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Philadelphia Council’s vote on union bill shows how building trades are still a force in city politics

It was a vote that suggested the enduring political power of the building trade unions, even as other labor organizations representing more diverse, lower-wage workers build clout in City Hall.

City Councilmember Bobby Henon speaks outside of City Hall at a February press conference.
City Councilmember Bobby Henon speaks outside of City Hall at a February press conference.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

In a move that demonstrated the enduring influence of the building trade unions on Philadelphia politics even as more diverse, lower-wage workers gain a foothold in City Hall, City Council approved a bill Thursday that would require more stringent certification for workers who inspect building sprinkler systems.

Council’s approval frustrated the bill’s opponents, who said it was blatantly designed to funnel work to the Sprinkler Fitters union.

The vote was 16-1, with Councilmember Maria D. Quiñones-Sánchez opposing the bill. The trade unions' poor track record of recruiting people of color, she said, would effectively shut out Black and brown workers from this kind of fire protection inspection work, required annually of all property owners by city law.

Joseph Dunlap, a Black nonunion sprinkler fitter at BM Consulting Services, testified at Thursday’s Council meeting that he had tried to join the union but was “turned away.”

“I don’t see a lot of minorities in the sprinkler fitters,” he said.

The bill, introduced by Councilmember Bobby Henon in June, was framed as a public safety measure. At a June 23 committee hearing, he said the legislation was about “making sure we are safe."

Wayne Miller, business manager of Sprinkler Fitters Local 692, pointed to deadly fires like the one at a West Chester nursing home that killed four in 2018. Independent fire experts said the fire suppression system at the Barclay Friends home was faulty.

“Inspections are not being done properly," Miller said.

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And the newly required American Society of Sanitary Engineers (ASSE) certification has a hands-on training component that is superior to other certifications, said Sarah Adamo, legislative affairs manager for the city’s Licenses & Inspections Department.

But opponents of the bill, namely building contractors, pointed to a problem: The only places in the region to get the required certification are the Sprinkler Fitters union’s training centers, to which only union members have access.

“It gives a monopoly to the Sprinkler Fitters,” said John Morley, who runs a fire protection company. “That’s all it does.”

Morley, who’s been in the fire protection business since the 70s, said it would drive up costs for consumers. Union sprinkler fitters make about $60 an hour, Miller said, while non-union contractors pay their workers far less.

The building trade unions, which are major donors to local and state politicians and historically influential in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania politics, have a long track record of lobbying for legislation that will bring more work to their members. They often describe the bills as public safety measures that guarantee high-quality work and ensure that workers are well-paid and protected on the job — a pressing issue as shoddy work has led to deadly building collapses and other accidents, and contractors who illegally misclassify their workers run rampant.

In Philadelphia, workers who are misclassified as independent contractors — and thus face greater risks with little protection — make up between 15% and 25% of the construction industry, according to estimates in a 2018 report from the Office of the City Controller. A 2018 report by the Keystone Research Center, commissioned by the trades, said labor laws and standards were “routinely violated” by contractors in the Philadelphia area.

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Last year, Sheet Metal Workers Local 19 successfully fought for a bill that would require proof of fire and smoke damper inspections, which critics slammed as an unnecessary measure designed to create jobs for union workers. The statewide building trades won a major victory last year when the legislature required all construction companies to run immigration checks on workers through the federal E-verify database. And the Philadelphia Building Trades Council, where Miller holds a leadership position, has advocated for “project labor agreements,” which require union labor on public works projects.

Only two training centers in the region can certify workers in the ASSE certification newly required by the city — one is in Philadelphia and the other in South Jersey, and both are run by Sprinkler Fitters locals.

Two nonunion centers in the area are applying to become recognized ASSE training facilities, said Lauren Atwell, a spokesperson for Henon. It could take anywhere from a few weeks to several months to become a recognized facility, said ASSE executive director Tom Palkon. The bill is slated go into effect 18 months after it passes to provide time for facilities to become certified training centers.

There are 500 members of Local 692. About 80 are ASSE-certified, Miller said, and he expects that about half will eventually get certified.

The union accepts new apprentices based on the amount of work available, Miller said. In the last year, the union took on about 20 new apprentices.

Staff writer Joseph N. DiStefano contributed to this article.