Philadelphia still has racial segregation. It has to end.
A peculiar case came up at the Zoning Board of Adjustment this week that flatly exposed a frayed nerve for Black Americans living in this city: jobs.
The building is zoned Industrial. The developers at the ZBA asked for a variance to convert the skinny factory building to residential. From 2012 through 2016, only 17 variances to convert industrial property to residential by zoning variance were denied. The rest were all approved. So why did the ZBA reject this project?
The “official” answer the ZBA gave was that Post Brothers, the developer of the project, could not prove a financial hardship. This means that the ZBA believes the property can still be used for industrial purposes.
Imagine: a skinny concrete tower that’s less than half the width of a 1 story rancher–that has no loading bays for 18 wheelers–in an age where the last vertical factory in the city abandoned their building on Hunting Park Avenue (Tasty Baking Co.) where most new manufacturing plants these days are all single-floor affairs? With residential housing located on all the blocks surrounding the building? Where there are no freeways near the building for miles?
What does the City of Philadelphia think could go into this building? The world’s largest dialysis center? A rendering plant?
The only industry Philadelphia is really good at since 1975 has been the poverty industry. There’s nobody that wants to invest the capital to bring this building back up to code for industrial purposes.
This is the real reason the City denied the variance:
Some people are afraid the work will go to black and brown workers
The black community in Philadelphia is painfully aware how much effort has been put in City Hall to keep the building trades a white, male and suburban-dominated affair. With the exception of the Laborers union, all of the other building trades that operate in the city have worked hard to maintain a white brotherhood with only a token number of non-white members working on their job sites.
Diversity is so poor in most of the building trades that the easiest way in Philly to shut a union shill up is to demand written documentation of what the workforce’s racial demographics are.
It’s been nearly 10 years since Philadelphia Magazine published “The Last Union Town,” which delved into the politics and drama when the City last attempted a giant public works project: the expansion of the Philadelphia Convention Center. The piece explored how Philadelphia’s building trades became such a constellation of myopic, racially segregated organizations.
What’s interesting about the PCC expansion is that the current chairman of the Zoning Board of Adjustment, Frank DiCicco, was a city councilman during this time. He caused the politically powerful electrician’s union, IBEW Local 98 to have a heart attack when he asked in an open Council meeting what the union’s membership figures looked like. While IBEW did disclose those figures to City Hall, no one on City Council dared to openly share those materials with the public. And yet this week DiCicco decided to vote against the Post Brothers project.
The Post Brothers Got Community Support
What’s even more infuriating about the ZBA’s denial of the zoning variance is the level of community support that Post Brothers managed to achieve from the Richard Allen Homes PHA residents who live next door to the building. The head of the RCO for the community struck a Community Benefits Agreement that would ensure Richard Allen residents would have access to at least 10% of the jobs created during construction. Moreover, Post Brothers committed to at least 50% minority and female participation in the project.
To sweeten the deal even further, Post Brothers committed to affordable housing units built into the project.
Think about this for a second:
- Most of the residents living by the proposal are PHA residents and because of that they are immune to any financial effects of gentrification. Housing prices do not affect them.
- Black residents in the Richard Allen townhomes have a crack at working on the project
- Some new residents coming to live at the project will be in affordable income brackets
- Commercial is included in the design, which can mean permanent jobs available after construction ends
- Increased private interest in Poplar Street might finally get the neighborhood other accoutrements, like a real grocery store
Because the Post Brothers set their minority hiring target at 50%, this all but assured several of the Philadelphia building trades would have less of a chance at securing any work since most of the laborers for the carpenters, plumbers and electricians unions are mostly white males.
And guess who could have stepped in at any moment to ensure the project didn’t get hung up at the ZBA but chose not to?
For Kenney, Post Brothers Reopens Old Wounds
Everyone knows mayor Jim Kenney is Local 98’s bitch. When the Post Brothers decided to repurpose the Goldtex factory on Callowhill Street, Kenney took sides. He excoriated the developers in private and in public as a City Councilman at the same time Post Brothers was posting security camera footage of hired union men beating up security guards working at the construction site, sabotaging workers vehicles and trying to block deliveries of materials.
Since Kenney is now the mayor he is likely to stay as mute as possible while hardball politics is being played in the background. The trouble here is that Post Brothers will certainly sue the City in Common Pleas court and force the City’s Law Department to work overtime to pound out a verkakte excuse for denying the permits to re-purpose the warehouse at 9th and Poplar. While the City might luck out and find a sympathetic judge here in town that will sustain the refusal; the ZBA’s ruling is all but guaranteed to be turned over in Commonwealth Court upon appeal, as few state appeal judges are in the back pocket of the building trades.
While the building trades might have scored a small victory this week–the City will eventually lose in court. What will Mayor Kenney and the City do once it’s ordered to write the permits?
Keeping black and brown people out of the trades hurts all of us
Look at most companies in the private sector and look at government. Usually what you will find is a sea of diversity. The more prominent and expansive the company, the more diverse its workforce typically is. “Diversity Officer” is now a fairly common HR job at most large businesses.
But in Philadelphia, our local building trades exemplify through their own actions that to keep that power they must withhold jobs from black and brown Philadelphians–leaving us with the least large diverse workforce in private employment.
Part of the reason why Philadelphia’s poverty rate is the highest nationwide among cities is the union blockade against black and brown people from getting into apprenticeship programs and being hired by union contractors.
Full-time electricians in Philadelphia earn more than $78K a year. They also have access to decent health benefits that cost a lot less to get than paying for a premium Obamacare policy. Any sane leader of a municipality would agree that in order for the poverty rate to be lowered, income distribution needs to rise. That means more jobs need to be available in the city and for less technical work that doesn’t require a college degree.
That means our monochrome building trades workforce that mostly lives in the suburbs is a major financial burden on the city taxpayers.
The unions racial composition mattered less economically when most of the members lived in the city. Today much of those incomes earned in the city are exported to Bucks County, Delaware County and to New Jersey. Without the city-based construction work, many suburban towns would have a hard time paying their bills or keeping taxes from rising. Meanwhile in Philadelphia, the loss of easy-entry to middle-class work means fewer taxpayers with the incomes to sustain services, much less deal with the large number of non-working adults who are living here and are idle.
Those wages also help fund the coffers of Local 98 and they pay for the annual jamborees down the Jersey Shore. Those dues also helped turn Local 98 into the largest political lobbying organization in Pennsylvania. IBEW for years has been the number one donor to political campaigns in the state. It has helped the union buy nearly half of Philadelphia City Council and it owns the mayor lock stock and barrel.
IBEW 98’s business manager Johnny Doc has his own brother installed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court no thanks to the large sums of lobbying and street money the union paid out to campaign for him. He’s so powerful that no politician in Pennsylvania presently sitting in office would dare cross him, even though the FBI has a target on his back.
It’s that very same fear of where the union locals will spend their vast sums of campaign cash that has kept the demographics of the building trades from changing and has put an enormous amount of pressure on the City to “cook the diversity books” to make it appear that there are plenty of minorities working on construction sites when scouts for the building trades still use the presence of minority construction workers as a signal that a jobsite allowed non-union work in.
Sure, the Mayor’s office has promised that a large sum of the development work going into municipal projects such as the Rebuild program to rehabilitate the City’s recreation centers will be M/WBE contracts. But the Mayor’s Office also made certain not to give any assurances that they would actually vet the contractors applying for jobs to ensure that a token black person or a token female as head of shell company wasn’t turning around and subbing the work back out to the nearly all-white building trades workforce.
We know how that game goes, Mayor Kenney. You can’t hide the race of the workers on the construction sites as we drive by them on the way to our own jobs every morning.