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"Honestly," says 24-year-old native West Philadelphian Tyrick Moy, an African-American apprentice in Plumbers Local 690, "when I came here, I looked around and noticed more blacks than usual."
Moy was speaking from a work site at 48th and Haverford, soon to be home to the city's juvenile jail, the Youth Study Center. Like most of the youth who will be incarcerated here, the neighborhood is largely black and poor. What's surprising: Many of the construction workers on the project are also people of color. The overwhelming majority of workers on such sites are typically white males.
In November, Mayor Michael Nutter issued a "historic" executive order: City-funded construction projects like this one worth $5 million or more would hire a substantial number of black, Latino, Asian and female workers — 32 percent men of color, 7 percent women and 50 percent Philly residents. He also created an Advisory Committee on Construction Industry Diversity to oversee compliance.
Critics, however, say Nutter's executive order lacks teeth.
"What happened with the executive order was pure hogwash," says City Councilman Wilson Goode Jr., noting that economic opportunity plans stipulating hiring goals are already required for many publicly funded projects. In short, Goode doesn't see the problem of minority exclusion from job sites being addressed in any comprehensive way.
Still, given Philly's long and fraught history of inequality on construction sites, the Youth Study Center — which is a pilot site for the mayor's new initiative — is a significant step forward.
"This administration has actually taken steps," says Everett Gillison, the mayor's chief of staff, who will chair the diversity advisory committee. "We have been very serious when it comes to minority, women and disabled people getting their fair share."
At the Youth Study Center, 38 percent of the hours worked have been worked by black, Latino and Asian men. It might not sound like a lot — but it's an improvement. A 2008 study of publicly funded construction projects in Philadelphia found 72 percent of workers are white, and 59 percent live outside the city. The study's author, however, says his numbers may inflate minority involvement: At SugarHouse Casino, according to a city report, people of color worked just 9 percent of construction hours, and women a measly 2 percent.
Gillison says the oversight board, including a monitor that tracks day-to-day hiring, has been effective, and the project is meeting its goals. But Goode, who plans to introduce legislation he says will increase Council's ability to hold contractors accountable, calls Gillison's statement "ridiculous."
"If they were achieving the same level of diversity on most projects, they could call it progress," he says.
Meanwhile, unions bristle at the very suggestion that there is a problem that needs fixing.
"I think Councilman Goode is a dope," says Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council head Pat Gillespie. "I don't have to prove that we have programs that work, because they work. Anywhere the building trades unions have agreed to diversity on a project, we've lived up to those numbers, or we've done our level best to ensure that our employers live up to those numbers."
Plus, building trades unions contend that the focus on minority quotas is politically driven anyway. In 2003, civil rights protests against the electricians' union Local 98 were rumored to be fomented by disgraced state Sen. Vince Fumo, a rival of powerful union chief John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty.
The politics, however, play both ways. Dougherty was close to Mayor John Street, who named him chairman of the city's Redevelopment Authority. And though Dougherty decided against a run for mayor in 2007, he has assumed behind-the-scenes leadership: Local 98's political director Bobby Henon was elected to Council, and Dougherty was seen as playing a key role in Darrell Clarke's recent selection as Council president. So he could have a say on whether Goode's legislation is successful.
"There's going to be a lot of vigilance around whether or not that [union] funding will cause elected officials to hold their tongue instead of speak out on issues like this one," says A. Bruce Crawley, a Philadelphia businessman and critic of construction industry hiring practices.
Political gamesmanship aside, the history of black exclusion has been a central civil rights issue in Philly for decades. Overwhelmingly, white building trades unions have drawn members from family, neighborhood and parish — social networks that excluded blacks in this highly segregated city.
In some other industries, labor unions pulled millions of black people out of poverty and into jobs teaching, hauling trash, driving trolleys or delivering mail — but not in skilled building trades. In Philadelphia, many black construction workers have historically been concentrated in Laborers Local 332, a lower-paid and low-skill trade.
In 1963 — while civil rights protesters in Birmingham, Ala., were being driven back by firehoses and attacked by police dogs — Cecil B. Moore, head of Philly's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), led mass protests against white construction crews at the Municipal Services Building and elsewhere. "The only difference between Birmingham and Philadelphia," said Moore, "is geography."
The movement sparked similar actions in cities nationwide. Yet the building trades here remained largely white. In 2003, contractors failed to meet hiring goals for the taxpayer-funded construction of two new South Philly sports stadiums. In December 2007, the conflict became crisis: Members of City Council demanded work for people of color in the $786 million Pennsylvania Convention Center expansion. When the building trades refused to turn over demographic information on their membership, Council did something unheard of and proposed opening bidding to non-union firms. Nutter, then mayor-elect (and former chairman of the Convention Center board), condemned the unions' "economic apartheid."
The following year, a compromise was brokered: The unions would turn over demographic information to Council and agree to put more people of color to work. Some unions, however, never turned over demographic data — or even signed the agreement. But the furor produced some results, and a significant number of African-Americans were hired.
Despite the progress since then, Crawley says Nutter's order fails to include tough sanctions for noncompliance and doesn't include goals for minority- and women-run firms. "If you have no accountability for workforce inclusion and no specified goals for contracting, I'm not holding out any great hope that [hiring goals] can be achieved," he says.
In March 2011, Nutter presided over a jubilant Convention Center expansion grand opening. But the NAACP's Jerry Mondesire, who backed Nutter's 2003 appointment to lead the Center, now views him as another in a long line of mayors, black and white, who have let black Philadelphia down. "The NAACP was never consulted [in crafting the order]," Mondesire says, "so we don't take it very seriously that the administration is going to pursue inclusion in any more meaningful way in this second term than they did in the first term. And the first term was lackluster."
Gillison says he welcomes the skepticism. "It keeps us on our toes and keeps us committed," he says. "People shouldn't rest on their laurels once they enter into an agreement. That's the beginning of the process, not the end."
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