Richie Armstrong has led demonstrations at East Baltimore Development Inc. and the offices of the Baltimore Development Corp. (BDC), demanding that construction companies employ more local residents.
He’s also witnessed a thousand people jammed at a meeting about the proposed $1.5 billion State Center project, calling for more job opportunities.
Now he’s trying to make sure there is a pool of workers available when big-ticket development projects get underway in Baltimore.
Armstrong, an organizer for Baltimore Churches Community United, has teamed up with the Laborers’ International Union of North America to create a pilot construction-training program in the high-unemployment neighborhood of Upton.
“We need a victory,” Armstrong said, pointing to the 30 men and one woman who are participating in a free three-week training program at the Historic Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School.
“Jobs need to come from this program, so people see the opportunities out there,” he said. The most recent census found that Upton and the Druid Hill Ave. corridor had a family poverty rate of 48.8% and unemployment of 17.5%
Workers from these and other depressed neighborhoods are learning how to build scaffolds out of wood planks and metal bars, lay out sites for concrete slabs and master the hammer drill and other pneumatic tools.
They also learn life skills, such as getting to work on time, and the do’s and don’ts of safety around heavy equipment.
One of the trainees, Larry Davis, is 51 years old. “I used to do a lot of different trades, construction work, home improvement and plumbing,” he said.
He’s been unemployed and hopes that his “graduation” from the training program will give him a boost in his search for work.
Glen Wooden, 46, calls the trainers from the Laborers’ Union (LiUNA) very knowledgeable. “They’re experts in the field of construction work,” he said.
What makes the program a huge plus for him is that it’s free.
“I won’t have any debt after,” he exclaims. “My only expense is bus fare. All the material is provided by the union. They even pay for lunch!”
To Feed Their Families
LiUNA trainers William Buck and Larry Neighoff teach specific laborer skills that will give the workers advantages as they compete for the limited job opportunities at construction sites. Asked why the men attend the program, Buck says simply: “To feed their families.”
Armstrong confirmed Buck’s assessment. Before the program began, he met individually with each trainee and learned about the conditions under which they were living.
“95-97% of them have kids, and 90% of them are unemployed,” he said.
Community Churches United, a coalition of five congregations, is calling on developers of Superblock on Howard St. and the State Center project near Bolton Hill to implement a “Community Workforce Agreement” with a goal of employing 50% Baltimore city residents during construction.
Armstrong noted that these and other projects are subsidized by various tax breaks, such as PILOTS (payments in lieu of taxes) and Enterprise Zone write-offs, the latter specifically designed to be implemented in high-poverty, high-unemployment areas. Community Churches also is pushing for apprenticeship programs at the worksites.
To undertake training with LiUNA, Armstrong needed to find a place where construction work could be pursued. With the help of Rachel Donegan, who runs Promise Heights, a community program funded by the University of Maryland School of Social Work, Armstrong got in touch with Harold Barber, principal of Coleridge-Taylor.
Barber agreed to allow the school to act as the site for the job construction program in return for the workforce devoting its final days to painting the school’s hallways.
“We bartered,” Barber said. “They paint our walls and we help skill a set of workers,” adding that he considered it a good deal all around.