Union racism delays Convention Center project

Another deadline will be blown today on the $700 million expansion of the Convention Center, as start of construction awaits a deal between the building-trades unions and City Council over minority hiring.

The Convention Center Authority, already working on a razor-thin margin to retain conventions in March and April 2011, will not be able to make its deadline today for sending out bids on the project, authority chairman Thomas "Buck" Riley said yesterday. That could jeopardize the center's ability to reel in those conventions and their 32,000 attendees.

"And I'm not just crying wolf," Riley said.

The question now on the table: Do the unions intend to comply with what Council is asking, or could the standoff kill the expansion altogether?

In December, Council passed a resolution that prohibits the city's finance director from signing a project labor agreement - required by the governor before construction can begin - until the city receives from the 15 unions in the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council plans for minority inclusion and demographic statistics.

Council members have argued that minorities have long been underrepresented in the building-trades unions. Federal statistics show that building-trades unions in the Philadelphia region are only 8 percent minority, and an Inquirer analysis of statistics from the Office of Housing and Community Development on publicly funded projects showed that 80 percent of the union workers are white and 70 percent live outside the city.

Yesterday, Council failed to offer the required resolution allowing projects to be bid because, members said, the unions as a group had not provided the information or plans they were supposed to. Even after what some called a "historic" meeting with labor leaders and Council members last week, only 12 of 15 unions submitted information to Council by Wednesday, and much of it was incomplete, Council sources said.

"We were a little bit disappointed," said Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller.

The new deadline is Monday, when Council will reconvene, and Miller said she expected more complete packages.

"I think it's going to be a busy weekend for a lot of our unions," said Tony Wigglesworth, whose Philadelphia Area Labor Management Committee is acting as an intermediary for Council, the Convention Center and the building trades.

Wigglesworth said that Pat Gillespie, business manager for the Building and Construction Trades Council, was committed to working with Council, but that bringing all the unions into line was another matter.

Gillespie could not be reached for comment.

The collection of demographic information from the unions has proved to be "the most complex thing I've tried to do," said Wigglesworth, a veteran of labor-management issues whose nonprofit company specializes in the area.

Some of the unions are under court orders not to keep track of race because of past discrimination. Others have sprawling memberships beyond Philadelphia. Some don't have e-mail.

A clearer picture should emerge today as Wigglesworth and the building trades meet to explain just what they will have to do to meet Council's demands.

Mike Fera, president and business manager of the Cement Masons and Plasterers Union Local 592, was credited as the only union leader to submit a viable inclusion plan and complete demographic numbers.

Fera said he had to separate his units outside of Philadelphia, narrow the numbers down to about 600, then go over a list and guess at each member's ethnicity. He mistook a few Italian union members for Hispanics, he confessed, but was corrected by his business agents. He reported that 26 percent of his membership are minorities.

Fera said that it only took him a few hours, but that other, larger unions might have problems.

"This is the way the Council says it's going to be - so this is the way it's going to be," said Fera.

Councilwoman Miller said: "The ball's in their court."


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