Baha'i Paul careens through the streets of Washington at the wheel of an Autorama taxicab, a certified master welder -- "The Doctor of Metal," as his friends once called him -- working the nighttime hustle as a hack.
Towering construction cranes loom at every turn of the wheel. Close to $2 billion in commercial construction is underway in downtown Washington alone, and that translates into about 50,000 permanent jobs -- including jobs for welders.
But 39-year-old Baha'i Paul concentrates on raised hands, looking out for curbside baggage that could mean the business deal of the week, a $25 fare to Dulles International Airport.
Baha'i Paul does not work as a welder; he hasn't for years. He is one of thousands of black men who, in 1970, responded to the promises of The Washington Plan, an elaborate, federally imposed program to triple the number of blacks holding high-paying skilled construction jobs in the city.
But today, men like Paul are casualties of this highly touted plan that has failed by almost every measure, according to U.S. Labor Department records and most program officials. For example:
None of The Washington Plan's hiring goals has been met. In a city that is 70 percent black, the 11 skilled construction trades targeted in The Washington Plan report today that only 10 percent of their journeymen -- full fledged members -- are black.
Overall, those unions have increased the hours worked by blacks from below 10 percent in 1970 to 24 percent, only 2 percent below the plan's original 26 percent goal. But that has been accomplished in part by allowing a small percentage of black union members to do a large percentage of available work. Moreover, the city government has subequently adopted 42 percent as a hiring goal.
Enforcement of The Washington Plan failed. Although more than 60 percent of all reviewed building sites in the city did not meet hiring guidelines, only two of 1,000 contractor sites investigated have been barred from doing federally assisted construction, which is the plan's ultimate enforcement tool.
The plan's publicly financed training programs that promised to help blacks enter the trades did not come close to meeting their goals. Of 2,841 black youths who entered construction apprenticeship programs in the last 10 years, only 702, or about 25 percent, completed the programs, according to the D.C. Apprenticeship Office, which has no comparable figures for whites. And fewer than half the nearly 1,000 students projected to graduate from Project Build, which is considered the most successful of the training programs, actually graduated.
Those blacks who did make it into white-dominated unions are poorly paid compared to their white counterparts. In the Washington area, white apprentices earned an average of $2,469 a year more in 1976 than black apprentices, a recent Government Accounting Office study showed. The same study found that even black journeymen earned an average of $2,750 a year less than white journeymen that year.
Despite intentions of The Washington Plan to "upgrade" blacks already in the construction industry, most blacks are still concentrated in the so-called "mud trades," primarily laborers, which are being rapidly phased out due to technological changes. For example, in 1970, there were 4,500 members of Laborers Local 74, of which 4,050 were black. Today, there are only 2,900 members, of which 2,600 are black.
The white men's unions of 1970 remain the white men's unions of 1981.
"This is appalling," said Lavelle Merritt, head of the Washington Area Construction Industry Task Force, an advocate of increased black representation in the building trades and a monitor of industry hiring practices. "It's so blatant.
"If this were Wyoming or Montana, I might be able to understand why they can't find more blacks. But this is D.C., 'Chocolate City.' There is no excuse."
"None of us are happy with what has happened with the plan," said John Payton, a lawyer with Wilmer Cutler & Pickering, which handled a case charging one local union, with discrimination. "But that doesn't mean it was a bad idea. It just never got implemented."
The Washington Plan was patterned after an affirmative action program implemented in Philadelphia in 1969, which was hailed as landmark legislation to fight discrimination in the work place. Jobs in the skilled construction trades paid as much as $20,000 a year, and were seen as a way to move large numbers of working blacks into the ranks of the bluecollar middle class. Washington became one of 12 cities to adopt such a plan.
There are many reasons for the plan's failure.For one, skilled black workers are scarce. Also, many of the blacks in the so-called mud trades did not want to start over as apprentices in the skilled trades, and opted to keep their present jobs. What program enforcement was meted out was aimed at construction contractors when, in reality, it is labor unions that control who works on union job sites. And there is considerable evidence that some unions systematically resisted integration.
The dramatic growth in the number of nonunion workers, who earn 10 to 20 percent less than union workers, also has slowed union growth and left less room for new members, black or white. Still, investigators found that most nonunion job sites also failed to meet hiring guidelines.
But whatever the reasons for the plan's failure, the hopes of Baha'i Paul and many black men were dashed because of it. And with the Reagan administration taking steps to cut back affirmative action programs such as The Washington Plan, there is little hope for these men that the promises ever will be kept.
Black representation in the 11 targeted unions is only as high as it is today because blacks are highly represented in the less prestigious skilled crafts. In the asbestos, lathers, painters and iron workers unions, for instance, blacks perform an average of about 31 percent of the work, compared to an average of only about 21 percent of the work in the more prestigious electrical, plumbing and sheet metal workers unions.
Many of those members are also apprentices as opposed to full union members. Of an estimated 1,500 black members in the targeted unions, about 275, or 18 percent, are apprentices -- the lowest paid entry level jobs.
Besides apprenticeship positions upping black union membership, some unions also have boosted their black representation by issuing temporary or trainee work permits, which are often revoked after a specific construction job is done.
The pile drivers union, Local 2311 of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, for instance, claimed that more than 20 percent of its work force was black in 1970, and thus the union was exempt from The Washington Plan. Most of those workers were "permit status," however. Today, only 13 percent of the union's regular journeymen are black. And the union is now embroiled in a bitter discrimination suit.
Other methods of keeping blacks out of Washington unions have been more direct. Last year, for instance, U.S. District Court Chief Judge William B. Bryant ruled that the Sheet Metal Workers Union Local 102 had intimidated and frightened black applicants during interviews, required high school diplomas of blacks but not always of whites, and grilled at least one black applicant about an alleged police arrest record that did not exist.
Judge Bryant concluded that the tactics tended to "chill" and "knock out" black union applicants.
A decade ago, with Metro construction about to begin and the city on the verge of home rule, The Washington Plan was a popular political issue for black politicians such as Marion Barry, then head of Pride, Inc., then-mayor Walter E. Washington and Clifford L. Alexander, who was building a reputation as a lawyer in affirmative action cases.
But as it turned out, even projects backed with city funds have not met black hiring goals. For example, the Bates Street housing project and the Kenilworth Avenue housing project each have been erected without meeting Washington Plan goals.
The soon-to-be-completed Hechinger Mall project in Northeast Washington had come close to meeting its goal, but community critics still contend the effort has fallen short of its promises to recruit numerous workers from the still riot-scarred H Street NE neighborhood where the mall is being built.
The enforcement procedures of the plan were so cumbersome that most building projects were done by the time disciplinary steps against contractors were completed.
"You could threaten a contractor with revoking his contract for not hiring enough blacks," said James Paige, former head of the Washington office of the Labor Department's Office of Federal Contract Compliance. "But they all knew that by the time the forms had been processed, the building would be up and they would be gone."
Union and construction company officials, however, complain that The Washington Plan hiring guidelines were too high to begin with. The goals were based on hearings that produced figures showing that 10,000 blacks were trained and ready for recruitment into the construction industry. An additional 15,000 laborers were said to be ready for upgrading.
Today, there are no figures available to show how many blacks are working in skilled construction jobs compared to the 3,000 in 1970. But the best estimates are that their numbers have probably doubled -- far below the 8,000 blacks a year the plan estimated would enter the trades.
There were simply not enough skilled blacks to fill the jobs, say contractors and union officials.
"We've tried hard to find minorities, but there are tremendous problems in this city," said Robert Herr, vice president of the Donohoe construction company, one of the largest in the District. "You can't keep 'em once you make a hire. Your have to hire 10 to get three because they just won't stay on the job. You can't run a business like that."
Benjamin Segal head of The Washington Plan Review Committee, agreed that skilled blacks were in short supply, but he blamed flawed training programs.
"Part of the problem was that we hadn't he said. "So when some of the trades did make a genuine effort to find blacks, they simply were not available. Of course, by then, many blacks had given up, what you call discouraged workers."
Black workers, however, say there were other, more powerful discouragements.
On the work site, where the young, inexperienced black who lacked the confidence of a craftsman stood shoulder-to-shoulder with white workers, there was often a personal feeling that blacks were unwanted, even hated, said Earl Reynolds, who presently has a discrimination suit pending against the sheet metal workers union.
Also, it is a tradition for apprentices to be called "boy" by their senior workers, and that tradition was not changed for blacks, he said. The word "nigger" was often heard on work sites and racial jokes were a common staple he said.
The Washington Plan has failed for many reasons, both subtle and stark. But they are all irrelevant to Baha'i Paul, who graduated at the top of his Project Build class in 1969, flushed with the promise of a better future, of a good job as a welder.
He was right that building would boom; he was wrong that he would boom with it.
As a skilled handler of the acetylene torch -- "my stinger," he called it -- Baha'i Paul paid $20 for his temporary work permit from the pile drivers Local 2311 and climbed down to his first assignment inside the D.C. sewers.
"I was usually the only black on a crew and everybody else would sit and eat and crack jokes about different races of people," he said. "They always wanted to see my teeth. They called me names like 'coon' and 'bobcat.'"
But for $9 an hour, he took the work.
Then times grew thin, the hours the pile drivers worked dropped two-thirds from 1970 to 1974 as work on Metro declined. Baha'i and other black workers on temporary permits were laid off.
Paul admits that he was not the perfect worker. He missed a few days now and then; his white coworkers said he had a "bad attitude." But he was not any worse than many other white workers, he said. Paul believes there was just a different standard for him and other blacks. As always: last hired, first fired.
Today, a decade after the dreams and the promises, the bad jokes, the names and the fat paychecks came to an abrupt end, the city of Washington still is in a building boom, and the Doctor of Metal is hacking for Auto-rama.
"There has been a lot of commitment," said Merritt, "but no action . I see the beginning signs in this community that people are getting upset with the kind of nonsense. It is essentially the same situation we had 11 years ago.