The lure of thousands of jobs at a bigger Philadelphia International Airport has prompted a campaign by local religious congregations for preferential hiring for unemployed and poor Philadelphians.

A controversial $6.4 billion airport expansion may not break ground for several years, but the push for City Council action on airport jobs is already well under way.

A group of 36 congregations representing 27,000 Christians, Jews, and Muslims has been lobbying in public sessions and private meetings for preferential hiring, money for training programs, and increased minority enrollment in union apprenticeship programs.

In four recent public meetings this month, the group — which calls itself POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild) — collected commitments from eight of Council's 17 members to support its agenda. Mayor Nutter met with organizers but remains noncommittal; spokesman Mark McDonald said the administration has "not seen the proposal and can't comment until we do."

The push for preferential hiring could put the religious coalition in conflict with local construction unions, which are also suffering from high unemployment and already have agreements with the administration for hiring on all city construction projects of $5 million or more.

But Patrick Eiding, president of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO council, said he has met with POWER's leaders and supports their efforts.

The Rev. Dwayne D. Royster, pastor of Living Water United Church of Christ in North Philadelphia and executive director of the religious coalition, said the group is "calling to those powers — corporations, unions, and government — and saying, 'You have a responsibility to the masses — do the right thing.'?"

"When you get people back to work, they'll have money to spend and they will spend their money here, and that helps everybody," he said at POWER's offices at St. Malachy Roman Catholic Church in North Philadelphia. "What I care about is jobs, and the airport project is necessary to get jobs here."

The group has set a Nov. 1 deadline to get a bill approved by Council establishing "first-source hiring" for unemployed Philadelphians and those living in low-income city neighborhoods.

POWER is modeling its proposal on a 2004 program created for the ongoing expansion of Los Angeles International Airport, although that "community-benefits agreement" excludes construction jobs. The Philadelphia organizers want construction hiring included in their program.

"Our goal is policy that provides for maximum hiring of city residents, with emphasis on those most impacted by unemployment and poverty, on both the construction and permanent jobs," said David Koppisch, a parishioner at St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church in Germantown and a POWER organizer.

Philadelphia's citywide unemployment rate is 10.3 percent, and it's as high as 37.2 percent in some areas of North Philadelphia, according to data compiled by the Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board. And Philadelphia has the highest percentage of residents — 25 percent — living below the poverty line of any of the nation's 10 largest cities. (The poverty line for a family of four is $22,314.)

Pat Gillespie, business manager of the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council, said he "would applaud any effort by anybody to get people jobs ... finding jobs these days is like finding hen's teeth."

His members would like airport jobs, too, he said.

With construction unemployment about 17 percent nationwide, many out-of-work union construction workers "could fit the bill nicely if we could get the airport project," Gillespie said.

The construction unions have expanded apprenticeship and training programs to increase minority participation, he said, and "it's exasperating, frankly, to hear people talk as if we haven't done anything already."

Eiding, the regional AFL-CIO president, said hiring for work at the airport and elsewhere will depend on "the expertise and ability of folks to do a job." He said talks will continue between union officials and POWER's leaders to "accomplish what they're trying to do."

The city plans to expand Philadelphia International in a 13-year project that municipal officials have said could create as many as 100,000 jobs. The project would add a runway; lengthen two existing runways; build a new commuter terminal; add a "people mover" train; create new airplane gates and a new car-rental hub; and expand airport parking.

The airlines that use the airport — and would bear most of the cost of the expansion — have balked at the city's plan, saying it would cost more like $10.5 billion and would not ease air-traffic congestion. The airlines also dispute the jobs number, saying the 100,000 projection is a misleading extrapolation of temporary, permanent, and indirect jobs.

In California, the preferential-hiring agreement for jobs created by the expansion of Los Angeles International gives people who live nearby the first opportunity for employment with 75 companies that have airport contracts, said Joyce Sloss, director of that airport's business and job-resources center.

All nonconstruction companies that work for the airport must agree to give first consideration to nearby residents who have applied and are prescreened by the job-resources center. The employers are not required to hire them, Sloss said.

"The jobs for the most part are union jobs, and they're paid union wages," she said. "It's actually working quite well for us ... we've been very satisfied with it."

She said about 1,000 people have been hired through the "first-source hiring" program, which uses an online system to match applicants and airport employers.

Contact Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.