Two recent comments (from two distinctly different politicians) touching on race and unions, politics and policy, struck me as worthy of airing out.
One came from State Sen. Scott Wagner, a Republican from York County running for governor, the other from State Sen. Tony Williams, a Democrat who might run for Philadelphia mayor.
Wagner first. At a GOP forum last week in Montgomery County, while talking about the economy and shortages of skilled blue-collar workers, he said this about Philly unions:
“Do you know that the trade unions in Philadelphia employ no blacks? The trade unions I’m finding are racist, and it’s unfortunate … I know a lot of decent black men and women that would love to be trained or learn to be a plumber or an electrician or a heavy-equipment operator.”
On to Williams.
During a Harrisburg hearing last week on the city’s soda tax (he’s not a fan), he balked at testimony suggesting the tax will bring tons of trade union jobs to low-income areas to build/rebuild parks, rec centers and libraries over the next several years.
“Do you know the demographics of the building trades?” asked Williams. They’re “not a bastion of diversity.” He told a hearing witness, “Maybe you want to take that out of your testimony.”
Two perspectives. Similar conclusions. I decided to follow up.
First, let me note that Philly unions employ blacks. The head of the 5,000-member Laborers’ District Council of Metropolitan Philadelphia, Ryan Boyer, is black.
So I asked Wagner if he got any blowback from his comments. He said, “No. None.”
I asked if he perhaps overstated his case. He said, “Look, I should be on 15 [expletive] medications before I speak, but it’s a fact they don’t employ blacks and haven’t met the numbers they promise.”
Wagner added, “I’m spending time in Philadelphia. I’m looking to help businesses grow. What have Democrats done for the worst areas for poverty? They come down during elections and buy you a chicken dinner and never do anything.”
Wagner, a wealthy owner of trash and trucking companies, also said, “If I were younger, I’d come down and buy a half-dozen trash trucks and set them up in business.”
He worked with Wagner to hold that soda tax hearing. He refers to them as “the odd couple.” But he doesn’t go as far as Wagner regarding “racist” unions.
“I’m not going to say that,” Williams told me. “That’s extreme.”
But he said, “Some of the trades are stuck in the past. I’m glad you’re raising it. I think everybody should talk about it.”
When I ask if the trade unions have improved their diversity, Williams said, “How would I know? Where’s the data? What was it Reagan said? Trust but verify?”
This takes me to John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, head of the Philadelphia Building Trades (who you may know isn’t in a great place due in part to a reportedly sweeping FBI investigation).
He confirms diversity data aren’t currently available but says Wagner’s “completely wrong” and “should stay in the lane that earned him the endorsement of Steve Bannon.”
Wagner and Bannon met on a plane headed to some conservative gig at which Bannon threw kudos Wagner’s way.
Dougherty also says Williams knows better, knows the trade unions are working hard to make sure “the problems of the past are being corrected.”
Dougherty cites several initiatives in public schools, including construction industry prep courses and mentoring. City unions, he said, are a big part of efforts to resolve old issues. He added, “We’ll get there.”
Mayor Kenney’s office says the administration is pushing apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships to improve diversity. The city is committed to 45 percent minority workers on community projects funded through proceeds from the soda tax.
When such projects start depends on how long tax litigation lasts.
Bottom line? Wagner went too far. Williams knows it. Unions have a way to go.