The Carpenters union in Philadelphia is attempting to distance itself from an official with one of its local chapters who wore blackface in this year’s Mummers Parade.
Mike Tomaszewski, one of the Froggy Carr Wench Brigade members who painted their faces black during a Gritty-theme performance, is an elected delegate for the 4,000-member Local 158, which represents carpenters who live in the city of Philadelphia. Asked on New Year’s Day why he wore blackface, Tomaszewski said: “'Cause I like it. Yeah, why not? I know it’s a shame to be white in Philly right now."
William C. Sproule, executive secretary-treasurer of the Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters, said in a statement that the union was “disheartened” to learn Tomaszewski was involved in the blackface incident.
“Racism is something our union denounces," Sproule said. "Actions like this counter our union’s mission to be a diverse and inclusive union that provides opportunity for all workers looking for a career in construction. While we cannot control the personal views of a member, we do work to continue to create a culture at all levels that is welcoming to all. We are looking into this matter further.“
Asked if the union was considering taking action against Tomaszewski, Sproule added: “The council is reviewing the conduct and the applicable case law in respect to said conduct.”
Multiple attempts to reach Tomaszewski were unsuccessful.
Even as a majority of Philadelphians identify with racial minority groups, the building trades unions are overwhelmingly white and have long dealt with accusations of racial discrimination. It’s a politically sensitive issue because of the influence wielded by the deep-pocketed trades unions’ in city elections.
“The fact that he’s in a union — and Philadelphia is a city which has a legacy of racism in its unions — is not shocking,” said Tufuku Zuberi, a University of Pennsylvania sociologist who studies race relations. “This union, which is harboring such behavior, needs to be called in question.”
Building trades union leaders have disavowed the overt racism of the past and promised to diversify their workforce. Critics say the progress has been too slow.
The trades unions do not regularly disclose demographic information about their members. A study produced in the Nutter administration found that in 2007, 74% of the trades union workers were white, and 70% lived outside Philadelphia. In 2012, another study found that 76% were white and 67% were suburbanites.
The issue resurfaced recently as City Council members pushed for stronger diversity goals for construction workers who get jobs through the Rebuild program, which uses revenue from Mayor Jim Kenney’s sweetened beverage tax to improve city libraries, parks, and recreation centers.
“I’m not surprised,” Rodney Muhammad, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, said when told Tomaszewski was a Carpenters official. “I don’t know if his sentiment comes from being a carpenter. It’s just unfortunate that the trades have had a practice that has been criticized publicly for decades now in the city of Philadelphia.”
Muhammad said he has been working with leaders of the trades on diversity efforts and is hopeful recent initiatives, such as a Carpenters program to consider formerly incarcerated people for apprenticeships, will produce results.
The history of racial exclusion in the trades unions is deeply entwined with the era of minstrelsy, the racist 19th century American form of entertainment that introduced blackface into Philadelphia’s iteration of the medieval European tradition of mummery.
“In effect, the unions became the gateway for ordinary white workers to gain access to a fairly good living in the American society," said Molefi Kete Asante, chairman of Temple University’s Department of Africology and African American Studies. "But at the same time, for most of the history of the unions, it was not the gateway but a closed door to African American workers.”
Walter Licht, a labor historian at the University of Pennsylvania, said he was not surprised to learn one of the Mummers who wore blackface was a union carpenter.
“It doesn’t surprise me, because those legacies have been there, and they have been, in a place like Philadelphia, hard to break. It’s a solidarity, and within those solidarities there’s an ethnic component,” he said. “They’re protective of their union and their community because it’s an incredible ticket.”