by Jay A. McCalla

Anyone who’s been even causally paying attention to the tortuously dull, partially public, negotiations over Mayor Kenney’s $500 million Rebuild (renovations of recreation centers, libraries and parks) could be forgiven if he or she feels they had returned to the 1970’s.

Hearkening back to the movie Groundhog Day, black Council people once again offered their moth-eaten complaints about the almost ancient exclusion of minority vendors from Big Money contracts and the virtually all-white nature of the building trades union membership, which substantially resides outside of Philadelphia.

The inability of minority firms to access large city contracts results from their general weakness in obtaining the critical bonding needed to perform as a general contractor. That weakness is very easily addressed by the city creating a modest-sized revolving fund that would provide bonding. Nobody – black Council members, included – has proposed this simple fix.

The real problem is not whether a few black capitalists can live more comfortably, but the  venerated exclusion of minorities and women from the building trades. Notoriously inbred, membership is almost a “family thing” where an uncle will get his nephew an apprenticeship. A cousin will help a cousin. Whatever the admission process, one cannot argue with the state of affairs – they are virtually all white and all male and always have been.

If this were a society of bird watchers or coin collectors, the relentlessly exclusionary posture wouldn’t much matter. But the building trades are the sole source for labor on big city contracts.

Think about the number of jobs and robust paychecks that will result when we build the cover for I-95. Imagine the household prosperity that will result from the $500 million Rebuild. Consider the discussed extension of the Broad Street Line to the Navy Yard and the juicy hourly rate workers will take home.

The construction of our sports stadiums and convention center (billions in construction costs) exclusively relied on the building trades as do hospitals and universities for their massive expansions.

Black Council people had an almost farcical three-way negotiation with the building trades and the Administration, apparently not appreciating that the trades and Kenney are inextricably linked through Johnny Doc. Goals emerged that target 45 percent minorities (FYI. minorities are 55 percent of the city) and 50 percent Philly resident participation on Rebuild contracts. These targets, if reached, will represent a defeat for the building trades.

If honored, this will mean the racial, ethnic and gender integration of a relentlessly white, male labor union. Also, members may feel pressure to – perish the thought – move back into Philadelphia. In my opinion, such changes could ultimately lead to the ouster of Johnny Doc as top dog. Hence, the terms will not be honored.

This won’t be the first time the building trades have agreed to goals and targets that never materialized. Councilwomen Cindy Bass and Blondell Reynolds-Brown have both publicly expressed regret over past failures.

So, why do we (as a government and community) continue to grant this extraordinary and phenomenally lucrative, exclusive privilege to a union that appears bigoted and won’t negotiate in good faith with Council? Surely, their willingness to commit millions of dollars to politicians is a serious factor. And, to be clear, some of that union cash finds its way into the campaign coffers of the black members of Council who may favor progress but have an overriding concern for reelection that may undermine their commitment.

The building trades represent job opportunities from electrician to bricklayer to taper – 50 locals in all. They use their clout to keep those jobs white, male and non-Philadelphian at a time when our citizens grow poorer and hopeless.

Violent crime has been a recent focus, and seemingly smart folks rub their foreheads struggling to figure a solution. I’m no genius, but I’d suggest an absence of decent job opportunities is a very big part of the problem. The building trades make it obvious there are plenty of good jobs, but our 27 percent poverty rate makes plain there is little opportunity.


Jay A. McCalla is a former deputy managing director and chief of staff for Philadelphia City Council. He does political commentary on WURD900AM and contributes to Philadelphia Magazine. He can be followed and reached on Twitter @jayamccalla1.