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Tunnel shows us we’re not there yet on minority contracting

Crews drill to look for an obstruction in front of the tunnel-boring machine on Seattle's waterfront. Credit: Washington State Department of Transportation

Sometimes I think things have really changed in regard to minorities and opportunities in the business world. Then sometimes I think nothing has changed.

Take the recent report that the builders of the Highway 99 tunnel are accused of being in breach of contract because they have not offered enough contracts to women and minority firms, as required by federal law. Bertha may be stuck in the mud as it tries to dig the tunnel, but the Seattle Tunnel Contractors seem to be stuck in the past.

I feel so discouraged about it all because of my past reporting. I came to Seattle in mid-1967 and one of my first reporting assignments was to cover the “civil rights” beat. That included some interesting press conference with the local Black Panther group here, but one of the most dramatic issues I covered was the efforts of the Central Contractors Association.

What were they trying to do? Get more contracts for minority firms from public works projects in the region. Sounds familiar.

Part of my beat included Walt Hundley and the Seattle Model Cities Program, part of the War on Poverty. Hundley encouraged black contractors to organize to gain some of the lucrative contracts being offered at the time that required minority participation. A group was formed, the Central Contractors Association, and they selected Tyree Scott, an electrician, as their leader.

Demonstrations followed, some more dramatic than others. I remember a bulldozer going down an embankment at the University of Washington. I recall hitching a ride with one contractor from one demonstration site to another. A large handgun was in the seat between us. “Do you really need that?” I remember asking. “Never know,” was the reply, and fortunately it was not used.

There was a big demonstration at Sea-Tac Airport, though that was covered by Don Hannula, like myself a general assignment reporter for The Seattle Times covering civil rights.  Hannula would go on to cover another big story in the region, the Native American fishing rights protests that resulted in the famous Boldt decision.

Even the longstanding fisheries controversies are beginning to be resolved. A proposal in the state Legislature would allow American Indians who were convicted of violating state law when they exercised their treaty-protected fishing rights a chance to clear their convictions from the record.  But a story in The Seattle Times magazine this weekend showed there is still much to do in terms of smart fisheries management as well.

The Central Contractors Association was eventually successful when a federal judge ruled in 1970 that the union hiring practices and training programs violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The judge imposed a sweeping affirmative action program on the construction industry, including quotas in hiring, training and union membership.

Scott and I became friends and kept in touch as he expanded his ideas of worker equality, both around the country and internationally. He was one of the first people to talk about the impact of world trade on jobs in the U.S., especially at the lower end of the job scale. Scott, trained as an electrician like his father, was one of a kind. He was demanding, tough, yet fair. He was not above acts of civil disobedience to make his point but resisted the more violent path. He was a thinker who saw the long road ahead.

The last time I saw Scott, we met for lunch on Broadway. We were a bit of an odd pair: white guy in a suit, black guy in work clothes and dreadlocks. We talked about what he had done and he mentioned that he was back working for the Port of Seattle as an electrician, his trade, and helping workers to organize against the privatization of their jobs. He died in June 2003.

The work he started is not done. Nearly 45 years after Scott led the Central Contractors on a mission to achieve a fair, just and legal framework for workers, contractors and minority businesses, we still hear about the projects like the Highway 99 tunnel project where the entrenched companies get the work. 

You’d think things would have changed by now. Sadly they have not.

HistoryLink has an extensive article on Tyree Scott here.

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