Tyree Scott was a Seattle civil rights and labor leader who broke down barriers to women and minority workers in the construction industry and also worked to improve working conditions for low-income workers around the world. Although a powerful force for change, he was known as “a quiet, gracious and personable man, totally lacking any capacity for self-inflation” and “more interested in results than rhetoric.”
Born in Hearne (Wharton County), Texas on May 29, 1940, Tyree Scott grew up there except for a brief time in Seattle where he attended Madrona Elementary School. He served in the U. S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. In 1966, he moved to Seattle where his father, Seth Scott, was trying to establish his electrician business in the Central Area. Trade unions that controlled jobs in Seattle’s construction industry were off limits to blacks and this limited the Scott's ability to compete for large contracts.
Even though there had been complaints by the Washington State Board Against Discrimination and by various civil rights organizations about discrimination in the building-trade unions, nothing much had been done to change the situation. Because of union control over the local labor market, it was almost impossible for black workers and black contractors to benefit from government contracts.
Central Contractors Association
In 1969, Seattle’s Model Cities Program was attracting large federal construction contracts and Walter Hundley, its director, encouraged black contractors to organize in order to gain access to them.
Scott became the leader of the group known as the Central Contractors Association (CCA) and thus began his political activism. The CCA board included: Lembhard Howell, attorney; Benjamin F. McAdoo, architect; Luene Curry, plasterer; and James Takasaki, general contractor. It stated in its communications that its goal was “a cooperative moral quest for equal compliance in Federal building projects.”
During the months of August and September, 1969, Scott led the CCA in shutting down every major federal construction site throughout Seattle to protest the impossible position of minority workers. These demonstrations were dramatic and effective. A bulldozer was run into a large open pit at the University of Washington and 100 protestors marched on the flight apron of SeaTac Airport to halt traffic. There were shut downs at Harborview Medical Center, Medger Evers Pool, and the King County Administration Building.
The demonstrations attracted varying responses. In protest of minority hiring attempts, Voice of Irate Construction Employees (VOICE) sent 2,000 white “hard hats” marching through downtown and also to the state capital to protest plans to put more minority workers in public projects. The day before the airport demonstration, leaflets had been distributed by the Black Panthers and the Black Student Union at the University of Washington asking that Tyree Scott and the CCA not be supported because their goals were too limited and jobs were not enough to ask for.
In a December, 1969, interview in Seattle Magazine Scott expressed his reaction to them.
“People like labels. They’re easier to deal with but labels don’t mean a thing. I talk to church people and they call me radical. The Panthers call me an Uncle Tom. Union people call me a communist and a guy at the University called me a fascist. It must mean I am doing something right.“
Demonstrations also drew the attention of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), which investigated and documented the discrimination in the industry. The Committee proposed a new community-based organization to organize minority workers to fight discrimination in the unions and construction trades.
These protests precipitated the first federal imposition of affirmative action upon local governments and industries. The United States Department of Justice filed suit against the unions in late 1969, and in 1970, a broad affirmative-action program was ordered by the court on the construction industry.
Judge William J. Lindberg ordered wide-ranging relief programs including quotas for union membership, hiring and apprenticeship classes, and changes in hiring and dispatching procedures.
A New Organization
In 1970, Tyree Scott was persuaded to head the United Construction Workers Association (UCWA), a new organization proposed by the AFSC. Supported financially by AFSC, Scott became a paid staff member and later its director. Its original mission was to support minority workers with activism, social work, and political advocacy. It later initiated lawsuits, led protests, and grew to having a prominent role in enforcing court rulings.
A group known as the Court Order Advisory Committee (COAC) was to oversee its implementation. Scott accused it of allowing union hiring halls to undermine the program and in the summer of 1972, the United Construction Workers Association led other dramatic protests that closed down Interstate 90, Seattle Central Community College, and other construction sites around the area. Because of these protests, the association was given two representative positions on the Court Order Advisory Committee and significant power over union apprenticeship programs. Scott served on the Court Order Advisory Committee until it disbanded in 1978.
From 1975, until 1978, the organization published a leftwing monthly, No Separate Peace, for the Third World poor. The paper set out to encourage people interested in building unity in diverse communities in the area to understand that there is only one struggle and there can be no separate peace. The struggle was against divisiveness of racism, sexism, and imperialism.
The United Construction Workers Association extended its organizing activities in 1971 to other cities including Denver, Oakland, and Little Rock, Arkansas. It also provided the training, the seed money, and the organizing model for the Alaska Cannery Workers Association (ACWA). In 1973, the United Construction Workers Association, the Alaska Cannery Workers Association, and the Northwest chapter of the United Farm Workers joined forces to found the Northwest Labor and Employment Law Office (LELO).
The Northwest Labor and Employment Law Office forged international ties among workers in the attempt to get better job conditions for low-income workers through class-action lawsuits. Gradually after publication of No Separate Peace ended and federal funds for its organizers were curtailed, United Construction Workers Association faded away in 1981, and its energies went to NW Labor and Employment Law Office. LELO continues as an organization led by ordinary workers to develop the leadership of those marginalized in our society.
During the 1980s, Scott began taking his labor and civil rights mission abroad and formed organizations to help laborers in developing countries. In 1997, Scott, who was interested in resisting the exploitation of Third World workers long before globalization, led a conference brought together by LELO. Thirty-five workers from a dozen countries discussed how they could use what they had in common to make better conditions for them all. They met at Seabeck on Hood Canal at the same time Bill Gates was convening a meeting of corporate leaders. By the time the World Trade Organization met in Seattle in the fall of 1999, to huge protests that drew world attention, Scott had educated many activists as to why the WTO and International Monetary Fund mattered to workers.
Tyree Scott spent two years, from 1990 to 1992, doing development work on an irrigation system in Mozambique and was an election observer for the World Council of Churches at the first national election in Mozambique. He helped set up plants that will manufacture building bricks and helped develop a program to export almonds.
Tyree Scott retired from his job as an electrician at the Port of Seattle in 1999, and returned there in 2003, to help his co-workers on the maintenance crew to organize against the privatization of their jobs. The Stevedoring Services of America were attempting to bust the union.
Scott suffered for many years with prostate cancer but he was active to the last with causes such as the longshore worker’s lockout and the anti-war movement. He died on June 19, 2003.
A 21-unit apartment building at 4000 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way S was named for him. The building shares a lot with the Refugee Women’s Alliance Center. Scott was able to dedicate the children’s playground on the property .
The Tyree Scott Freedom School is sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee. It is a nine-day summer educational program for young people aged 15 to 21, designed to expose them to social justice issues. It also teaches the students about the history of community organizing in Seattle in order to nurture their own community organizing.
Tyree Scott's name has been suggested for the new King County building at 5th and Yesler.