Jones: Don't expect Rebuild plan to help minorities in building trades

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney (left) greets neighborhood residents following a press conference at the Cecil B. Moore Recreation Center November 21, 2016 .

THE KENNEY administration's Rebuild initiative could result in up to $500 million in public and private funds being pumped into refurbishing parks, recreation centers and libraries.

By committing $100 million to the project, the William Penn Foundation essentially has bet that Rebuild will become the racially inclusive six- or seven-year employment project that the administration has promised it will be.

Mayor Kenney, in promising that the project will eventually ramp up to include a 40-percent minority workforce, is making a bet of a different kind. He's betting that the building trades unions, which have spent decades engaging in systemic discrimination, will suddenly throw the doors open to people of color. He is betting that a system that has essentially become South African apartheid will morph into the Rainbow Coalition. He's betting, in essence, that he can negotiate an end to racism in the building trades.

Fat chance.

The racial discrimination that permeates the building trades has prevailed for generations - even when black tax dollars helped to fund it. That was true in 1948, when City Council enacted the Fair Employment Practices Ordinance that yielded little change. It remained true in fiscal year 2015, when a city-commissioned study found that 44 percent of city-funded construction projects included no minority workers.

I have little faith that it will significantly change with Rebuild.

That's a shame, because the Kenney administration is trying. It plans to use non-union labor for the smaller Rebuild jobs, whose budgets are below the $3 million threshold at which the city requires union labor. It is planning a preapprenticeship program to bring neighborhood workers directly onto job sites. It's planning loans and other supports to help non-union, minority-owned companies bid more competitively. But none of that would be necessary if Kenney used the power available to him.

The mayor could sign an executive order eliminating the project labor agreements requiring that city-funded projects with budgets over $3 million go to union workers.

But that would be political suicide. Not only because Kenney got millions in campaign donations directly from building trade unions, including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98. It would be political suicide because Kenney is a Democrat, and the party depends upon a coalition built on the money of special interests, the manpower of organized labor and the votes of people of color.

Such coalitions work well as long as the participants get what they want. This one is no different.

The special interests that support Democrats get legislation. Building-trade unions get billions in government-funded work. And while people of color got health care, job growth and reforms to a discriminatory criminal justice system under President Obama, we get very little from local Democrats, especially when it comes to taxpayer-funded construction projects.

I wish I could say this is a new phenomenon, but it's not.

Discrimination was persistent despite protests that took place in the 1950s, when all-white work crews built University City over the bulldozed remains of the Black Bottom. The numbers barely moved in the 1960s, when protesters went to the home and office of then-Mayor James Tate to protest the all-white work crews constructing Philadelphia's Municipal Services Building. Racial exclusion was an ugly reality when blacks protested the taxpayer-funded construction of the Leslie P. Hill Elementary School in the black neighborhood of Strawberry Mansion.

And the Jim Crow-like system that keeps blacks in the Laborers union - the lowest-paid of all the building trades - while virtually excluding them from membership in the skilled trades such as the Electricians and Carpenters, remains an ever-present reality.

I know because the city-funded Economic Opportunity Plan Employment Composition Analysis by Econsult Solutions found that while 41 percent of skilled minority workers were available to work on city-funded projects in FY 2015, only 22 percent were utilized.

John Dougherty, the Philadelphia Building Trades Council's business manager, recently told the Inquirer that things are changing. He cited a union-backed preapprenticeship that helped a diverse group of 1,000 young people get employment.

That may very well be true, but Philadelphia's construction worksites remain filled with white male workers, just as they were in 1948, when City Council made its first attempt to address racial discrimination in employment.

If, after 68 years, Philadelphia still can't get it right, perhaps it's time for things to change.

Voters of color can't remain the only members of the coalition that keeps Democrats in power locally.

If we don't get at least half of the money being generated for Rebuild, perhaps it's time for us to take our votes elsewhere.

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

sj@solomonjones.com

@solomonjones1

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