A $600 million gamble that the building trades will change

    Mayor Jim Kenney and Philadelphia's first ever Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Nolan Atkinson

    Mayor Jim Kenney and Philadelphia's first ever Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Nolan Atkinson

    As Philadelphia continues to gentrify, the business of building has become ever more lucrative. But data from city agencies indicate that women and people of color are largely underrepresented in the building trade unions who are paid to work on taxpayer-funded projects.

    In 2015, in a city that is majority non-white, males of color got 22 percent of the workforce hours on completed City contracts, according to the Office of Economic Opportunity. Women got less than 2 percent. But the numbers are no surprise, since Philadelphia’s building trade unions were 99 percent male, 76 percent white and 67 percent suburban as of 2012, according to data compiled by veteran reporter Tom Ferrick through a Right To Know request.

    Those data are particularly relevant as newly elected Mayor Jim Kenney pitches a $600 million project that would rehabilitate and refurbish parks, recreation centers and libraries. At least half the funding for the project would come from taxpayer coffers—probably through a public bond. But if current patterns hold, Philadelphians of color would get only a fraction of the work, even though the project is funded by their tax dollars.

    I asked Kenney in a radio interview how he plans to resolve the issue. He promised change, but also acknowledged that many of Philadelphia’s building trade unions have a long history of excluding people of color.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    “If I could snap my fingers and undo 100 years of injustice today I would’ve done it already,” Kenney said. “And I am working at it every day. It is a commitment that I have made, and one of the reasons I got elected is the commitment I have made to … ensure the opportunity is really there for us to expand the role of our construction trades within our communities to make sure that young men and women have an opportunity to have a job…”

    But even if Kenney is committed to doing so, he can’t do it alone, and in truth, we’ve heard such promises before.

    Today, in a city that is 55 percent non-white, and 52-percent female, women and minorities get a sliver of the pie on most projects when it comes to construction work. Many believe that’s because the building trades have become a political force. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, under the leadership of John Dougherty, has become the largest political contributor in the state, contributing over $1.5 million last year through the union and two affiliated political action committees, according to the Committee of Seventy.

    I reached out to John Dougherty for comment, but a call to his office was not returned.

    However, City Council President Darrell Clarke, who said he is in favor of union labor, told me in an interview that he had received assurances from Dougherty and others that things are going to change.

    “The head of IBEW—Johnny Dougherty—has said he wants to have a more aggressive approach to having [minority] participation,” Clarke told me. “I’ve talked to all the heads of these various unions. They’ve said they want to do better and have to do better. So we have to hold people to their words. But the one thing as it relates to the government, we need to establish a process that will ensure that that will happen. And we already have the pens out and we are working on a strategy to make sure that that [is] in fact a part of this contract.”

    There are, of course, several problems that have to be addressed in order to make change possible. For one, the project labor agreement that was put in place under former Mayor Michael Nutter mandates that union labor be used on some City projects, Clarke said. That could change under Kenney, but Clarke said there’s no guarantee.

    The other problem is that even if minority participation goals are put in place, there is no one currently enforcing them. Clarke said there is legislation in the pipeline to address that issue.

    “We are now putting the enforcement powers in the Department of Labor and Standards where we will literally have people out on the streets going to the job sites, ” he said. “And if people are in non-compliance of their commitment, then there’s the possibility of terminating the contract or simply barring those individuals from ever having the opportunity to bid on municipal contracts again.”

    There are those who believe the system is fine in its current state. Among them is Ryan Boyer, Business Manager of Laborers Local 332. His union consists mostly of black workers who are among the lowest paid of the building trades. I know, because my grandfather was a member of that union.

    “No one has done more to uplift people out of poverty than the Philadelphia Building Trades–period,” Boyer said. “Is it perfect? No. But are we moving to a better system? Absolutely …”

    “I will stand by John Dougherty, Joe Ashdale, John Kane, Anthony Gallagher, Gary Masino,” Boyer said. “All those guys are my friends. But we have a problem. There is a problem with education. You have to take a test. There are some points to entry. And the reality is some of our children score very low. Now, we’re committed to trying to get those kids up to par. But we’re not going to say people that deserve the work on the site. What makes you deserve the work on the site? Because you’re black—or because you’re qualified?”

    Boyer, who is African American, said the Convention Center and other major projects had achieved levels of minority participation approaching 40 percent. But he insists that his friends, whose unions have long been overwhelmingly white and male, are in the process of turning things around.

    I have no doubt that Boyer believes that. Unfortunately, I don’t.

    When I look at the disproportionately low numbers of minority workers on City funded projects, and the dearth of black members in most building trade unions, I see shades of systemic discrimination.

    When I count over $1.5 million in campaign contributions, and learn that there is no oversight in place to ensure adequate minority participation on City funded projects, I see a failed political system.

    But when I see a project on the horizon that could change all that, I see an opportunity.

    With a new $600 million project on the table, politicians and union leaders have the chance to change the narrative. Taxpayers and voters have the chance to hold them accountable.

    It is our money, after all. It’s time we took charge of how it’s spent.

    Listen to Solomon Jones M-F 7 to 10 am on 900 am WURD.

    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal