But even still, the legacy of racial stratification remains. Many building trades crafts in Southern California are now majority Latino or on their way to becoming so–Laborers, Painters, Floor Coverers, rod busters, others–the higher paying crafts–remain largely (but no longer exclusively) white–electricians, operators, elevator constructors, pipe trades.

    In my experience in the Southwest, African Americans still remain largely under represented in the building trades even though they are no longer formally prevented from applying for union apprenticeship programs. Some of this is the role of kinship networks and thus part of the legacy of the history of the trades’ racial exclusion. If you don’t know people in the trades, it is less likely to occur to you when you leave school to becoe an electrician or iron worker. But if you had a father or uncle in the trades who made a good middle class living, it would be on your radar.

    The other issue here is the structural racism of the school system. Many of the trades require a HS diploma or equivalency and their apprenticeship programs have very challenging exams that requires apprentices to demonstrate excellent math skills. Too many Black students are coming out of high schools unprepared to enter the trades–and those that are coming out prepared are usually bound for college, not an apprenticeship program. IBEW Local 6 in Los Angeles has an excellent community program that targets African American high school students and recent graduates and mentors them in math, electrical theory and other topics to help prepare them to take the entrance exam to their apprenticeship program. To my knowledge they are the only trade to have a program like. It is it the credit to the leadership and membership of that local that they are willing put forth the resources for a program like that. It is run by rank and file volunteers with the assistance of their apprenticeship programs facility and instructors.

    Many of the community benefits agreements on projects requiring “local hires” on jobs is an attempt get more African Americans into union construction jobs. That’s a start, but more needs to be done to ensure that working class Black students who aren’t college bound have the skills needed to enter the building trades apprenticeship program when they graduate high school.

  5. Thank you, Peter, for these good, vivid, significant memories. I have to check the dues book I saved, but as I remember it was about 1953, the summer when I turned 16, that I joined the Hod Carriers in Norman, Oklahoma, mostly digging ditches. Though I suspect that even then not a “colored” person yet resided in Norman, long a “white” town, I know lots of “colored people” lived 20 miles away in Oklahoma City, and under the great leader Clara Luper were beginning to fight big for their rights as citizens and as workers. We sometimes worked on sites with people from Oklahoma City. We were all the same, male and “white.” Thank God and all his fighters for equality and justice, inside unions and outside them, it’s different now, not anything like as just as it should be, but better than it was. And it’s a deep relief to be reminded how the struggle continues, not nearly as massive as before, but maybe deeper and eventually greater in consequence.

  6. I really appreciate the history lesson, and enjoy seeing that it’s now abundantly clear to labor leaders that any racism or sexism within a union plays straight into the hands of enemies of labor. To the extent we overcome racism and sexism as individuals, we deny the Bushes, Cheneys, Roves and Limbaughs of the world a powerful tool for fragmenting humanity and progress.

  7. I was listening to a progressive talk radio host and he took a call from what seemed like an earnest a guy who said, “If less than 10% of workers are unionized, how come the other 90 some % arn’t suffering under the ‘evil’ management. The moderator dismissed the caller as as a union hater. I didn’t get that impression, as a matter of fact I think the host should have said that even if some management is not evil, we still need unions. In a capitalist system, labor is the enemy of profit. Democracy in capitalism is the union.

  8. To me one of the amazing aspects of this post is that in the 1970s I despaired of male white building trades workers ever being willing to share work with women and people of color. Peter, however, worked hard to change all that. I so appreciate his faith in the working class — a faith I did not have (and, as a result, was useless as a labor organizer). Thankfully I was wrong.

  9. I appreciate that the Building and Trades union advocates for its members. I still oppose the building of the stadium on the waterfront. We should shouldn’t develop anything more over the bay.

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