John Dent just wanted to work union construction in Philadelphia.

“There must’ve been seven, eight guys who jumped on me,” Dent said. “They knocked me to the ground. Broke my glasses, and I just covered myself up as best I could. I got kicked. I got punched.”

The June 1972 attack on a Black worker outside the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 542 was witnessed by police, who filed no charges, and documented in a federal anti-discrimination lawsuit that’s still technically an open case in federal court, attorneys said.

Decades later, no one can point to data showing greater diversity across Philadelphia’s many building trades unions, and some believe the problems plaguing the city’s construction industry have actually gotten worse in recent years.

“In my experience — and I bid projects every day, all day long — I think it’s gotten worse,” said Emily Bittenbender, managing partner of Bittenbender Construction L.P.

“I’m the only women-owned GC [general contractor] in Philadelphia,” Bittenbender said. “There’s one African-American-owned. And, there was one, other Puerto Rican company that just went down. The recession and building boom have put a lot of minority- and women-owned companies under.”

The Philadelphia Building & Construction Trades Council did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls seeking comment on efforts to diversify or to provide any records that would show just how many minorities or women make up of members of the building trades.

Reached by phone, trades council business manager John Dougherty declined comment.

There are more than 50 construction labor unions in the Greater Philadelphia region, and only one — the Laborers District Council Local 332 — has predominantly Black membership.

Sam Staten Jr., the business manager for Laborers International Union of North America, did not respond to calls or emails seeking comment about diversity in the building trades in the city.

A Philadelphia Tribune analysis of available data collected by the U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Census Bureau suggest the city lags behind many others with regard to minority-owned construction.

The Philadelphia metropolitan region was home to some 12,048 construction firms with employees in 2016, according to the latest available figures from the U.S. Census. Of those, an estimated 841 companies (6.9 percent) were minority-owned, according to federal estimates.

Based on government figures, you were three times more likely to find a minority-owned construction company in Denver or Oklahoma City. In Portland, 12 percent of construction firms with employees were minority-owned, according to government estimates from 2016.

Another detailed census of occupation by sex, race and ethnicity was conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010; at that time, in Philadelphia, whites made up 80 percent of structural iron and steelworkers, 77 percent of sheet metal workers and 74 percent of carpet, floor, and tile installers and finishers.

Presented with those figures, Congressman Dwight Evans and Gov. Tom Wolf each proposed solutions to increase minority participation in the industry.

“I don’t think there’s one simple answer in terms of attacking this problem,” said Evans, who represents parts of north and west Philadelphia. “We need to do some bold and big things.”

Among them, more public schools need to prepare students for jobs in the building trades, Evans said. “Where government comes in is with building incentives and sweeteners to try and push the contractors and the unions and using the tax structure, like tax credits, to drive the aspect of diversity. The other part of this is the leadership of the unions being committed and understanding the importance of diversity and inclusion.”

Since Wolf took office, he said, Pennsylvania has increased its government contracting with “with small diverse businesses by 35 percent — up from $240 million to $330 million.”

“Moving forward, we plan to increase our spend with small diverse businesses from the current rate of 7 percent to 26.3 percent,” the governor said. “It is important that everyone in Pennsylvania has a shot at growing their skills and building a successful career.”

Back in Philadelphia, Mayor Jim Kenney and Council President Darrell Clarke point to the city’s Rebuild program and an oversight committee charged with monitoring diversity efforts by construction companies that get city contracts.

Funded by the soda tax, Rebuild puts millions of dollars toward construction at libraries, parks and playgrounds, Kenney said. The administration has set goals of giving 25% to 30% of funding to minority-owned businesses and 15% to 20% to women-owned businesses. So far, the administration is on track to meet those goals; minority-owned businesses will receive 27% of the funding, and women-owned businesses will receive 24%, according to city officials.

“The difference between this and past programs is that if you’re working on this site as an apprentice or a journeyperson… you can move that onto that next project that has nothing to do with Rebuild,” Kenney said. “They’ll be on the bench, ready to be called for that next, non-city job. So, this is not a one and done.

But, efforts go beyond that, Kenney insisted.

“The building trades also have held boot camps, have plugged into the CTE (career and technical education) schools, are creating a pipeline of employees that are trained, after figuring out which trades they’re interested in and then getting them into the training programs that are going to move them in that direction,” the mayor continued. “We need to prepare them for the entrance tests and the apprenticeship program, allowing them to take the test many times a year as opposed to just once every few years.

“But people need to understand that we’re not going to have 2,000 new construction workers,” Kenney continued. “I don’t want to give you a number [of new jobs] because I don’t want to fall short of that number. But it’s not going to be massive employment.”

Instead, Rebuild will set the tone for future construction, Clarke said. “We anticipate with an agreement that was also struck with the unions as it relates to apprentices, goals and numbers, that this will set the template for what we need to do city wide — not just government-sponsored labor.”

By contrast, state Sen. Anthony Williams, D-8, was far less optimistic.

“We have lip service, but not much credible data to point to any changes,” said Williams, who is challenging Kenney for the Democratic mayoral nomination in the May primary. “We have a bunch of internships, but not many journeymen. How do you assess any situation without having accurate data? Anecdotally, you drive to a worksite today, and it doesn’t look any different today than it did before.”

Williams said it’s time for the city’s Asian, Black and Latino communities to demand more from their government and building trades.

“The reality is that, in Philadelphia, people of color are not the minorities. We keep getting second status on everything because everyone just accepts this notion that we’re the minorities,” Williams said. “And, we’re not. We’re the majority.”

Of course, this is not the first time officials have tried to address diversity in the building trades in Philadelphia.

In 1967, then-President Richard Nixon’s administration drafted The Philadelphia Plan to racially integrate the building trades unions in the city by establishing mandatory goals for nonwhite hiring on federal contracts. The plan was challenged and revised, and the revised plan was implemented in 1969.

The attack on Dent happened just a few years later.

In 2008, seeing still little diversity in the building trades unions, then-Mayor Michael Nutter formed an Advisory Commission on Construction Industry Diversity.

The commission was formed just months after a reported incident at the Comcast Center, then under construction. A Black hoist operator working on the site said a white worker had threatened him with a noose.

As the former president of the African American Chamber of Commerce of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, A. Bruce Crawley sat on Nutter’s commission.

To this day, Crawley believes the lack of diversity in the building trades is driving up poverty in Philadelphia.

“Right now, when you go to construction sites across the city, it’s not very difficult to see the cars parked out front with the Delaware license plates and New Jersey license plates,” Crawley said. “So, the people who live here can’t get the jobs. The city skyline is booming. But, the people who live in the neighborhoods can’t work there.”

Bittenbender also was among the advisory panelists searching for solutions back in 2008. Then, as now, the city’s economy was being held back because of problems in the construction industry, she said.

“The minority and women companies in this industry have never gotten ahead,” she said. “I don’t think the white man is keeping people down. But, I do think maybe it’s the responsibility of the white man to help some of us succeed.

“We need to take this on as a city, and if we’re really serious about this, then maybe we start a charter school,” Bittenbender said. “We need to teach kids how to run construction companies. They have to see how it operates. They have to understand contracts, legal, accounting, financing, bonding, banking. They need to understand how to read a profit/loss statement.”

At least two charter schools in the city are geared toward preparing students for the building trades — YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School and Philadelphia Electrical and Technology Charter School.

A third member of the panel was Walter Palmer, then the president and CEO of the General Building Contractors Association.

Palmer believes union laborers take too much of the blame for the lack of diversity in their industry. The real problem lies in an unfair system of government contracts and project financing, he said. “I don’t think that the unionized community is at fault as much as people like to point fingers at them.

“I sat on union apprenticeship funds,” Palmer said. “I sat on health and welfare funds. I sat on pension funds and for all the basic trades, and I think the more discriminatory groups that built systems for their own advantage were actually the elected officials and the contracting community. They built structures that were advantages to them.

“We’ve been working on this issue since issue since [Mayor] Bill Green, and you can’t tell me that this is working,” Palmer continued. “We live in the city of Philadelphia and we have a tremendous population and people who really need help and really need a job and really need training.

“And, the worst part of it all is that we’re coming to the end of this fantastic construction boom in the city of Philadelphia, and my guess is you’re not going to have more minority contractors in the city of Philadelphia,” Palmer added. “You’re going to have less.”

Mark Stulb, president of L.F. Driscoll, said he’s trying to move Philadelphia’s construction industry in the opposite direction. L.F. Driscoll is currently building the Comcast Technology Center. It built the Comcast Center in 2008 and One Liberty Place in 1987.

With its Penn Assist program, L.F. Driscoll draws women and minorities from city high schools, Stulb said. Now in its third year, Stulb said, Penn Assist has provided training for more than 37 high school graduates.

In addition, L.F. Driscoll is mentoring “numerous emerging small companies” with ongoing work at the Comcast Technology Center.

“These companies under normal circumstances would not have been in a position to qualify for a project as large and complex as this one,” Stulb said. “These companies now have the relevant experience to qualify for a wider range of projects throughout the city.”

Days after he was attacked outside Local 542, Dent, now retired at age 76, said he went back to the union hall, looking for work.

And, he got work.

Often, Dent said he was the only Black man on the job, but never again did he experienced racism on the job.

“I was about the second or third Black operating engineer who got to operate the high crane,” Dent said. “That’s the highest paying job.

“Nobody ever put a noose or the word ‘n-----’ on my crane,” he continued. “I never let them do that to me. The attack just put a fire in me. It sort of made me stronger.”

(16) comments


YOACAP of the Urban Affairs Coalition (UAC) has a program, "Project Build" that helps youth 18 to 24 get into the trades. They expose youth to cert classes, construction boot camps, incentives, and supportive services. The agency works with several unions to support Philadelphia residents in getting into the trades, like the FTI, carpenter JAC and the GBCA. If you know an interested individual, please ask them to call 215.851.1968. This program is funded by Philadelphia Works and PYN. Follow @yoacapphilly to see the youth who are now working as apprentices in the carpenters union from inner city Philadelphia. Thank you Woody Beale


My dad was a steamfitter in NYC in the 70's. In the 80's the union was under a mandate to accept black apprentices, and my Dad's one of the 5 men who chose to participate. It wasn't easy for him or his partner, and truthfully, if either of my brothers had shown an interest, my dad would have sponsored his own child. I have no idea if the program ultimately succeeded in the larger sense, but my dad's partner did get into the union. So unwilling sons and a Catholic conscience gave one person his chance. fwiw, I was the most mechanical of his children and my father firmly refused to sponsor this daughter for that spot.


I think the problem is worse than it seems. The Penn First program is the only program that put people in the trades not because of Driscoll after all they have been in business at U of Pa and have not done a thing until the Councilwoman made it happen. Sadly Mayor Kenney only gives lip service. I think Congressman Evans and State Senator Williams really see the problem. Officials like Councilwoman Blackwell and Jones and Clarke are trying to make a diffence. The Unions are doing what their members want it is our political leaders that need to force change.


I am confused. It seems that the Unions are always being attacked for lack of Minority participation, although the Non-Union Contractors are never addressed. Take a look at Alan Myers, JD Eckmann, RE Pierson, Brubacher Excavating, Digging and Rigging. ALL who perform work in the City or nearby surrounding area.Just those few provide more jobs than the Trades mentioned here !! But lets leave them alone!!!!!!

Concerned Operator

Is this Frank Banker? Hey what's up Frank!

Guardian Of The Fight

It was once said that the greatest trick the devil ever did was to convince people he didn’t exist henceforth the same thing the Philadelphia Building Trades Council is trying to pull which is that racism doesn’t exist within its Own club and we already know that to be true racism is here it is part of the fabric of this country and this city those of you who like baseball you should know the history of the Philadelphia Phillies and how they treated Richie Allen,how they treated many of the black ball players in this town what makes you think that same type of thinking doesn’t exist within the trade unions and operating engineers are at the top of the list Just look at all of their apprenticeship programs how many minorities participate better yet how many minorities are even aware that they can apply at certain times and dates they really do you do a good job trying to clean up their house when no one knows only a select few I wonder how many minorities operating engineers have taken him in the past three years I wonder how many have the carpenters taken in the ironworkers electrician and the plumber so I just wonder

Jonathan watson

All should be responsible for minority participation

Jonathan watson

I’ve been working hands on with the city trying to get minorities in the building trades.

Dirty Secrets

All of the unions are racist if I’m wrong prove it The Philadelphia Plan. Can the trades do the right thing! Can the trades say class action suit coming. Yep


The Operating Engineers has gone beyond the scope of normalcy and responsibility in promoting and supporting Minority participation in our Trade.

Factually, we provide a Van for FREE transportation to the Training Site from the Philadelphia area. We provide an hourly wage to apprentices who attend the training site (unlike other trades) we provide lodging also. We don't provide the ability to make someone do it!!!! We don't provide or can correct past poor child-rearing to members who wants their son or daughter in the program and fail miserably, from lack of attendance, fail of drug test, fail to advance basic skills etc. BUT NONE OF THIS WILL EVER GET IN THIS PAPER

Concerned Operator

People in power very seldom play by the rules but always present themselves as if butter wouldn't melt in their mouth. We are talking about a racist and biased standard so to say our Union has went beyond normalcy is still falling way short of the bar. If you were truly sincere about making a major change you could start with a minority hiring agent. Do minorities even account for 25% of our union membership? Not according anytime I was in attendance at the federal court hearings. I distinctly remember the ridiculously low number of 16% including white women and the judge reiterated how white women could not be included in minority statistics. On another note it is a well known fact internally that whites members make more money than minority members. There are several reasons for this including but not limited to... longer job assignments, bypassing the apprenticeship program and C Branch altogether earning a Journeyman wage upon entry, out of district members being dispatched to district 1 (Philadelphia and the surrounding 4 counties highest paid district) and district 1 members mainly minorities being dispatched to districts 2,3,4,&5 which are all lower paying districts, switching white members who can not pass a drug test to jobs that don't test and white apprentice doing their entire apprenticeship with the same contractor and being paid as Journeyman just to name a few. I'll stop here and allow one of my members to try rebutle with another emotional and statistically baseless opinion.

Concerned Operator

People seldom play by the rules. To say that our Union (Operating Engineers) has went above normalcy in a racist and biased industry is falling well short of the bar. If you want to make a change that has a major impact a minority hiring agent would be a start. Do minorities even account for 25% of our membership? Not according to the last time I was in attendance at the federal court hearings. It was reported that we were at 16% including white women. The judge reiterated and stated white women could not be included in reporting minority statistics. On another note, internally it is a well known fact that white members make more money than minorities in our Union due to several factors including but not limited to... Longer job assignment, completely bypassing the apprenticeship and C Branch programs and making journeyman wages upon entry, out of district members being dispatched to district 1, (Philadelphia and the surrounding 4 counties highest paid district) district 1 members dispatched to districts 2,3,4,and 5 which are all lower paying districts and white apprentice working for one contractor for their entire apprenticeship and making the journeyman's wage. I'll stop here to allow one of my colleagues to rebutle with another emotional and statistically unwarranted opinion.


Last time you attended the Federal Court?? Let it be a Fact over a Decade ago when work Nation wide was slow. Look at today figures they are what you are complaining about. Whites, Blacks, and any color are afforded the same rate of pay as anyone. You complain about the Hiring Hall, but Local 542 has had Open Solicitation for over 30 years. Most jobs are solicited not dispatched. And Contractors dont care of race or gender only ability to perform and make them money!


Since our mayor is the puppet of John Dougherty, we can expect nothing from him. City Council will only have some more hearings to tell them what they already know and again, nothing will change. When Dougherty goes to federal prison after his trial, things might get forced to open up somewhat. BTW. The beverage tax that funds Rebuild was never meant to help poor children of color. It's money for more white contractors.


The soda tax is blind of race or gender. Your racist remarks shows you look at everything through black and white glasses rather than exploring the Facts!


The same discrimination exist within the Trade Show trades as well. I worked as a trade show carpenter in DC as a non-union laborer, however once I arrived in Philly, the downtown Convention Center trade show carpenter process of taking on non-union trade show carpenters with experience abd being African American was a non-working factor. I'd showup in-person follow by many phone calls because I had in my possession the monthly calendar of all the incoming trade shows. I brought my documents proving that I was an experienced trade show carpenter, still I was never called nor ever selected to work on any shows. Philadelphia trade show carpenters union is racist to the very core, and still remains so today as it was prior to 2005.

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