Albert Berger can tell you something about frustration, something about rage.
Berger is black, 35 and frequently unemployed. He is not unemployed because he doesn't want to work. Berger wants to work at his trade - setting up steel rods to reinforce concrete on construction sites. He wants to make money to support his wife and children. But he tells a story that one hears from any one of a number of black construction workers in the metropolitan area.
It is a story of men up against a system, a set of practices that were supposed to have been outlawed by acts of Cangress and presidential proclamations but that Berger and others say still exist - discriminatory practices that, in Berger's words, keep black workers "at the bottom of the list."
"You can get into trouble (that) it takes 10 years to get out of," he says. He tinkers with a Honda motorcycle he is rebuilding for a moment before he completes the thought. "If I didn't have a family, I'd been in trouble a long time ago."
For example, Berger says, he was working on a building in downtown Washington with 10 white and two black workers. Some of the white workers, Berger said, lived in Virginia. But Berger's union, Local 7 of the Ironworkers, sent him and one other black worker to Virginia to work on a building there. Berger who lives in Peppermill Villiage in Seat Pleasant, said he has to get up by 5:15 a.m. to be at work at 7, driving 35 miles to get to the job.
"You can be out on a job busting your - and it gets a little slack, you'll get laid off," Berger says."And other guys - white guys - just kind of shuffling around, they stay on."
But now a new mood of militancy appears to be growing among black construction workers in the Washington metropolitan area. Last month, the Washington Area Construction Industry Task Force, an organization representing skilled minority construction workers, settled a lawsuit it had filed against the federal government. The suit had claimed federal agencies were not enforcing provisions in federal regulations requiring them to ensure that contrators on federal jobs made a good faith effort to employ minority workers within numerical ranges established by the Department of Labor.
The so-called Washington Plan was one of a series of plans established by the Labor Department for metropolitan areas across the country as part of an effort to increase black employment.
According to Lavell Merritt, a retired Army major who is chairman of the task force, not one of the plans has accomplished its purpose.
"Look at the result," Merritt said indignantly during an interview. "Is there anywhere in the United States where minorities are working on federally funded programs commensurate with their number? Nowhere."
Merritt says that the settlement reached with the Labor Department and other federal agencies - with the government agreeing to tighten enforcement of the plan - is not the end, but just the beginning of a campaign to translate bureaucratic schemes into increased black employment across the country.
In a similar suit pending against the District of Columbia government, the task force won the first round when then D.S. Superior Court Chief Judge Harold H. Green ruled on June 16 that the suit should be heard on its merits rather than dismissed in the preliminary stages on legal grounds.
The problem, according to black-workers, is not simply the unwillingness of construction companies to hire them, but the difficulty they have in getting into labor unions. One black construction worker, who asked not to be identified by name, skill or union affiliation, said, "Ii's been my experience that these unions do whatever they can do to exclude as many blacks and women as possible."
But, he said, since unions cannot entirely exclude Blacks, discrimination takes on other forms. Some jobs offer a higher pay scale than others. Some jobs are more difficult. Some offer more opportunity for overtime or longer-term employment.
Where contractors use union labor, the hiring is essentially done by the union. The contractor calls the union hall and tells the business agent or dispatcher how many workers are needed. The union than has the first crack at filling the jobs.
"If you're black, as a rule, you're given the lowest paying job, the dirtiest job, the strongest job," the worker said. "The dispatcher can essentially do what he wants to do."
He said he made about $18,000 last year, but that he knows white workers belonging to the same union who made $40,000 and $50,000 a year, "and they are the guys who get those gravy jobs - especially on the subway. And just as the hiring hall takes care of them, they take care of the hiring hall in these political situations."
Carey F. Pearson, a 36-year-old lather who was one of the plaintiffs in the task force's suit against the federal government, makes $8 an hour working for a nonunion company as a fireman. Doing the same work for a union company - supervising workers putting up sheet rock - Pearson estimates that he could make $3 an hour more. Just working as a laborer with a union card, Pearson said, would enable him to get at least $2 an hour more.
But Pearson, in a sworn statement filed with the lawsuit, said that everytime he has tried to get a union card, he has been told the same thing: first he must go through a three-year apprenticeship program, earning wages substantially below what he now makes.
Pearson has worked in his present job for about 17 years. He figures that there is "not much" he could learn from an apprenticeship program. But that, he said, is the only way open to his getting a union card.
In 1971, Pearson decided to go into business for himself, forming a company with two other men. In that time, according to his sworn statement, his firm received only one federally funded contract.
"We were one of the few minority lathing subcontrators in this area and we had a substantial minority work force," Pearson said in his statement. "Yet, despite the marked under-representation of minorities in the lathers' union, there was no real pressure or, apparently, incentive to draw our company into federal construction."
When a building slump occured in 1976, Pearson said, his company folded. When Pearson tried to join the union, he was again told that he would have to go through an apprenticeship program.
Pearson was asked during an interview what his personal reaction was to these professional obstacles. "It makes you feel that you were out there demonstrating what you can do and you're trying to make a living just as well as anybody else and you see that it's a stacked deck, to me, and I'm quite sure that it still is," he said. "If you don't know nobody up front, you just don't get the job. And the union is the same way."
Bennett O. Stalvey Jr., the Labor Department official in charge of enforcing the Washington Plan, questioned union's reliance on apprenticeship programs as the entry vehicle to union membership.
"The fact is," Stalvey said, "most of the union members learned it by doing it. They didn't do any apprenticeship. The apprenticeship programs are very good, but most of these union members didn't go through them. So it's kind of ironic that they require apprenticeship. That's a good way, but it's not the only way."
According to employment figures kept by the District of Columbia government, 67 percent of unemployed people in construction work who are eligible for unemployment benefits are nonwhite. In the Washington area, according to informed estimates, there are between 15,00 and 20,000 construction jobs.
Milton Carey, president of the Associated Minority Contractors of America and the Metropolitan Contractors Association, estimates that the settlement of the task force's lawsuit would mean another 2,000 jobs annually for minority workers - a $20 million to $30 million slice of a $1.5 billion pie.
Carey said that there was an urgency to changing the present situation. "I can't understand for the life of me why we don't have people marching in the streets," he said. "I'm a retired colonel. I've had enough war. I want some peace. I can't imagine we're going to have peace much longer if we don't see some changes in the employment picture."