In 2017, is white supremacy still alive and well in this Philadelphia building trades union?

A year before the first Comcast tower opened for business in 2008, as construction continued at a frenetic pace, a black union worker named Paul Solomon was reportedly threatened with a noose. The incident elicited outcry from members of City Council and the African-American Chamber of Commerce, among others. To some, it was just another day in the long history of racism in the local construction trade.

Now, as the second Comcast tower comes ever closer to its own opening next spring, a sense of deja vu has beset some members of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 542, the union that Solomon belonged to. Several members of the union that represents crane operators and other heavy-machinery workers — who spoke to PlanPhilly under the condition of anonymity — say white supremacist symbols like the numbers 88 and 14 are commonly found inside trailers and on worksites across the city manned by Local 542. And they view the pro-Trump stickers slapped across beams and bannisters of the skyscraper after last year’s election as just another sign of a groundswell of racism.

Minority members of Local 542, particularly black unionists, say they have heard white supervisors throw around phrases like “worthless nigger” on job sites, just like in the Old South. In just the last six months, they say, a black operator found a noose hanging from his crane while working at a local power plant. In May, during the biannual general membership meeting of Local 542, one black member seized the mic and proclaimed that he would no longer tolerate racial epithets from the rank-and-file members of the union. “I am not a monkey,” he said in part, according to those in attendance. There was muted applause.

A spokesman for Local 542, reporting secretary Tom Danese, said that union leadership, while privy to some of these concerns, did not know the extent of complaints from minority members. To the contrary, Danese said, “we are in a great position with minorities in this local.” Almost 21 percent of the union’s members are minorities. “Outside of the Laborers’ [Local 332], we probably have more minority members than anyone,” says Danese.

However, Local 542 minority members only receive around 15.5 percent of the union’s total hours worked, says Danese. That’s only a slight improvement over the number in 2009 and a full four points lower than where it stood in 1989, according to a 2009 report commissioned by Mayor Michael Nutter on construction-industry diversity. Minority members tell PlanPhilly there’s a widely held belief that the black and Latino members of Local 542 recently have been systematically removed from jobs in favor of white members and hired only at the tail-end of jobs, despite the construction boom around the city. “The worst part about it is that the nooses don’t bother me, because that’s all punk shit,” said one black union employee, who spoke anonymously for fear of reprisal. “It’s really about the economics. Are my kids going to eat or yours?”

Charges of racism are nothing new to Local 542. The union has been under a federal court decree since 1979, stemming from a series of racially charged incidents in the ‘70s that included black members being thuggishly beaten in the union hall and a litany of discriminatory hiring practices. Local 542 has been under court supervision, off and on, for nearly 40 years, and still sends monthly reports to a “special master” — an attorney (with a highly unfortunate-sounding title) who’s responsible for investigating complaints of discrimination in the union and ensuring minority members are being given opportunities.

For a time, the court decree had appeared to be working. During the mid-’80s, Local 542 established a “101 program” to recruit and train new minority members as apprentices. The program brought in significantly more minorities in the union, but five years later, 44 of the 70 graduates had left the union. “Numbers of minority members must be increased for minority communities to have hope of obtaining a proportionate share of the work. However, increasing membership does not itself solve the problem,” the authors of the 2009 diversity report wrote.

In essence, the court decree instituted three decades ago has had minimal lasting effects. Union leadership blamed the economic downturn, resulting in construction work in the Philadelphia area drying up, as grounds for the decline. But according to some minority members, another, more profound reason, was the entrenched culture of racism at the union, something that continues to this day.  

One outcome of the court decree was the establishment of a civil rights committee within 542, made up of appointed and elected minority members, plus union chief Bob Heenan. When reached by phone initially, Heenan denied knowing about any complaints regarding nooses or extensive incidents of racial slurs. “I sit on the civil rights committee and that’s not true,” he said.

A large crane looms over Chestnut Street.
A large crane looms over Chestnut Street. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Heenan acknowledged only a single incident involving racial slurs and 542 members, saying he reported it to the court-appointed “special master” who monitors the consent decree, Mark Halpern. The matter is still under investigation.

In a subsequent phone conversation, Local 542’s reporting secretary and spokesman, Tom Danese, who also sits on the civil rights committee, acknowledged seeing photos of “88” symbolism in trailers occupied by 542. “I remember the 88; I don’t remember [hearing about] the noose,” said Danese. Thus far, the union has taken no steps to address the perpetrators or victims of the apparent hate crimes. However, Danese adds, “if somebody wants to make a formal complaint, at the time it occurs, then we’ll address it. You can’t bring something to us that happened two months ago, three months ago.”  

According to multiple minority members PlanPhilly spoke with, there is little confidence in the civil rights committee to take their complaints seriously. “It’s nothing but a dog-and-pony show,” one member said. Still, they insist that they’ve been making leadership aware of what’s going on.

“Minority members of 542 have long ago lost trust in the civil rights committee,” said another member. “Recently, however, there has been a surge in complaints given to the civil rights committee members.”

In a phone conversation with Butch Bennett, business manager and member of the civil rights committee at Local 542, PlanPhilly confirmed an increase in complaints received by the committee, including reports of the noose and racial slurs.

The current plight of Local 542 is a cautionary reminder for the city as it barrels toward implementation of Rebuild, Mayor Jim Kenney’s $500 million plan to renovate parks, rec centers, playgrounds, and libraries across the city. In addition to improving physical infrastructure, one of the primary goals of Rebuild is to increase minority membership in the building trades through various means.

If you parachuted into Philadelphia over the last couple of months, you might mistake the city’s powerful construction unions for being gung-ho on reversing decades of documented racism in their ranks.

During a press conference in June that several members of Council attended, along with construction union leaders, a series of programs to get more minority candidates into the unions were announced with great fanfare at City Hall. There was an abundance of thank-yous to John Dougherty, the head of the local Building Trades Council, during the press conference. Dozens of black and brown Philadelphians will soon be knocking on the door of the unions, though there have been a the long line of similar programs in the past that have failed to live up to the hype. But, as PlanPhilly wrote at the time, the press conference was to “celebrate a job well done on work that’s yet to begin.”

It was reported that Local 542 did voice concerns about minority representation during a work strike in June. One major sticking point in Local 542’s contract negotiations with the General Building Contractors Association: maintaining the “oilers” position, which the union says has been a key point of entry for minority and female members of their union. But on the ground, considering the atmosphere minority members say they face, the reality looks more unfriendly.

Incidents of racism in Philadelphia aren’t isolated to the city’s unions. Earlier this month, a white employee at the U.S. Mint was placed on leave for placing a noose in a colleague’s workspace. Days later, a noose was found hanging from a tree in Rittenhouse Square.

“We are extremely troubled by reports that another noose has surfaced at a job site in Philadelphia,” wrote Mayor Kenney and Rue Landau, executive director of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, in a joint statement in response to  these revelations inside Local 542. “Nooses, as well as burning crosses and swastikas, are listed as symbols of ‘virulent animus’ in our City’s Ethnic Intimidation and Institutional Vandalism law. These historic symbols of racism and hate are painful and invoke deep feelings of fear for among our African American community, as well as many other communities. If you see any of these symbols, or if you are a victim of a hate crime, call 911 to report it.” [Editor’s note: Guidance on how to report a hate crime can be found at the end of the article.]

For many, drawing broader conclusions about the other building-trades unions from the abhorrent behavior inside Local 542 is presumptuous — the sins of one should not be hung on the necks of the rest. But some beg to differ: “I think you can generalize,” says Jay McCalla, former city managing director and political commentator. McCalla cites statistics from an 2013 investigation by Tom Ferrick, which estimated that 67 percent of union workers on Philly job sites at the time didn’t actually live in the city limits. Further, more than 75 percent of them were white, in a majority-minority city.

“In a very tribal way, the white members are marking their territory,” says McCalla, speaking about the alleged regularity of nooses and slurs on worksites. Meanwhile, McCalla says, the unions are “celebrated like they’re the city’s proud grandparents” when they create pre-apprenticeship programs like Pipeline PHL.

Some minority members of Local 542 hope that these reports of apparent racist behavior, turned over to the union’s civil rights committee, will spur further oversight from the courts as part of the consent decree. Activists are also gearing up to protest acts of racism in the building trades.

“It’s unacceptable to have construction going on in this city, and black people have not been able to go to work — both in Center City and in our neighborhoods,” says Asa Khalif, a leader of Black Lives Matter Pennsylvania. “Even though this isn’t a police-violence issue, we’ve been talking in Black Lives Matter about this [the unions], because it’s still an issue of life and death in terms of unemployment and blatant racism to stop people from working…. We are working together with some of our allies, and we’re planning to shut some of these construction sites down.”

As far as legislative action to force change in the unions, Emmanuel Bussie, director of a local branch of the National Coalition of African-American Organizations, says that organizers will be pushing for action from City Council. “This fall, the Coalition of African-American Organizations will ask City Council to pass legislation that will force compliance with any Equal Opportunity Plan (EOP) signed by contractors, Project Users [of Rebuild] and developers,” Bussie wrote in an email describing the several measures he intends to lobby for.

Whether elected officials will stand up to the unions is another story. “Why do Unions spend millions to make sure those elected remain elected? So the systemic discrimination they enormously benefit from can remain in place,” wrote Bussie. “We need more elected official that have the freedom and/or integrity of character to vote and legislate in a way that benefits Philadelphia all of Philadelphia.”

How to report hate crimes

You can report all hate crimes and bias incidents to the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations (PCHR). The PCHR responds to all reported acts of hate and bias in multiple ways. They can address community pain and tensions through facilitated discussions, mediation or other techniques to begin the healing process with all affected parties. If a hate symbol such as noose is found at a workplace, or if another discriminatory act occurs, the PCHR can try to enforce the City’s anti-discrimination law. You can reach the PCHR at 215-686-4670 or, or their anonymous hotline at 215-686-2856.

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