2/13/08

Racially-imbalanced unions get their way

Councilman Wilson Goode Jr. is disappointed, and rightfully so. For one, he was sold out by his colleagues. Two, he and his colleagues were once again snubbed by the city’s building trades unions.

The showdown began back in December, when Council, upset over the unions’ continual eff-you attitude over just how many of their members aren’t white men, threatened to open the Convention Center’s $700 million expansion to nonunion workers. It was an admirably ballsy move. No numbers, no money.

The unions (playing Lucy in this compromise) pinky-sweared to Council (Charlie Brown) that they’d finally reveal the racial makeup of their membership. They’d also adopt the city’s aggressive minority hiring goals: a workforce that’s 25 percent African-American, 10 percent Latino, 5 percent Asian and 10 percent female. Then, once Council approved the diversity plans, the unions could work exclusively on the Convention Center expansion.

Last week the unions—well, most of them—submitted their diversity plans.

Goode says the carpenters, the electricians and the operating engineers didn’t submit anything. Two of the unions didn’t submit long-term diversity goals. Some unions based their numbers on apprentices, instead of journeymen and members. And most of the unions’ diversity goals didn’t show much movement at all.

Goode calls the package of plans “ridiculous.”

Of the 11 plans submitted, he approved only two—one from Laborers Local 332, whose membership is predominantly African-American, and one from the Iron Workers Local 401.

“And I had doubts about voting for that,” he says.

Goode wanted Council to approve the diversity plans individually, based on the goals Council had previously set. But he says his colleagues, feeling the heat from Gov. Rendell and state Rep. Dwight Evans, approved them all in one fell swoop.

“People were clearly not happy with all the plans,” he says, adding that Council received them around noon, and approved them all by 5 p.m.

“Surely, I believe we could’ve taken anywhere from another day to a week to review the plans and make decisions, and approve only the plans we were actually satisfied with.

“At the end of the day, it is what it is,” he continues after a heavy sigh, “but clearly anyone who reviews the plans realizes this isn’t what was intended by the legislation when it was unanimously approved and enacted in December.”

Goode consoles himself with the good news—that Council finally got the numbers. It’s a feat that Mayor Nutter deemed historic, and the media labeled a breakthrough.

And the numbers prove what everyone has known for ages—that the city’s labor unions are virtually all white and all male, and (here’s the final insult) most of their members don’t even live in Philadelphia.

Goode says about 80 percent of union members are white, and 70 percent live outside the city.

So why do we let them bully us again?

When Rendell and Evans scared Council into thinking that unless they approved Convention Center expansion ASAP, the project would be doomed, Council gave the diversity plans something called “interim approval.”

Goode’s understanding was that the plans would be further reviewed by the mayor’s new commission, and if the plans were revised, Council would get another kick at the football.

“It’s my understanding that the building trades were convinced by certain state and Convention Center officials that City Council was going to abdicate its authority on this issue,” says Goode, “and therefore would not have to approve those plans. Of course that turned out not to be true.”

But in many ways, it kinda was.

With the $1 billion construction of the city’s sports stadiums, the unions didn’t meet the projects’ employment goal of providing at least 45 percent of workforce hours to racial minorities, who make up a majority of the city’s population. With the Convention Center expansion, Council had a chance to hold the unions to diversity standards, but ultimately punked out.

Asked what’s next, Goode says he and his colleagues await diversity plans from the holdouts, and the Convention Center expansion project will proceed as scheduled.

No one seems to know what will happen to the unions that didn’t comply at all. Goode says, according to the ordinance Council passed in December, it’s up to the Convention Center authority to make sure the holdout unions don’t sign the project labor agreement.

Time will tell.

But Goode says he’s still encouraged. The mayor’s still-to-be-appointed commission will study racial inclusion in the city’s building-trades unions, and Council authorized the committee on commerce and economic development, which Goode chairs, to investigate the issue as well.

“Now that we have the numbers, the threat of an open shop becomes a little more real,” he says. “If the unions are not going to diversify over the long term, there’s no way we can have only union members working and reach the type of diversity on projects that should be required.”

But when it comes to the Convention Center expansion project, Goode admits: “Council gave up a whole lot of leverage of this project, because essentially you will get more aggressive diversity plans if those plans are negotiated before construction starts.”

(philadelphiaweekly.com)

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