Parks & Rec makeover caught in clash over union diversity rules

A City Council hearing on Rebuild ended on Thursday with still no resolution on which parks, rec centers, libraries and playgrounds will be improved in the first phase of Mayor Jim Kenney’s $500 million Rebuild initiative, and no sign as to when the council will be ready to give a green light.  

Four months after the city proposed the first 61 sites to undergo renovation through the soda tax-funded capital improvement program, the main sticking point isn’t the selected locations but rather the economic development goals attached to the initiative. 

Kenney promises that Rebuild will create jobs for minority contractors and permanently diversify the local building trades, which have been plagued by systemic racism and the exclusion of non-white workers for generations. The most recent publicly available diversity data for the building trades dates back to 2008 and shows that a majority of the unions had less than 10 percent black membership at the time.

Despite the 16-to-1 passage of the legislative framework governing Rebuild last year, Council members aren’t convinced that the mayor is doing enough to ensure that goals are met. Kenney came into office with the support of the city’s white labor establishment, along with unprecedented levels of black support for a white candidate.

“We went out on a limb, big time. Some of us took a very difficult vote because we did see a pathway to get people into family-sustaining jobs in the building trades union, something we haven’t been able to achieve before,” Council President Darrell Clarke said. 

For the better part of three hours on Thursday, council members raised concerns about negotiations with the unions and mechanisms for accountability, once the project gets rolling.

“We really need to get some clarity before we get out here today,” said Clarke. “I’ve been hearing different iterations of the path to union membership all along this process.”

But without anyone from any of the region’s building trades unions there to testify at the hearing, the answers sought by the council remained elusive. The Philadelphia Buildings Trade Council did not return phone calls from PlanPhilly.

The Rebuild team spent the hearing on the defensive, reintroducing previously discussed strategies in play to help the city realize its diversity goals. These include mandating that 45 percent of the workforce consists of minority laborers on all Rebuild sites, and 50 percent live in Philadelphia. Beyond increasing the number of Philadelphians of color on worksites, the city has designed pathways to permanent union membership via brokered pacts with building trades organizations.

One route will be through a partnership with the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA). The city redevelopment agency will employ an estimated 40 individuals with experience in skilled trades and no union card to work on a select number of Rebuild projects.

According to the administration, after a period of time (which is yet to be finalized with the unions and subject to negotiation), those individuals will be granted a permanent union card.   

“[These workers] would have a temporary card, which provides union benefits, as soon as they are hired by the Redevelopment Authority through Rebuild,” said David Gould, deputy director of communications and community engagement for Rebuild. “What we are working on — the last piece — [is deciding] for what period of time would they have to be employed in order to have a permanent card, regardless of their employment status with the Redevelopment Authority,” Gould said.

A second way into union membership will be a Rebuild-created program called PHL Pipeline. The yet-to-launch city initiative  will function as a pre-apprenticeship program for Philadelphians without the requisite skills to take and pass a test to enter the union. The city will recruit 30 individuals and provide them with training, mentorship, and paid on-site contracting experience (at hourly rates comparable to a first-year apprentice with the trades). PHL Pipeline is based on an existing pre-apprenticeship program called PennAssist.

In June, building trade representatives signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) [pdf] with the city confirming their agreement to participate in the pre-apprenticeship program and admit new minority members, including a portion of the PRA workforce hired for Rebuild. However, Clarke and others say that the MOU lacks some of the details and teeth needed to ensure results.  The document does not mandate that the unions accept a specific number of minority applicants.

“I want to see a document between the unions and the city on the Redevelopment Authority’s hiring of those individuals,” concerning their ability to get temporary and/or permanent union cards, Clarke said.

Gould said that the Rebuild team will submit written confirmation of this component to Council in short order. “I want to get this very clear so there’s no room for error here,” said Councilwoman Cherelle Parker. “We should not pass this on final passage until the city of Philadelphia and the PRA have come together with the building trades to hammer out a compromise in writing.”

Little time during the hearing was devoted to discussing the list of 61 sites, which is not surprising, considering the amount of input council members already had in compiling it. “The list of 61 sites is the result of numerous conversations with each district councilperson each of whom have confirmed with Rebuild that the list reflects priorities in their district,” Rebuild Executive Director Nicole Westerman said.

The council did not vote on the legislation, electing to recess the meeting until the morning of April 5th.

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