City unveils long-awaited Rebuild project aimed at diversifying local unions

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — A key piece of Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s vision for renovating city parks, recreation centers and libraries will fall into place this week when city officials unveil apprenticeship programs aimed at providing union jobs for people who have, historically, had a hard time gaining membership in the construction trades. 

Applications are being accepted for sixteen slots in three trades: commercial painting, cement masonry and roofing. Women and minority applicants will be given preference.

“We’re really excited about this because these are paid pre-apprenticeships. We’re not asking people to find the time and not be able to support their families while they work on their skills and then we have these positions ready to go. We have work for them at Rebuild sites,” said Nicole Westerman, executive director of Rebuild, the agency overseeing the renovation of city facilities. 

When Kenney was selling the program, as part of his effort to get a soda tax, he touted the jobs that it would create and promised they would benefit the communities where the work was being done.

Related: Mayor Kenney’s rebuild program finally passes City Council committee

Council members were skeptical, having seen many attempts to diversify the construction trades fail. Through intense negotiations, before approving the Rebuild plan, they insisted on, and received, specific, written assurance that the unions would provide a path to membership for women and minorities.

They signed a memorandum of understanding with 21 unions.

“The Parties will work cooperatively to create craft trade career opportunities for qualifying city residents, from low-income and high-unemployment Philadelphia neighborhoods,” it states, agreeing that the unions “will be required to provide opportunities on Rebuild Projects to participants and graduates of pre-apprenticeship programs.”

Graduates of pre-existing programs, such as PennAssist and the school district’s Career and Technical Education programs, are also to be given preference.

“We want to make sure that our construction sites look more like Philadelphia,” said Westerman. “It’s the residents who are paying for the beverage tax and paying for these improvements and it’s critically important for the economic benefits of this work to benefit diverse Philadelphia residents.”

Rebuild is primarily funded with bonds. The soda tax pays the debt service on the bonds.

The project aims to improve 64 of the 90 city facilities that serve the public. Work has begun at 36 sites. 

Westerman said more jobs, with more unions, will become available as the work progresses.

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