It appears that the Rebuild program is in danger of becoming a colossal bait and switch — at least when it comes to workforce diversity.
The program, which Mayor Kenney promised would spend $500 million to refurbish parks, recreation centers, and library branches while creating more work opportunities for black and brown Philadelphians, who are traditionally frozen out of construction jobs, is on hold for now. And the deal to put more black and brown people on the workforce is on hold, too.
The Kenney administration and John Dougherty, who runs the Philadelphia Building Trades Council, an association of construction unions, had promised that up to 45 percent of Rebuild jobs would go to the disadvantaged (that’s political speak for blacks, browns, and women).
Legislation was in Council, a memorandum of understanding was signed — and though Rebuild funding was on hold pending the outcome of a lawsuit challenging the legality of the beverage tax, which is supposed to fund the program — the city was ready to move forward.
But things got testy when Council demanded that the deal include robust enforcement measures to make sure unions and contractors stuck to the promises of workforce diversity. In a town where black and brown people have been largely excluded from city-funded construction, with no real consequences, that appeared to be a bridge too far. At least that’s how City Council President Darrell Clarke tells it.
“The members of Council wanted to have some language inserted in there that would ensure there was some level of enforcement,” Clarke told me in a radio interview on Praise 107.9 FM. “As with anything, a document can say what it says, but if there is no enforcement in terms of compliance with that document, then it doesn’t mean anything.”
As Council was preparing to hold another hearing on the matter, it received a letter from the mayor saying he no longer wanted to participate in the process, Clarke said.
“He wanted us to repeal the Rebuild legislation and wanted to go a different direction,” Clarke said. “I’m somewhat perplexed. Actually I’m very perplexed. I don’t understand why that was done. But, apparently, based on the letter, there was some concerns about the timing.”
The timing issue is tied to the beverage tax, which specifically targets the soda industry with a 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax on soda distributors. The money from that tax is supposed to pay for pre-K, the Rebuild program, and several other city budget items. But the tax is being challenged in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and there’s no way to know if it will still be in place when it is time to move forward on Rebuild.
The Kenney administration says Rebuild needs to start now, and has proposed taking money out of the city’s capital budget to do so.
I asked the Mayor’s Office to clarify why they want to move forward despite the uncertainty of the beverage tax’s fate.
“Philadelphians have been waiting for almost two years for Rebuild,” Kenney said in a statement. “During that time, my administration has worked with City Council and the building trades to develop a robust approach to diversity and inclusion with Rebuild, including two unprecedented commitments from the building trades to boost diversity within their ranks. Now that we have those commitments in place, it’s time to start investing the money that’s been sitting unspent while parks, recreation centers, and libraries are on the brink of closure.”
That all sounds wonderful, but I’m with Clarke on this.
We’ve seen promises of inclusion from the Building Trades Council before, but the reality is its member unions are largely male, white, and suburban. With the exception of a few large projects, those unions, and the contractors they provide labor to, have frozen black and brown people out of city-funded projects.
It’s so bad that in fiscal year 2015, 44 percent of city-funded projects with diversity plans (known as Economic Opportunity Plans) included no minorities at all. And in fiscal year 2016, a whopping 63 percent of small, city-funded construction projects had no people of color or women on the workforce, while 42 percent of the workers in midrange city-funded construction projects were all white and male.
That’s unacceptable. And while the Kenney administration says the city already has the power to enforce diversity goals by withholding payment, terminating a contract, or recommending that contractors be barred from doing future work for the city, this almost never happens.
So, yes, I want every possible weapon in place to make sure Philadelphia’s largely white and male building trades — and the contractors who use their workers — do not continue their pattern of excluding women and people of color.
If that means doing more to prevent the old bait and switch, so be it.
In a city where black and brown people make up the majority of the population, there can be no other choice.