In a huge warehouse-style classroom in Northeast Philadelphia, Carl A. Lecoin Jr., an African American public high school graduate from Philadelphia, is learning to be a union glazier.
Yesterday's lesson: how to build scaffolding. It's the kind of training city leaders want to see more of for the city's minority community.
"You get a chance to see your work as it is being done," said 32-year-old Lecoin of Mt. Airy, as he took a break from handing up metal scaffolding bars to a fellow apprentice. "I can look at a high-rise and say, 'I helped build that. I helped install those windows.' "
People like Lecoin are on the minds of City Council members as they decide whether to approve an agreement among the city, state and Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority and allow bids to go out on the $700 million expansion of the Convention Center.
Council members, frustrated by what they called a lack of progress in minority inclusion by building trades unions, amended the agreement last week to permit nonunion contractors and their employees to bid for work. They are expected to delay a vote on the accord today to give Gov. Rendell and state leaders a chance to forge a compromise.
Council had demanded that union leaders disclose the percentage of minorities in their membership - a number they have sought for years, and not received - or suffer the consequences.
Patrick Gillespie, who heads the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council, said he could not produce the figures for the 42 separate unions in his group.
The numbers are elusive, and such demands raise the hackles of union leaders, including the Laborers International Union Local 332, a mostly African American organization.
"It's just not information we would give to the newspapers or anyone," said president Samuel Staten Jr.
Staten said only that his union was majority African American and that he saw such statistics as a distraction. Once more minority contractors are hired - which he supports - "it will take care of itself."
Mike Fera, president and business manager of the Cement Masons and Plasterers Union Local 592, said he would have to go over his roster of 1,200 members to come up with an informal breakdown. "I don't have that information," he said.
Fera criticized City Council for "setting up" Gillespie by demanding he produce statistics - "asking him a question he cannot answer."
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission collects a "Local Union Report" every two years documenting race, ethnicity and sex in "referral unions" - unions whose members seek work through the union itself, including unions that run hiring halls.
But the EEOC is not allowed by law to disclose reports from the individual unions and does not disclose which unions file reports, said Ron Edwards, director of the EEOC's Programs, Research and Survey division.
The most recent EEOC figures show that the membership in 12 referral unions in the Philadelphia region is 8.2 percent minority, including 6 percent black, 1.8 percent Hispanic, 0.3 percent Asian, and 1 percent female.
National statistics are 6.6 percent black, 13.3 percent Hispanic, 1.3 percent Asian, and 4.7 percent female.
The General Building Contractors Association, a local group of union employers that contributes to training programs, is trying to count apprentices.
"You enter through an apprenticeship," said Walter Palmer 3d, who heads the organization. "That is where the threshold is to become a union member.
"I want to start the talk about the issue based on fact and numbers instead of someone's general impression when they walk by a job site and don't see any minorities," he said.
And, those numbers are available, said Michael Schurr.
Schurr heads the Philadelphia Apprenticeship Coordinators Association, a union group of training professionals, as well as the training program for Lecoin's union, District Council 21 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades.
"I think the unions can produce those numbers," he said, because the U.S. Labor Department requires unions to keep apprentice records.
Among his union's 409 current apprentices, 50 are African American males, 26 are Hispanic males, and nine are female. There are no Asians.
Beyond numbers, Palmer also wants each union to explain how its program works.
Some unions start two apprentice classes a year. Some run one a year. Some have a rolling program.
Some require apprentices to find an employer who will "sponsor" them before they start the union training program. Other unions figure out how large an apprentice class they can accept based on projections of available work.
The paid apprentice programs typically combine classroom work and on-the-job mentoring.
If the expansion ends up bringing in more minorities, count in Lecoin. There is a good chance, if the expansion stays a union job, that he will work on it.