Opinion | Mark Erlich

At Old Colony, unions prove their worth

The new Old Colony buildings are framed by an archway in the old buildings in 2012.
The new Old Colony buildings are framed by an archway in the old buildings in 2012.

After 70 years, the Old Colony housing project in South Boston is getting a fresh start. The aging complex at the rotary where Columbia Road meets Old Colony Avenue has been transformed into 116 attractive new rental units made up of wood-framed townhouse-style homes, a six-story midrise, and a community center. The enhanced view from Dorchester Bay across Joe Moakley Park is only the most visible change in the neighborhood. The second phase of the Boston Housing Authority’s master plan is now underway under an innovative project labor agreement that will produce 169 more rental units and, as importantly, offer some of the project’s residents a pathway out of poverty.

The master plan is the result of a year-long community process that will ultimately create another 453 units along with the goals for job opportunities for public housing and local low-income residents. The PLA negotiated with Boston’s building trades unions incorporates language that exceeds the city’s standard hiring goals for residents, minorities, and women by establishing additional employment preferences for Section 3 residents from Old Colony and the city’s other public housing developments.

The project is making use of Building Pathways, a pre-apprenticeship program servicing Greater Boston, as well as other programs that prepare recruits with the soft and hard skills needed to thrive in the challenging world of construction. The PLA’s commitment to diversity has already borne fruit. Forty participants have completed the Building Pathways program and are working in the trades. Ten more will be placed in upcoming months and an additional training cycle has been scheduled.


Almost half of the graduates are women; all are low-income Boston residents in search of a career, not just a one-time job. Tyiesha Thompson has lived at Old Colony for 10 years. A 38-year-old single mother of three, Thompson is now a union apprentice working on a high-rise in the Seaport District. As phase two of Old Colony unfolds, she hopes to be part of the renaissance of her home community.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The BHA reports that the work at Old Colony has been on budget and ahead of schedule. The housing authority’s quest to provide ladders of upward mobility for its residents could never have happened without the training programs and union commitments that are built into the PLA’s framework. After years of staggering levels of unemployment, the local construction industry is starting to gain traction. Building trades unions can finally expand their ranks and take advantage of employment opportunities to more fully represent the demographics of Boston’s workforce.

The ringing sounds of saws, drills, hammers, and heavy equipment at Old Colony represent a challenge to the advocates of austerity who promote low-paying jobs with minimal benefits as the most likely sources of opportunity. PLA critics and right-to-work proponents advocate a “race to the bottom” notion of competitiveness, but their low-wage non-union approach has failed to produce promised job growth and will do little to correct the continuing slide into economic inequality that has characterized the last four decades.

The recession has only exacerbated the growing divide. A recent issue of the normally cautious Economist expressed alarm over the fact that the wealthiest Americans’ share of national income is now greater than it was during the Gilded Age. Social mobility is lower than in most European countries and, today, the US ranks 31st out of the world’s 33 most advanced economies in terms of income inequality, more unequal than Third World countries such as Guyana, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

The Old Colony PLA is one small part of an alternative model of growth, based on developing careers of craft skill, high productivity, and fair compensation. As traditional high-wage, blue-collar employment has been replaced by lower paying service sector jobs over the years, construction remains one of the few industries in which men and women who do not attend college can aspire to basic levels of economic security. The PLA at Old Colony is in keeping with the best traditions of the building trades — a pathway into the middle class.

Mark Erlich is executive secretary-treasurer of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters.