Diverse construction workforce in sight in Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA — A landmark agreement reached last month could open the way to diversifying the construction workforce here. Pending approval by the City Council, contractors, the Convention Center authority, and the building trades unions, new major Center City projects could be affected. The deal would set measurable goals and percentages for the hiring of workers of color and women.

While the agreement has not been officially approved by all parties, indications are that the provisions will include percentages approximately as follows. Of the 1,400 workers who will be needed to build the $700 million expansion to the downtown Convention Center, 25 percent would be African American, 10 percent Latino, five percent Asian American, and 10 percent women.

The deal appeared to be in jeopardy in early December when Council Member Frank DiCicco introduced a resolution which would have opened up the project to non-union labor. While many council members were clearly uncomfortable with this move, the resolution put them in a bind because of a City Council tradition of respecting the wishes of members on matters concerning their own districts.

DiCicco’s district includes the Center City area where the Convention Center is located, and he sits on the Center’s board. He claimed the resolution was necessary to insure minority participation.

Labor and African American community leaders, however, resisted DiCicco's attempt to use the issue of minority hiring to undercut the construction unions. At a press conference, African American leaders stepped forward and distanced themselves from the proposal.

Sam Staten, president of Laborers’ Local 332, a predominantly African American local, said he was “totally against” DiCicco’s resolution. He was joined by Laborers' Public Relations Executive A. Bruce Crawley, a veteran advocate for increased minority inclusion, and Recording Executive Kenny Gamble. Gamble said, “We want to make sure the baby doesn’t get thrown out with the bath water.” Crawley told the World that “We in the African American business community are not pushing for the open shop provision. That provision is bogging down the movement for minority inclusion.”

Pat Gillespie, business manager of the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council, told the World that the agreement for increased inclusion of minorities and women on the Convention Center project was on track and that he felt that DiCicco was using his seat on the board to push his own agenda.

Gillespie supported an agreement between the building trades and the Philadelphia School District in 2006 to admit a number of public high school graduates to trade apprenticeship programs.

The urgency of addressing the issue and overcoming a past history of exclusion, racism and division was underscored by a recent report of a white worker taunting a Black worker with a noose on another Center City project. The Human Relations Commission is investigating.

The Convention Center, to be built with a major infusion of state funding, is being billed as the largest public works project in the city’s history.