Minorities need to be a part of Rebuild projects in Philadelphia

Mayor Kenney’s administration has said Rebuild will include minority workers.

On the eve of a City Council vote that is set to allow the Kenney administration to borrow hundreds of millions for Rebuild, which will include up to 200 construction projects at parks and recreations centers, a new study shows that nearly 63 percent of small city-funded projects had no minority workforce participation in FY 2016.

In fact, the City of Philadelphia’s Economic Opportunity Plan Employment Composition Analysis for Fiscal Year 2016 shows that three quarters of city-funded small projects—those with 76 project hours or less—fell below the city’s 32 percent minority participation goal.

And before anyone tries to justify those numbers by saying they represent one- or two-man jobs, please know that mid-range city-funded projects also excluded minorities at an alarming clip — 42 percent of them had no minority workforce at all in FY 2016.

Did some larger projects meet and even exceed the city’s goal for including people of color? Absolutely. But the abysmal numbers on small to mid-range projects matter. That’s because the Kenney administration says breaking the $500 million Rebuild project down into smaller contracts will allow minority contractors and workers of color to get a bigger bite of the apple.

Unfortunately, that argument doesn’t hold water, because the numbers show that smaller city-funded construction jobs in Philadelphia tend to have even less minority participation than large projects. And thanks to the Kenney administration’s decision to execute Rebuild using a largely unionized workforce, the same building trade unions that have traditionally excluded black and brown people from small and large construction sites will again be in the driver’s seat.

I called the Philadelphia Building Trades offices to ask about the awful minority participation numbers, but they did not return my call by press time. I also asked the Kenney administration to provide some explanation, and was told things will be different this time, because the administration has negotiated a memorandum of understanding with the building trades unions that will get more minorities on the work sites.

Their plan will lean on creating union apprenticeships.

“Skilled tradespeople who didn’t need to go through our workforce program (can) enter the trades through the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority,” said Rebuild spokesman David Gould. “This is a new pathway to membership in the trades and is specific to Rebuild. After being hired by PRA, employees will receive automatic membership into the trades.”

The city will also offer a workforce program to those who may need more experience before entering a trade. The program will be similar to Penn Assist, a Penn Medicine program also aimed at diversifying trades membership, Gould said. In addition, the city will recruit from other preapprenticeship programs, such as PowerCorps and YouthBuild to get those graduates working on Rebuild sites as they prepare for apprenticeships in the trades.

There’s just one problem with the whole apprenticeship thing. The people who’ve gone through apprenticeship programs in the past are still sitting on the sideline waiting to get on work sites, and it just hasn’t happened.

“Solomon, there are literally hundreds of individuals who have completed these programs, passed the test for apprenticeship and have never gotten an opportunity to participate in a union job,” Council President Darrell Clarke told me in a June 13 interview on my WURD radio show. “We cannot proceed until these individuals get an opportunity. So this program that we passed  … will establish the parameters around where these people are, how you can access them and how you can get them on the job.”

Clarke, like other Council members with whom I’ve spoken about the diversity issue, said Council would work to make sure people of color are included in the Rebuild project. He said the city would take contracts away from those who don’t meet minority participation goals.

But Clarke expressed frustration about what has happened on past projects, too.

The city did a disparity study, Clarke told me. “And that study essentially said that people are available. This notion that ‘I can’t find anybody to work on the job or I can’t find any contractors,’ that’s a bunch of crap. The study clearly defined those individuals are available. So when we crafted the study, we established that number — 44 to 45 percent participation. Period.

“So as we move forward, it is clear that the administration is pushing a proposal — and I’m not suggesting that people necessarily objected to it — that most of these jobs, particularly on larger scale projects, will be union jobs,” Clarke added. “And that’s fine if the people from communities — African American, Latino, Asian, females — have access to the union.”

And therein lies the rub. If Rebuild — a project funded by sugary-beverage tax dollars that come out of black and brown communities — is to truly include those who pay the freight, we must depend on the building trade unions to change their behavior.

I don’t see that happening.

But if black and brown people don’t get a fair amount of jobs out of the Rebuild project, then we must change our behavior, and start voting people out of office.

Solomon Jones is the author of 10 books. Listen to him mornings from 7 to 10 on WURD (900-AM).

Email: sj@solomonjones.com

On Twitter: @solomonjones1