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Here is a snapshot of the makeup of the union members in the building trades in Philadelphia as of the end of 2007: 99 percent were male, 74 percent were white and 70 percent lived in the suburbs.
Not exactly a diverse workforce.
City Council and Mayor Michael Nutter certainly didn’t think so. “Economic apartheid,” the mayor called it. In a get-tough mood, City Council passed resolutions requiring that 50 percent of the workers on the soon-to-rise $760 million expansion of the Pennsylvania Convention Center be non-whites and women.
Meanwhile, Nutter convened a blue-ribbon advisory commission on construction industry diversity. It issued a report in March 2009 that outlined steps to address the long standing (as in 50-year-old ) issue of non-whites being shut out of jobs as union carpenters, electrician, bricklayers, plumbers, etc.
Now, let’s zoom ahead five years and offer this snapshot of union members in the building trades as of the end of 2012: 99 percent were male, 76 percent were white and 67 percent lived in the suburbs.
Not much difference, not much at all.
In fact, the situation becomes even starker (and whiter) once you subtract from these totals the members of the Laborers Union, which is the lowest paid of the trades. In that union, the majority of members are African American, Hispanic or Asian.
With the Laborers gone, 82 percent of the workers were white and 18 percent non-white as of five years ago. Today, 81 percent are white and 19 percent are non-white.
A barely perceptible difference.
How can this be? How can these numbers be virtually frozen despite the political rhetoric, the thousands of pages of testimony and recommendations generated by a special commission, the promises to end a system where non-white and female Philadelphians are excluded from the best-paying blue-collar jobs in the city?
First, a word about the source of the numbers used. They come from the Office of Housing and Community Development (OHCD), which is required to keep data on race and gender participation for all projects it funds. The data was obtained by a right to know request filed by AxisPhilly.
The data covers 2008 through 2012, and contains the names of 5,400 workers who are paid the prevailing wage. (These are usually union workers.) So, these numbers are not a complete list, and represent a sample of construction jobs done in the city over that period. We must measure the data this way, because for the most part the unions themselves never release information on the race and gender of their members.
The OHCD numbers are generally considered accurate because the sample size is large. That said, they do not tell the whole story.
Strides have been made in two areas when it comes to the hiring of non-whites. At the Convention Center, thanks to Council’s threat, non-white hiring exceeded the 75-25 split between white and non-white workers revealed in the OHCD data. The non-white and female numbers for that huge project totaled 35 percent, as measured in hours worked.
Some crafts exceeded that average, including the operating engineers (71%); cement masons (68%); the electricians (46%); sheet metal workers (46%) and the roofers (44%).
Still, that huge project, which generated 1.6 million hours of work for the trades, did not meet the 50 percent goal set by Council.
In 2011, Mayor Nutter signed a project labor agreement with the crafts unions that called for them to agree to “economic opportunity agreements” on city-government financed projects that cost in excess of $5 million.
Enacting this agreement has been slow going. Angela Dowd-Burton, head of the city’s Office of Economic Opportunity, said the city was still working on ways to aggregate the data on worker race and gender.
As of now, the data is not included in OEO’s annual reports, which contain voluminous data on non-white/female businesses that get city contracts, but none on non-white building trade workers.
Mark McDonald, the mayor’s press secretary, said five projects over $5 million have been subject to the 2011 Project Labor Agreement, three of them bid after the agreement was signed, two of them before.
Of them, the city has data on one: a $46 million Water Department project to build underground storage tanks on Venice Island in Manayunk. That project, which was completed in April, had 33 percent minority and five percent female participation. Forty-eight percent of the workers were Philadelphians.
Dowd-Burton said the city has also gotten any entity that requires City Council approval for its projects to get labor agreements with unions that promote more non-white, female and local hires. These include most private and non-profit projects in the city. Construction of a new dorm at Temple University is under a PLA, as is another project at Children’s Hospital.
The results on those projects have yet to be compiled, but Tony Wigglesworth, head of the Philadelphia Area Labor Management Committee, said the final non-white/female numbers on the Temple project is likely to approach 40 percent.
Wigglesworth is a man who works both sides of the aisle in his job. He serves as a liaison with builders and with unions. He has been deeply involved in the long march towards getting more non-whites and women in union construction jobs.
He wasn’t surprised that the numbers had not changed between 2008 and 2012 and said the main reason was the recession. When the economy tanked in 2008, many of the crafts unions stopped bringing in new apprentice classes.
“Since 2009, virtually no union has had an apprenticeship class,” Wiggleworth said. “It makes no sense to bring in new mouths to feed when there wasn’t enough work for your current members.”
In fact, labor unions lost members during the recession, when membership declined an average of 11 percent. For instance, the Carpenters District Council lost 15 percent of its active membership between 2008 and 2012 and the number of hours worked went down 30 percent.
There was a decline even in public sector projects. The OCHD data for the five year period between 2002-2007, for instance, involved 10,500 workers on 73 projects worth a total of $500 million. The same data for the subsequent five years, 2008-2012, shows almost half the number of workers – 5,400 – for 43 projects worth a total of $375 million.
The unions have a particular problem with female members. Out of the 5,400 workers in the latest OHCD data, only 36 were females.
Wigglesworth said it wouldn’t make sense to set high goals for women workers because they simply aren’t there. He cited Ironworkers Local 405, which has a total of 381 members. Only one is a woman — appropriately called the Iron Lady.
For many years, Wigglesworth said, the building trades worked to exclude women and minorities. “As one business manager told me, our idea of diversity was hiring the second son of a member.”
Even today, the worker lists are replete with seniors and juniors who have the same first and last names. Various ethnic groups gravitated to certain professions — the Irish as electricians, the Italians as cement masons, Native Americans as ironworkers.
“I know of some unions that are very aggressively pursuing [adding non-whites as] apprentices — the electricians, the sheet metal workers, the painters — are all aggressive,” Wigglesworth said. “The carpenters have made some surprising strides; others are lagging.”
The most effective prod for getting the unions to change is the threat to their virtual monopoly on construction projects in the city.
Though there is no law to prevent it, most contractors of any size will typically only hire union workers. So when Council threatened to make the Convention Center a non-union job, it prompted the unions to agree to the goals for non-white participation. They agreed to Nutter’s 2011 Project Labor Agreement under the same implicit threat.
“It’s not always the case of the hammer being out,” Wigglesworth said. “But when the hammer is out, you get better results.”
The reality is that there are plenty of African Americans, Hispanics and Asians who work in the building trades, just not as members of the unions. For instance, OHCD also keeps data on projects that are not prevailing wage — these tend to be smaller projects that use non-union workers.
There were 1,834 workers who spent time at these 17 projects.
Ninety-nine percent were male, 37 percent were non-white and 54 percent lived inside the city. In every category except women, there were higher numbers than at the union-only projects.
To summarize, for the most part the building trade unions remain overwhelmingly white and male, and the majority of those members do not live in the city. The fact that these unions can maintain their virtual monopoly over construction jobs in Philadelphia is a testament to their ongoing political clout.
Still, the unions have shown an ability to muster more non-whites for jobs – if they are pressured to do so. As for women, they simply do not have enough female members to meet even the low goals that the city has set. Change in the makeup of these unions is evident, but it is small and incremental at best.
And I thought football was a game of inches.