Economic Apartheid, Construction Unions and the City of Philadelphia

Economic Apartheid, Construction Unions and the City of


The city leadership of Philadelphia, PA achieved a very precious milestone last year.  After decades of blatant discrimination by 18 construction unions, the city council and the office of Mayor Michael A. Nutter (D) decided to deal with them and begin to make them change their ways.  The battle began over the proposed $700 million Convention Center Project which the citizens of Philadelphia will have to pay for via taxation.  The city council demanded to know the racial and gender demographics of the unions as they sought a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) for the project.  This means that only union contractors or contractors agreeing to work this project under the current union bargaining agreement and paying union scale wages to its workers can bid.  PLA’s greatly reduce the number of minorities, women and minority businesses working on a project.


Pat Gillespie, president of the Philadelphia Building Trades Council, irritated the city council who demanded the racial and gender data by claiming, “I don’t know who has the data or whether is exists”.  This was an apparent bold face lie.  All major cities track such data for major construction projects via compliance with Executive Order 11246 (John F. Kennedy, 1962).  You can start looking for it through the US Department of Labor, Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP).  In this case it was the Philadelphia Office of Housing and Community Development who kept the records.  Investigative reporter Tom Ferrick Jr., writing for the Philadelphia Tribune, went and gathered the numbers and published them.  It was shocking!  Outside of general laborers, 80 percent of the workers were white males and 70 percent lived outside of the city (not even taxpayers who will pay for the projects). Non union projects had 72 percent minority employment and 71 percent lived in the city.


Seeing the data Mayor Nutter summarized it as “Economic Apartheid”.  His statement is correct and justifiable.  This city has a minority population of 55 percent (46 percent is Black alone). Here is the breakdown of Philadelphia construction unions.  Remember, “laborer” is the lowest paying level and it is here where they stuff the few minorities they have.  The next token level is cement masons and as the pay level raises the minority representation decreases.  The Philadelphia story:  Laborers-54%, Cement Masons and Finishers-30%, Drywall Finishers and Tapers-26%, Electricians-25%, Painters and Paperhangers-25%, Operators and Operating Engineers-24%, Roofers-20%, Carpenters and Carpet Installers-19%, Floor Layers and Installers-17%, Crane Operators and Oilers-17%, Ironworkers-17%, Sheet Metal Workers-Bricklayers and Caulkers-14%, Plumbers and Plumbing Mechanics-12%, Plasterers-11%, Glaziers-11%, Sprinkler Workers-10%, Mechanics-7%, Seamfitters-5%, Elevator Workers-2%, Insulators-0, Tile Setters and Finishers-0. 


My friends the above data is despicable.  It has been 47 years since Executive Order 11246 and 45 years since the Civil Rights Act.  Plus that, there are 89,120 construction workers in metropolitan Philadelphia but only 10,478 are officially in the unions.  Between 1997 and 2002, Black owned businesses grew by 43% which is the highest of any group in the nation.  However, in Philadelphia they experienced a decrease of 10% for all Black owned businesses and a drastic decrease of 60% for Black owned construction firms with hired employees (US Census Bureau).  It is Economic Apartheid indeed!


Mayor Nutter is taking action.  He formed a commission, the Mayor’s Advisory Commission on Construction Industry Diversity.  It is made up of 15 reputable persons and will be firm.  Its mission is to establish a five-year strategic plan for including minorities and women in the Philadelphia building trades. Meanwhile, the city council raised the minority hiring goals from 13% to 35%.  The construction unions protested and some, like the electrical workers, claimed they would ignore the goals.  That attitude didn’t help.  The City Council then rescinded the PLA.  The unions came back contrite.  In order to get the PLA back they have agreed to 50% of the workers to be Philadelphia residents, 25 percent are African American, 10 percent Hispanic American, 10 women, and 5 percent Asian.  Sounds like a plan!


Any failure attaining the above numbers will result in the PLA being rescinded.  The unions, in order to achieve these goals, will have to open their doors and begin hiring minorities at a history making rate.  If they cheat on the numbers, people on the Mayor’s Commission, like John Maclin, will definitely figure it out and sound the alarm.  In Philadelphia, it has become “Unions, you will integrate or get gone – no PLA’s if you don’t”.


The convention center has been on hold for over a year because of this issue.  The strength and leadership of Mayor Nutter and the Philadelphia City Council is hereby noted and greatly appreciated.  How is your city doing on diversity?  Probably not as good as Philadelphia and I suggest you and other leaders get busy as you now have a model.


January 5, 2009


Mr. Alford is the co-founder, President/CEO, of the National Black Chamber of Commerce.  Website: Philadelphia