Tonight, members of Philadelphia City Council will head to Spruce Street Harbor Park to celebrate the end of another legislative session – one that saw the legislative body authorize the $500 million public works project known as Rebuild.

A hallmark of Mayor Jim Kenney’s administrative agenda, the program would combine soda tax revenues with philanthropic monies to upgrade rec centers, libraries and other municipal assets. But the largesse and authorizing legislation for bonds underpinning the program became a vehicle for councilmembers’ interests in diversifying Philadelphia’s trade unions.

Council members declared victory in lengthy speeches today, pointing to concessions from the trades.

“We have never paved the way into the building trades the way we have with Rebuild,” said Councilmember Cherelle Parker, whose husband is a tradesman, during Council’s final session. 

These include diversity and residency goals in a deal with the historically white and suburban-dominated trades. One program would recruit young laborers and put them on a track to theoretically earn union cards after time on job sites. A separate deal with Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, which will handle some Rebuild projects, would allow dozens of experienced, nonunion tradesmen to get union representation and a cut of the work.

But the leadership of the trades themselves was largely silent during much of the horse-trading around Rebuild, as Rich Lazer, a negotiator for the Kenney administration, shuttled back and forth between the Mayor’s Office and Council chambers. 

Today, union chief John Dougherty, a major political backer of Kenney, told City&State PA he was thrilled with the agreement.

“I’m glad we finally have partners that not only want to put people to work but will help me change the culture in the construction trades,” he said. “I’ve been screaming for accountability on the job for 20 years.”

Dougherty blamed the “Philadelphia system” for creating barriers to minority firm participation, adding that the city’s slow pace of paying contractors and onerous contracting requirements were also stumbling blocks. He said minority firms often face difficulty securing financing or bonding needed to qualify for city projects. 

Dougherty pointed to similar deals – which he notably had a hand in crafting – around certain Philadelphia Housing Authority projects and Mayor John Street’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, which aimed to pump money into distressed neighborhoods, as success stories.

“I’m looking for the third opportunity. That’s why we’re here,” he said. “We’re here because Jimmy Kenney sat down with us and said, ‘We need to put kids to work.’ Rebuild was just a byproduct.”

Indeed, Rebuild is only the latest – and far from the largest – of a string of big-money public works initiatives like NTI, the Pennsylvania Convention Center and stadium construction projects that generated political chatter and banner deals around diversity concerns. 

But Jay McCalla, a former deputy managing director under John Street and a chief architect of NTI, described these efforts as largely failures. 

“If John Dougherty is happy with it, it’s a lousy agreement. I don’t think these numbers are going to be met at all,” he said.

McCalla blamed figures like Dougherty for these failings, saying union leaders had an interest in paying lip service to these issues while maintaining the status quo. He said rank-and-file members had little interest in welcoming new members and would oust leaders who rocked the boat.

“The building trades, for decades, have been the exclusive broker for labor in this town. And they discriminate,” McCalla said. “This is one of the last bastions of white supremacy and greed in Philadelphia. You can’t be around this long and not diversify. The only analogous organization is the Mummers.”

He described councilmembers’ interest in diversity as largely superficial. Street won similar benchmarks during NTI, but, for political reasons, City Hall didn’t effectively monitor or enforce the deal down the road.

“The building trades contribute lavishly to the mayor. The black council people, like Cindy Bass and Curtis Jones, take money from the trades, too. The black reps are conflicted,” he said. “Council got control over the selection of sites for Rebuild projects. That’s always what the battle was really about, and Kenney was always willing to give that up.”

Instead of crafting a new understanding with existing unions, McCalla called for the formation of a new “alternative” labor union with representative membership or for the city to consider using nonunion labor on certain projects.

Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez, a vocal advocated for diversity provisions, pointed out that there were some enforcement mechanisms in Rebuild – for example, nonprofits that partner with private contractors on Rebuild projects will be able to terminate these deals if diversity goals are not met. 

Parker, meanwhile, promised that City Council would act as a check this go-round.

“It’s not perfect,” Parker said, of the ordinance. “If we’re not diversifying the trades, we should go back and revisit (the legislation) later.” 

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Deputy Mayor Rich Lazer as a former attorney for Local 98. City&State PA regrets this error.