Can Kenney Help Make White-Dominated Building Trades More Diverse?

He says at least 45 percent of workers on city projects should be African-American.

Photo by James Jennings

Photo by James Jennings

In an interview on 900AM-WURD Tuesday, Mayor Jim Kenney said he plans to ensure that at least 45 percent of workers on city-funded construction projects are African-American.

Kenney made the pledge in response to a pointed question by host Solomon Jones.

“Forty-five percent of the population of Philadelphia is African-American. Can we look to have 45 percent of the people who work on these taxpayer-funded projects be African-American?” Jones asked.

“That’s our goal,” Kenney said. “I am committed … to [ensuring] that every neighborhood in this city takes advantage of the wealth of this city, and I think that’s the most important thing.”

Kenney declined to set a specific deadline for his proposal, saying, “Sometimes, you say I’m going to do this by this date, and then some things get slowed up for one reason or another.”

Officials have long tried to tackle the problem that is Philadelphia’s white-dominated building trades. In 2009, a blue-ribbon advisory commission created by then-Mayor Michael Nutter issued a report on diversifying the city’s construction industry. Three years later, union members in the building trades were still 99 percent male and 76 percent white, according to a report by AxisPhilly, and sixty-seven percent lived outside of the city.

Can Kenney be the guy who finally makes the construction industry look like Philadelphia?

John Dougherty, head of the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council, was one of Kenney’s most important allies during the mayoral primary campaign. Kenney skeptics say that will make it tough for the mayor to stand up to Dougherty on issues like this.

But Kenney’s fans argue that their relationship is actually a strength: Kenney has Doc’s ear. This will be one way to test out that theory.

“Look, people should be skeptical, and people should say, ‘We’ve heard this before,'” Kenney told Jones, in reference to past attempts to diversify the construction industry. “The only thing we can do is produce, and I think that I am in a position now because of the support I received and the coalitions I received with the building trades.”

Kenney said there are also legislative changes that could be made to help prevent African-Americans from being shut out of city-funded jobs. For instance, he said, the city could allow small and medium-size contractors to bid for projects that only larger companies are currently eligible to compete for.

“That’s been an ongoing complaint from minority contractors consistently — that the threshold of a job is always too high for them to meet,” he said. “We have to lower that threshold.”

During the radio interview, Kenney was also asked about controversial comments he made regarding the shooting of police officer Jesse Hartnett. Last week, Kenney said the incident “has nothing to do with being a Muslim,” despite the suspect allegedly saying he shot Hartnett “in the name of Islam.”

Kenney stood by his remarks Tuesday, saying, “Islam is a peaceful religion. It’s practiced by about 25 percent of our citizens who are Muslim police officers, firefighters, teachers, bus drivers. [They] go to work every day, pay their taxes, pray to God, raise their kids, and do not deserve to be painted with a brush that some of these national politicians want to paint them with.”