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Minorities in the middle

Council vote could derail progress in hiring, bidding.

Here's what scares Walter "Butch" Bennett, an African American business agent for the union workers who operate the demolition equipment on the Convention Center job site:

A bunch of personalities get into a ego battle at City Hall over minority hiring for Convention Center construction and the next thing you know, the expansion gets built by nonunion workers who don't know what they're doing.

"That would be a crying shame," Bennett said. "You are talking about taking work from skilled craftsmen, whatever race they are."

Here's what scares Walter Palmer 3d, the white leader of an organization that represents contractors who work with union labor:

A bunch of personalities get into an ego battle at City Hall and the next thing you know, unrealistic quotas get proposed that would perpetuate a system that has not done enough over the years to encourage minority participation in construction - either as contractors or as tradespeople on the job site.

"That's really nice and wonderful, to frighten the unions," Palmer said sarcastically, "but I don't think it is going to help the minority community in this city that is in crisis and needs real jobs."

On Thursday, City Council stunned political observers in a town where organized labor carries a lot of clout. Accusing trade unions of standing in the way of minority-hiring objectives, it opened the $700 million Convention Center expansion to nonunion contractors and workers.

The proposal created an immediate political flap that, observers say, could turn the problem of minority hiring into a union vs. nonunion imbroglio.

Minority leaders have long complained that the city's construction unions have not done enough to bring blacks and Hispanics into the trades. Many union people agree, despite some recent progress.

On Thursday, Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr. said of the vote, "Thus begins an era ending the [union] monopoly of the training and supply of construction labor." John Macklin will believe that when he sees it.

"They are talking about minorities and female. They have always been saying it," said Macklin, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Association of Minority Contractors. "We are looking for implementation."

Like Palmer, Macklin said goals have to be realistic, union or nonunion. There's no sense in offering minority contractors $1 million and $2 million contracts. "We don't have the resources and the finances to participate, and they know it," Macklin said. "It's just an illusion of inclusion."

On Thursday, Councilman Frank DiCicco, who has been at loggerheads with the building-trades unions over casino construction, proposed the amendment, taking up a cause promulgated by African American council members.

He and Patrick Gillespie, business manager for the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council, exchanged sharp words when Gillespie could not produce statistics about minority membership in the council's 42 unions.

"It's pure personal, and that's a shame," Rep. Bob Brady, head of the city's Democratic party and a union carpenter who often brokers these kinds of disputes, said yesterday. "I'm going to try to work the phones" before the ordinance comes for a final vote Thursday, he said.

Brady said City Council was right to push for more inclusion of minorities among the construction trades. "I've been trying to get more inclusion," he said.

"What happened at City Council is extremely unfortunate," said Anthony Wigglesworth, executive director of the Philadelphia Area Labor Management Committee, which has been negotiating a pre-construction agreement between the Convention Center Authority and the building trades.

"My sense is that people are taking a long, deep breath at this stage of the game," he said.

"Once you engage nonunion contractors, for the building trades, it's a form of fighting," Wigglesworth said. "Then diversity becomes the baby that gets thrown out with the bath water."

The two Walters - Palmer and Bennett - hope there can be a resolution.

At the Convention Center demolition site yesterday, there were six apprentices from Bennett's union, International Union Operating Engineers Local 542. Five were African American. There were six full-fledged Local 542 union members on the site - two African American.

Bennett said he knows many unions have a long way to go before they are as inclusive as his is. But he asked: "If the Convention Center pulls in someone off the street, who are they hiring? How can you give a job to someone who is not skilled?"

Palmer, who heads the General Building Contractors Association, thinks the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, the Laborers International Union of North America, and Bennett's union have been the most successful in pushing diversity.

As for many of the others, "I think that where we are is abysmal," he said. "A lot of the blame goes onto the trades, a lot goes to City Council, and a lot goes onto the mayor's office. What they have created is nothing substantial, but a hopeless situation.

"Pulling someone off the corner of 15th and Master," in a predominantly African American neighborhood, "and working them for 50 or 60 hours a week until the job is done will not solve the problem," Palmer said. "The way to solve the problem is to teach them a skill or a craft . . . and we have the finest training facilities in the country."

He said it takes months to prepare novices for quality construction work, even before they learn specialized skills.

If there is no resolution, things won't be pretty, observers agreed. First, the unions will not participate in a nonunion project, Gillespie said.

Nonunion contractors will not be in a hurry to bid for the job, said Geoffrey Zeh, president of the Southeast Pennsylvania Chapter, Associated Builders and Contractors, a group of nonunion builders.

Though opening up the bidding might result in lower costs, "the climate has been so poisoned that contractors might say, 'Why bother with the hassle?' " Zeh said.

"The disruptions because of unqualified workers would be monumental," said Patrick Eiding, who heads the Philadelphia Council of the AFL-CIO. "Everybody would lose."