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Editorial | Diversity in the Unions

No fairness, no jobs

Philadelphia's trade unions have responded in traditional fashion to a City Council threat to open up work on the Convention Center expansion to nonunion workers -

Forget about it!

Council is considering a pact with the state and Convention Center to proceed with the $700 million construction project. It would be understandable if its members said to the unions:

Forget about you!

Understandable, because for decades this city has been trying to get the trade unions to open their doors to more black and other minority members.

Understandable, because for decades the response by many of the unions has been to add a few more tokens while refusing to make public any membership data that would show just how miserably they have performed.

It seems the only way to get the unions' attention is to threaten to take away work.

The Philadelphia School District used that tactic in 2006. In exchange for union exclusivity on school construction projects, the Philadelphia Building Trades Council agreed to add 425 city school graduates to union apprenticeship programs by 2010.

Asked, however, to provide some guarantees that more minorities will be hired for the Convention Center expansion, the union's response has been:

We can't hear you


The trade unions know they can be haughty because the Convention Center's very life depends on future bookings. They know potential clients will book their events elsewhere if they fear that a dispute with the unions will delay the expansion project.

Currently, there is a goal that 50 percent of the work hours on the expansion will go to minority and female workers and that half of the apprenticeship hours will be filled by "individuals from the Philadelphia community."

But how can the trade unions be trusted to meet diversity goals when they won't even divulge the racial makeup of their memberships? If the unions don't know their racial makeups, then they should start counting.

Gov. Rendell and others are understandably afraid that a Council threat to bring in nonunion workers will stall the expansion's schedule. It doesn't help that the amendment's sponsor, Councilman Frank DiCicco, and Trades Council business manager Patrick Gillespie also have been feuding over the siting of casinos on the waterfront. Council is expected to delay its vote on the Convention Center proposal today to give Rendell and state leaders time to work out a compromise.

Even African American businessmen who want minority companies to get more of the expansion project work are fearful of DiCicco's strategy. "We want to make sure we don't throw the baby out with the bath water," said Kenny Gamble, the music legend and inner-city developer.

But Mayor-elect Michael Nutter says Council should approve the measure if this warning shot is going to have the power of force behind it. He's right.

At some point this city has got to stand up to the unions if it's ever going to get them to open up their doors to more minorities.

The effect would be good-paying jobs for city residents, jobs that don't necessarily require them to have a college education. That's needed to stabilize more neighborhoods.

Gillespie is vowing to fight back if Council passes the amendment. He should keep in mind that the amendment is his own creation.

Had the unions been more cooperative, had they provided data on their memberships, this situation could have been avoided. If the unions don't want this measure to reduce their work, they can do more than talk about making their ranks more diverse.