A plodding late-season Philadelphia City Council session was interrupted by a nearly 20-minute-long floor speech from Councilmember Cherelle Parker, blasting the lack of minority inclusion among the city’s construction unions.

“What we all hope we can achieve is diversification of the trades,” she said. “We know a lot of people who are grown and have families and have been working for 20 or 40 years as tradesmen, but they’re still not members of the building trades.”

Parker was speaking in reference to a resolution she introduced on Thursday that called for the city to use an upcoming, $500 million “ReBuild” effort – which will flood rec centers and other municipal buildings with badly needed repair funds – as a tool to incentivize more minority inclusion in the white-dominated building trades.

“The way to do that is not to wait until...ReBuild is unveiled and then criticize the lack of programs,” she added.

Parker has been far from alone in recent saber-rattling around labor diversity issues that are sure to be central to efforts to simply get the initiative off the ground. 

In October, Council passed another resolution calling for hearings on the subject of diversity in ReBuild projects – a measure notably co-sponsored by every member of council. Councilmember Blondell Reynolds Brown introduced measures to encourage more local hiring in city contracts, while Councilmembers Kenyatta Johnson, Curtis Jones and others have sounded off on the issue in floor speeches.

Council sources also said that staffers for Council President Darrell Clarke called legislators together for a special meeting on the subject in recent weeks. There had reportedly been discussion about tying up a bond initiative that would underpin money for early ReBuild repairs, should the mayor fall short on promises for more inclusion.

But the Kenney administration, for its part, has been vocal about the mayor’s shared interest in using the cash infusion as a way to incentivize more diverse hiring – aiming for a 40 percent minority and female inclusion goal.

Yet while there is broad agreement on the ultimate goal, obstacles loom. Parker called repeatedly for so-called pre-apprenticeship programs – which theoretically prepare high school students and others for union apprentice positions – but similar programs have failed to make a serious dent in hiring, and have drawn accusations of corruption in some cases. And there is resistance within the unions themselves, who tightly guard their work and membership.

Parker acknowledged these failings.

“Some people say diversifying the building trades is impossible...But I say look at Leon Sullivan,” she said, referring to the late civil rights leader, who lead early pushes for minority job training in the 1960s.


In other council business: