City of Brotherly Racist Unions

'It's a joke.'

The ongoing stink between the city and its labor unions over increasing the numbers of minorities and women in the construction industry reminds me of the story of the farmer who discovers an enormous pile of horse manure in his barn. How does he address it? Is he the doom-and-gloom pessimist who frets about whether he will be able to shovel it all out? Or is he the eternal optimist who figures, hey, underneath all the mess, there's got to be a pony somewhere? After generations of the trade unions refusing to do the right thing, I've got to say, I'm having one heckuva hard time finding the pony.

Listening to testimony at the first public hearing of the Mayor's Advisory Commission on Construction Industry Diversity last week at City Hall, I'm beginning to think the mayor needs to sign off on a purchase order for extra shovels.

Union leaders and the select members they protect like to say that women and minorities just can't pass the test, or that the contractors ask for their favorites, or that seniority takes precedence.

But Shencaqua Butt, a journeyman carpenter, wasn't buying any of the usual excuses - not when the new mother was forced onto welfare for lack of work over the last year and a half.

This after going through a five-year apprenticeship program and passing both the painters' and carpenters' tests.

'A joke'

Butt, an African American who is a member of Local 1073 of the Metropolitan Regional Council of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, testified that she went through all the channels, appealing to her shop steward, the union's business agent, even the executive secretary.

"It's a joke," she said. "If I hear, 'You know how it is,' one more time. . . . Had I known how it was, I would have never gone into this."

And there was John Dent, a retired heavy-equipment operator who pointed out that after years of protracted litigation, his union, Local 542 of the Operating Engineers, still hadn't achieved the goal of 21 percent parity since black union workers first filed a discrimination suit 37 years ago.

If four federal judges - starting with the formidable A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., a lifelong champion of civil rights who wrote the landmark decision - can't offset the union's lack of good faith, you wonder who can.

"I don't expect to see full integration in my lifetime," Dent said sadly.

Four hours of testimony by union members, construction owners and contractors painted a colorless and womenless picture of institutional barriers and outdated practices that have over the years prevented the identifying, training and hiring of qualified minorities.

Add to that mix a glaring lack of oversight and, intentionally or not, minorities and women - in a city that boasts a majority minority population - find themselves shut out of the trades.

Mayor Nutter aptly calls it "economic apartheid."

In January, City Council mandated that 50 percent of the jobs for the $700 million, two-year Convention Center renovation go to women and minorities, and that 50 percent of those workers must live in the city.

According to union numbers submitted to Council earlier this year, about 80 percent of the regional construction workforce is white, and about 70 percent lives outside the city - as far away as the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Good luck finding a pony in those dismal totals.

Head to head

But commission chair Carl Singley sees reason for hope. For one thing, this is the first time a Philadelphia mayor has taken on the politically powerful unions with the full backing of state and local government.

"I've never seen this kind of consensus with such a broad base of elected officials," says Singley, a Philadelphia lawyer who also sits on the Convention Center board.

Once again, it shows that Nutter - to paraphrase one of his-often repeated phrases - isn't playing.

"You can't enact a whole bunch of laws. What you need is the collective political weight and say, 'We want to see some changes,' " says Singley. "And guess what? Things will change."

Singley says he'll push the city to implement and enforce the recommendations his commission plans to make by Sept. 1.

After generations of futile back and forth, let's hope that any owner, contractor or union doing business with the city finally gets the message.

"This is public money," Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller said. "Public means everybody."

Too bad most union leadership didn't bother to show up to hear that message.


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