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Ryan Boyer may be the most powerful person in Philly you haven’t heard of

Boyer’s slow and steady climb in the circling galaxies of political power and union strength in the region started with a childhood in one of the city’s poorest housing projects.

Ryan Boyer, the leader of the Laborers District Council, at the Philadelphia union group's North Broad Street headquarters.
Ryan Boyer, the leader of the Laborers District Council, at the Philadelphia union group's North Broad Street headquarters.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

When Philadelphia’s most powerful Black labor leader built new headquarters for his union, he wanted to make sure those who come after him know about previous generations and the power they passed down.

So Ryan Boyer’s Laborers District Council named the building for Sam Staten Sr., his predecessor as head of the only majority-Black union group in the politically potent building trades.

“We had some legendary labor leaders within the union that sometimes get written out of history,” Boyer said.

Boyer himself has now risen to a unique position of power, even if many in the city don’t know his name. And he’s not seeking attention.

Boyer says he is busy working to make what happened in his family — a union job plotted a path from the projects to the middle class — a possibility for more Black and brown Philadelphians.

It keeps him juggling multiple tasks while sitting for an interview.

Boyer listened to a conference call about federal infrastructure legislation on his iPhone earlier this month while his laptop streamed a hearing of the Philadelphia Tax Review Board, which handles tax appeals and counts him as a member. Back-to-back meetings loomed.

It’s busy being the head of a union group of 6,200 members working for four locals in Philadelphia, Norristown, and Chester. Union work is a family business for Boyer — and the foundation for a base of power that has made him a player in corporate and nonprofit circles, as well as in community issues like combating gun violence.

“Everything I’ve got is because of organized labor,” said Boyer, 50.

» READ MORE: How last year’s racial justice protests changed Philadelphia politics

The building trades unions have long been a dominant force in Philadelphia politics, thanks to their heavy political spending. But aside from the laborers, the unions are overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly suburban — according to the few public analyses of their membership — creating an uneasy dynamic in a city in which residents of color make up a majority.

That puts Boyer in a unique position of being a leader in both the Black community and the building trades. Potential candidates in the 2023 mayor’s race are already courting him.

“With a lot of people who are involved in the world of politics, you have to kind of sift through the bulls—,” Mayor Jim Kenney said. “With [Boyer], you don’t have to worry about that.”

It would be easy, in a city with a long history of powerful unions, to see Boyer as simply another labor leader, one who just happens to be Black. But that would miss who Boyer is — and isn’t. He’s not trying to be the Black version of his ally John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, the center-of-attention leader of the electricians union.

While Dougherty is a fast-talking union cheerleader currently under federal indictment, Boyer operates mostly in the background.

They’re a team, with Dougherty also leading the Philadelphia Building & Construction Trades Council as business manager and Boyer serving as president. They were both reelected to those posts this summer.

The spotlight may be inching ever closer toward Boyer. If Dougherty goes down, Boyer would be an obvious candidate to replace him. But that might not be a comfortable fit for a man who has a more expansive view of his future.

Boyer wouldn’t discuss the legal peril facing Dougherty, who is scheduled to stand trial on bribery charges in October. Dougherty has denied wrongdoing.

“I fully support John Dougherty,” Boyer said.

Dougherty identifies Boyer as someone who could succeed him — but doesn’t think his friend would want to.

“There are two or three people who could replace me if I walked away,” Dougherty said. “He’s one of them.”

But Dougherty’s job is “not big enough for Ryan right now,” Dougherty said, predicting big corporate or political jobs in his future instead.

Boyer said he has no plans to run for office himself.

“It’s not something I want,” he said. “I believe we, particularly in the African American community, have ceded too much power to our elected officials.”

A family business

Boyer’s slow and steady climb to power started in North Philadelphia.

His father, Nathanial “Nate” Sabir, got a job as a laborer, allowing the family to move from the Richard Allen projects there to Germantown and later Overbrook. His mother, Jacquelyn Boyer, enrolled him in the Gesu School, a Jesuit school.

Boyer said he was a troublemaker who was asked to leave the school in sixth grade, then a middle-schooler adrift before Black men teaching at Roxborough High School set him straight. An academic scholarship led to West Chester University.

After graduating, Boyer tried his hand at buying, rehabilitating, and selling houses in the city. He also sold insurance.

He joined Local 332 as a laborer for about five years before becoming assistant to his father. By then, Nathanial Sabir was the local’s secretary-treasurer. Boyer’s brother, Omar Sabir, is on the Philadelphia City Commissioners, the board that runs elections.

» READ MORE: The 10 most important figures in Philadelphia labor in 2020

Laborers are the construction workers traditionally responsible for the least-skilled work — with the lowest-paid workers.

The council has made training a central focus, opening in June a $30 million center next to its North Broad Street headquarters — a burgeoning campus for a union where the median annual salary for a journeyman member is more than $57,000.

To Boyer, growing his union ranks and providing access to middle-class wages is a way to grow power in the city for people of color and fight the racial biases he sees every day as he navigates the halls and Zoom screens of power.

“We’re not playing,” he said. He pointed to stringent rules for a union pre-apprentice program: Show up five minutes after the 7 a.m. start time and the doors are locked. The tardy can restart the entire program when a new class begins.

“We’ll take you where you are,” he said. “But we’re not going to dumb down our standards. We’re going to build you up to the standard.”

Building power

The union’s diverse membership and big campaign spending give it significant political clout.

Staten, the longtime union leader who mentored Boyer, helped W. Wilson Goode Sr. become mayor and Ed Rendell become governor. Boyer has sought similar influence.

The Laborers backed State Sen. Anthony Williams for mayor over Kenney in 2015. Since then, Williams has watched Boyer experience “a growth period that has increased rapidly in the last few years.”

Williams said Boyer “got crap” from the Kenney administration for not supporting Kenney’s first campaign.

“You reward your supporters and you punish your enemies,” Boyer said. “I respected Jim for that. We had a relationship with Tony. We didn’t have a relationship with Jim.”

That’s changed.

Boyer endorsed the soda tax and lobbied City Council to pass Kenney’s signature legislative achievement. He backed Kenney’s 2019 reelection. And at a time when Kenney’s popularity has seemed to sag under the weight of a pandemic and soaring gun violence, Boyer said the mayor’s leadership has been “undervalued.”

Kenney said Boyer is “one of the few people” who calls him with encouragement on tough days.

But Boyer’s not interested in just being a political player or labor leader. He wants to have a bigger impact across more of the city.

Boyer wants to see faces like his on more corporate and civic boards, to be part of “the fabric of everyday society in this region.”

And Boyer wants to shape the conversation — and city and state budgets — on issues like gun violence, which hit young Black men the hardest.

“I just have to think that if the demographic was different, would the response be different?” Boyer said.

» READ MORE: Philly’s gun-violence crisis has surpassed a bleak milestone with 10,000 shot since 2015

He sees fights ahead as Democrats navigate intraparty tensions between their progressive and more moderate wings. The Laborers in Western Pennsylvania have already backed U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, a centrist, in next year’s critical U.S. Senate race. Boyer expects his council will weigh in soon.

“We’re a center-left state and a center-left city,” he said. “These progressive politics and policies win in some small areas. But if you look, by and large, it’s the pragmatic politicians that win.”

While Boyer always seems to be adding jobs, he surprised some by stepping down as chair of the Delaware River Port Authority in January, before his term expired. Gov. Tom Wolf appointed City Councilmember Cherelle Parker, a Boyer ally, to fill the seat. She now chairs the agency, a politically powerful perch. It operates four bridges between Philadelphia and New Jersey and the PATCO high speed line.

Boyer sees Parker as a contender for mayor in 2023.

“She’s ambitious,” he said. “She’ll follow up. She’s a good listener.”

But Boyer said he didn’t bail on the DRPA to make room for her — and boost her political prospects. He just felt as if he had accomplished what he wanted in that role.

“I fundamentally believe that people in Philadelphia hold on to power too long,” Boyer said. “Sometimes you just gotta go. If I preach that, I have to do that.”

Staff writer Sean Collins Walsh contributed to this article.