In this continuation of Construction Dive’s series examining racism in construction, we share the stories of people of color who have built prosperous careers in the industry despite hurdles put in their way.
Melvin Norman’s construction success story revolves around helping others, so they don’t have to endure the racism on the jobsite that he did since starting in the trades in the 1990s.
He was working as a cook on the East Coast when a neighbor told him about the good money he could make building scaffolding. So he read OSHA’s Standard 1926, Subpart L, which covers the requirements for scaffolding rigging.
“It was this big, thick book,” said Norman, who is Black. “I read it three or four times and started memorizing it so if they asked me any questions, I would know what to do.”
He soon knew exactly what to do, and after initially working in Louisiana, moved to the West Coast, where he erected scaffolding at jobsites in California, Oregon and Washington, eventually working his way up to crew leader.
Over his 30-year career, he faced racism from coworkers who made him ride in the bed of the work truck in triple-digit heat to make room for their lunchboxes in the air-conditioned cab, and by being forced to use the stairs instead of the freight elevator to haul scaffolding equipment up 200 feet.
On one job he was told, “Nigger, this is not a place for you. There’s no cotton in this mill.”
Later, when he was running crews, the White superintendent of another subcontractor on the job wouldn’t take direction from him, and would only relay information through one of his White subordinates instead.
Advocating for others
Norman was working in Portland in 2015 when a representative from the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters approached him about being a representative in the organization, which was focusing on inclusion and diversity within its ranks.
“They had made a big commitment to hire more African Americans in our trade, they knew my story, and asked me to come join to help protect our brothers,” Norman said. “I said, ‘You got it.’”
Throughout his scaffolding career, he said he usually just kept his head down and tolerated the racism within the ranks, for fear of being labeled as difficult and losing his job. Now, he finds vindication in his current position teaching and helping others deal with racism in the construction industry.
“By me being a union rep, I have filed grievances of harassment and racism now on many companies,” Norman said. “We have apprentices out there who are Black in our union, and I want to help try to protect them, to see if they have any problems and give them someone to talk to. I want to keep them on the right track and say, Hey, we’re going to fight through this racism on the jobsite together.”