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Lack of Asian workers complicates union deal

Being Asian, a contractor and a businesswoman, Vicki Lee would love to get her hands on some of the $700 million that will be spent to expand the Convention Center.

Being Asian, a contractor and a businesswoman, Vicki Lee would love to get her hands on some of the $700 million that will be spent to expand the Convention Center.

But, she won't be bringing any unionized Asian bricklayers to the job site, even if her firm, Old Philadelphia Associates, does get a masonry or caulking contract.

"I've never met any Asian construction workers from a union," she said.

Under legislation enacted Wednesday by City Council, unionized Asian firms like hers must get 5 percent of the dollars, and Asian construction workers must get 5 percent of the labor hours.

If the mostly-white building trades have been slow to bring African Americans into unions, they have been beyond molasses in recruiting Asians.

And Asians have not been pushing to join unions, nor have their leaders agitated for union jobs the way African American leaders have.

"Our numbers are miserable," said State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, an African American Democrat from West Philadelphia, commenting about the number of black union construction workers. "Theirs are worse."

Asian leaders, union officials and Asian contractors say several factors come into play: a lack of interest by Asians, a lack of outreach by unions, a lack of access to traditional paths of union membership because of language and culture, and a lack of growth opportunities for Asian contractors.

In Philadelphia, where 43 percent of the population is African American, there's a chance for blacks to come close to City Council's goal of 25 percent inclusion.

But with Philadelphia's Asian population numbering 67,654, or 4.5 percent, it won't be easy to make City Council's 5 percent goal, especially since there seem to be few Asians in construction unions. Lee said her union bricklayers and masons are mostly Irish and Italian.

"You can never reach 5 percent," Lee said. "No way."

The Rev. Thomas Betz agreed.

"I don't know what the answer is to that dilemma," said Father Betz, from the Holy Redeemer Chinese Catholic Church, a Chinatown anchor.

"Here is a thing being built in the shadow of Chinatown, and there won't be any Asians on the job site."

Where are the Asians?

That's what Michael Fera, president of the Operative Plasterers and Cement Masons Local 592, wants to know. "I would love to have Asians. Where do I get them? I don't know," he said. "It's a shame."

A relatively small union, Local 592 has an apprentice class that numbers 39. Eighteen are minorities, a good record. Not one is Asian.

In the five years since the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades started keeping computerized records of its applicants, 1,782 people have asked to become apprentices.

Just two have been Asian.

There is one Asian in the current apprentice class run by Local 19 of the Sheet Metal Workers International Association. "He walked in off the street," said Charles McClure, who runs the local's training facility on Columbus Boulevard.

In any given year, there are hundreds of applicants for 100 spots in the city's Diversity Apprenticeship Program, which prepares minorities to take the entrance tests required by most trades.

"We've never had an Asian apply," said Anthony Lewis, managing partner for the program. The program has not recruited Asians, and no Asians have reached out to the program.

"I think it's a cultural barrier," he said.

It might be.

"People from this community are less inclined to deal with the mainstream because they feel they are misunderstood, or they won't understand," said John Chin, executive director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp.

"They don't like dealing with the formalities of agreements, paperwork and contracts. Things are done with a handshake in the community. There is reluctance to deal with the government, and these are the cultural things that come into play," he said.

First-generation Asians may not know English, several Asian contractors and community leaders said, so those skilled in the trades prefer to start their own businesses and work in the Asian community, rather than join a union and bring family members with them.

That cycle feeds on itself, said Katherine Ng, for Wu & Associates in Cherry Hill, a general contracting firm founded by engineer Raymond Wu.

"When immigrants come here, because of the language barrier, you end up working for friends and relatives. If you get going in that cycle and you are successful, there is not a lot of motivation to go outside that cycle," she said.

Asian companies, she said, are also reluctant to put themselves in situations where there is conflict - and conflict seems to be associated with unions, particularly in the case of the Convention Center expansion.

"If there are other opportunities, why not pursue those?" Ng said. "We'd rather deal with smaller jobs that are more pleasant."

Because many Asian contractors are nonunion, there are few employers to sponsor for union apprentices. And because there are few Asian union members, their children are less likely to follow them into the trades, a typical path to union membership.

Narasimha "Nick" Shenoy, an engineer who owns S&G Electric Inc., managed to get one Asian, Ashok Simon, an Indian like himself, into the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98's apprentice program.

But S&G isn't big enough to sponsor more apprentices and still keep the required ratio of apprentices to full-fledged journeymen.

Many Asians are not interested in a career in the construction trades, said Shenoy, who also heads the Asian American Chamber of Commerce.

That's particularly true for Asians from China, Taiwan, India and Japan, he said.

Simon, now a journeyman, agrees. "Most of the people from India are looking for white-collar jobs," he said. "I may make more money, but they are looking for more status."

Many Asian immigrants arrived in this country as educated professionals. Even if they had to take blue-collar jobs to survive, they push their children to join the ranks of doctors, lawyers and engineers, not plumbers, bricklayers and carpenters.

But the professional path doesn't appeal to everyone.

James Nagle, 26, who is half-Chinese, attended college for a few months, "but I didn't like it," he said. "I like electrical work." His uncle, Ken Wong, president of China Power & Light, a small electrical contracting firm, was able to get Nagle and his brother, a graduate of La Salle University, into Local 98's apprentice program.

Cindy Suy, who is the executive director of the Cambodian Association, said the Cambodians who came to Philadelphia in the mid-1970s may be the Asian immigrants who would gravitate to construction. They are survivors of Cambodia's "killing fields," when the educated were systematically massacred.

"The doctors were all killed," she said. "The reason the others survived is because they were farmers and fishers," she said. In the United States, they get menial work in factories because they are not literate in Cambodian, or English.

Their children, she said, would be interested in construction work and unions. "We don't know about it," she said. "What do you do? Go in the phone book and look up


? Look up


? That information is zero in our community."