Philadelphia City Council pushes ‘diversity’ in the building trades

Aug. 2017 Building tradesBy a WORKING CARPENTER

The Philadelphia city council passed a law allowing the city to secure loans for a program to renovate city parks, recreation centers and libraries called Rebuild Philadelphia. Some council members expressed skepticism about the program, asking whether any of the jobs created would go to people living the neighborhoods where the projects take place.

Last year 63 percent of small projects done for the city had no workers of color. Middle-sized city projects performed only marginally better, with 42 percent having no workers from minority groups. Projects done for private developers are similarly majority white, with many from the suburbs.

The problem of racism in the building trades is a national one and not isolated to Philadelphia.

Philadelphia is 55 percent people of color. Forty six percent of the population is Black. The construction unions are still majority white. The only majority Black and Latinx union in the building trades is the Laborers Union, which is 54 percent people of color. The Laborers represent unskilled workers who do a variety of work on sites from demolition to clean up.

The rest of the trades have much lower percentages of minority group members; a handful are in the 25-30 percent range, and the majority have less than 20 percent. Two unions, the Insulators and Tile setters, report having no Black or Latinx members.

The building trades have a long history of excluding Black and Brown workers and women from apprenticeship programs. Passage of the Rebuild Philadelphia program was conditioned on the creation of opportunities for people of color and women to gain entry to apprentice programs. Three pre-apprentice programs were announced recently; the PHL Pipeline, which is part of the Rebuild program; PennAssist, tied to the Pennsylvania Hospital system; and the Construction Apprenticeship Preparatory Program (CAPP), which is part of Brandywine Realty Trust’s Neighborhood Engagement Initiative.

Brandywine is the developer of a proposed 30-year development plan along the Schuylkill River, including the Schuylkill Yards. Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration has also promised that Rebuild will offer more opportunities for small contractors that are women or minority owned. Sometimes minority contractors are fronts for larger white-owned firms or “owned” by the wives of contractors as a way of circumnavigating minority set-aside provisions.

Each of the pre-apprentice programs promises the opportunity to get into union apprenticeship programs, providing both work experience and assistance with preparation for the entrance tests for the unions. (The tests are mainly math.) But taking the test is only the first hurdle. There are several institutional barriers to completion and finding work after people gain entrance to the programs. Until the hiring process is addressed, these types of programs are merely window dressing. The question remains, in the midst of a building boom, who gets the jobs?

While the construction unions often promise increased diversity in apprenticeship programs, these pledges fall short. The Philadelphia Electrical and Technology Charter High School provides one example. It was founded by IBEW local 98 (Electricians) leader John Dougherty, who is also a major player in local Democratic Party politics. At its inception, the school’s stated purpose was to provide the foundation for entrance into the IBEW’s apprentice program. The student body of the charter school is 70 percent Black.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that in its 15-year history, there is “no record of any graduate entering Local 98’s apprentice training program.” This is a compelling example of why skepticism on the part of the Black community regarding promises of diversity by the unions is warranted. The Inquirer alleges that, rather than serving as a pipeline to a career in the skilled trades, the school is a patronage machine for Dougherty’s cronies and family.

A history of Jim Crow practices

The building trades have traditionally acted as “white labor trusts.” In the early years, there were separate locals for Black workers. The situation was very much a situation of economic apartheid. Black and Brown workers were the last hired and the first fired.

This reality persists today. While it’s possible for white nonunion workers to get into the union through being organized in, or through the submission of resumes, Black and Brown workers often don’t find this avenue available to them. The memorandum of understanding between the city and the unions inadequately addresses this by offering the possibility that already-skilled workers could gain union membership through work at the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

Following World War II, a Republican-controlled city council passed civil rights legislation, but racism and lack of opportunity persisted in employment, education and housing. During the 1950s, Black clergy led a series of boycotts demanding fair employment opportunities and won limited victories.

In the early 1960s, the NAACP organized demonstrations against the exclusion of Black tradesmen from jobs in the city. This struggle reached its height in a fight to integrate the site of a new junior high school in North Philadelphia. NAACP picket lines, which included many Black trades people, blocked worksite gates and demanded the hiring of minority workers. Pickets were met with violence from white union workers and cops.

After two weeks of disruption, building trades unions and contractors met with the NAACP and the AFL-CIO Human Rights Committee to negotiate a settlement:

“By the time the meeting came to an end, Moore (NAACP leader Cecil B. Moore) believed that the contractors had agreed to hire a Black plumber, a steamfitter and two electricians onto the Strawberry Mansion site. On Tuesday morning, however, Moore and NAACP pickets found not a desegregated workforce, but rather a significantly larger police presence with orders … to insure that workers were able to enter the site” (from “Up South, Civil Rights and  Black Power in Philadelphia,” by Matthew J. Countryman).

During the recent Great Recession, the Phair Hiring Coalition organized demonstrations on job sites at Temple University (TU) demanding the inclusion of Black, Brown, and women workers on university job sites. During the height of the recession, buildings under construction at TU were overwhelmingly staffed by white tradesmen.

Overcoming the apprenticeship problem

In the construction trades, it’s still “who you know” that, more often than not, determines who gets hired. Many contractors hire union members off the street through recommendations of friends. Getting into apprentice programs and completing them is a series of hurdles. If you pass the test, you have to find a contractor sponsor willing to make the initial hire.

Once hired, the apprentice often has to contend with racist supervisors and co-workers. First and second-year apprentices are considered “cheap labor” and get used for the most menial tasks, like stuffing insulation or moving materials. Since the skills of the trade are mostly really learned on the job, this puts women and young people of color at a disadvantage. By the time they have completed their second year, their pay rate is much higher and, if they haven’t achieved a sufficient skill level, they become unemployable. Women also face sexual harassment, and people of color are often the victims of racist bosses and co-workers.

Advancement in some apprenticeship programs is based not only on grades, but also on having worked a minimum number of hours. If someone is having a hard time holding onto jobs because of discrimination, their time in apprenticeship could go beyond the usual four or five years.

How can this situation be resolved?

First, apprenticeship programs should be restructured to guarantee admission of more women and minority group members. Once admitted, these workers should be assigned journeyman mentors who will help them navigate the obstacles in the system. Contractors should be monitored to make sure that apprentices are taught the skills required for advancement in their trade.

More democratic union structures and accountability of officials is also necessary. An aggressive organizing drive targeting nonunion workplaces is an urgent task. This means organizing all workers, including the undocumented, into the unions. The unions have to make a commitment to rooting out the racism in their ranks.

Resistance to fair hiring from some white workers has to be overcome as well. Competition for high paying construction jobs is fierce. The fight for jobs, coupled to a sliding scale of wages and hours (30 hours work for 40 hours pay), is part of the struggle for a national public-works jobs program that guarantees jobs at top union wages. The demand for jobs for all should be coupled with demands for free universal health care, free education for all, the right to retire without economic worry, and the right to a safe and affordable home.

Photo: Wage Theft March outside Los Angeles City Hall in January 2015. From Los Angeles Black Worker Center.

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