WITH $9.7 billion in capital projects being proposed by the Kenney administration over the next six years, every taxpayer should know what a Project Labor Agreement is, because PLAs, as they are commonly called, will determine who gets those billions in public money.
A PLA is a collective bargaining agreement between a government agency and labor organizations. PLAs establish the terms of employment for specific construction projects. Building trade unions say PLAs are good. Non-union shops say they're bad.
That's because PLAs do two things: They keep unionized workers from engaging in labor disputes that can drive up the costs on taxpayer-funded construction projects, and they often keep nonunionized workers from ever getting on the job in the first place.
The fact that nonunion workers are often left out is bad news for women and people of color, because in Philadelphia, the building trade unions are composed mostly of suburban white guys. I know that because an analysis by veteran reporter Tom Ferrick found that, as of 2012, Philadelphia's building trade unions were 99 percent male, 76 percent white and 67 percent suburban.
We can't allow our city officials to hand over billions in city taxes to people who don't even live here while one in four Philadelphians languishes in poverty. Someone has to fix the PLA problem, and it has to begin with Mayor Kenney.
That's because in Philadelphia, the broad terms of these agreements signed by city agencies aren't set by a vote from City Council. The broad terms are decided by an executive order from the mayor.
I spoke to several highly placed sources in city government this week who are concerned that future PLAs could repeat the mistakes of the past. That is, including pro-union language that suggests diversity while doing absolutely nothing to enforce it. Those sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because budget negotiations are ongoing, believe the Kenney administration is in discussions with the building trade unions to pen an executive order that does the same thing previous mayors have done - give the building trade unions the ability to freeze out nonunion workers on city-funded projects.
Mayor Kenney, through spokeswoman Lauren Hitt, denied that.
"We are continuing to follow the agreement laid out by Mayor Michael Nutter, which worked to increase opportunities for minority contractors," Hitt said.
"The trades are working on a program to expand diversity within their ranks and to increase apprenticeship opportunities for minorities, and we are scheduled to meet with them in no than later six weeks to hear their proposals.
"The administration has repeatedly stated, including in Council hearings last week, that they see rebuild (the $300 million investment in parks, recreations centers and libraries) as a chance to set new and improved standards for how the city handles minority contracting opportunities. We are working with Council now, as part of the budget hearings, to enshrine that in legislation."
I hope that's true. But here's what I know.
The previous executive orders on PLAs set the stage for discrimination on taxpayer-funded construction projects, because they pretty much mandated union labor.
The first such executive order by then-Mayor Ed Rendell set up PLAs as a pilot program in 1995.
Mayor Nutter penned two executive orders on PLAs. The last was in 2015. That order, under which Kenney is now operating, mandates that government agencies negotiate PLAs with "appropriate labor organization(s) . . . representing, for the purpose of collective bargaining, journeymen in one or more crafts or trades with Federal or state certified approved apprenticeship training program."
That means unions.
Mayor Kenney, if he wants to make change, has to find the political will to do something previous mayors have not. He must draw up an executive order that changes the language around taxpayer-funded-projects. He must mandate that smaller contracts arewritten so that smaller companies can make realistic bids.
He must decide to put the needs of the people before the needs of union bosses.
That's the only way we'll all benefit from those billions.
Solomon Jones is the author of 10 books. Listen to him mornings from 7 to 10 on WURD (900-AM).