Carpenters: We're not anti-minority

Posted: July 16, 2008

As the clamor has grown for more minority participation in the city's construction industry, carpenters union business manager Ed Coryell has stayed out of the fray.

But when two black female carpenters told Mayor Nutter's Commission on Construction Industry Diversity on June 25 that Coryell's union had treated the discrimination, harassment and unemployment they suffered as "a big joke," Coryell decided it was time to talk.

In an interview with the Daily News and Inquirer, Coryell insisted that his union's admission policies are color- and gender-blind, and that contractors, not union officials, decide who gets work.

And Coryell, who refused to publicly release membership data to City Council earlier this year, showed reporters figures he has shared privately with some Council members.

"We're proud of these numbers," Coryell said.

Coryell said that the union represents about 8,500 active carpenters throughout the region, between 3,000 and 3,500 of them city residents.

Most of the city residents are concentrated in eight locals, and the percentage of minorities and women in those locals ranges from 13 to 50 percent, with an average of about 26 percent.

Coryell said that about one-third of the city residents admitted over the past four years to the union apprentice program are minorities or women.

Coryell didn't provide exact numbers of women and minorities throughout all 17 locals in the union, but Councilwoman and commission member Donna Reed Miller said that she thought Coryell's numbers "don't look bad."

But Miller said that she wondered if a tally of actual hours worked might show racial or gender disparities.

Miller said that she was struck by dramatic testimony in the commission's first hearing from Shenecqua Butt and Tanya Mitchell, two women who worked their way into the carpenters union through a training program for public-housing tenants.

Both women said that after being out of work for a year and a half, they got a job in March erecting scaffolding at a refinery, but were laid of on the second day and told by a union steward, "You know how it is. We got to take care of our own first."

The union steward, John Pastor of carpenters Local 8, said in an interview that the women were among 20 workers laid off that day because the contractor had mistakenly hired too many for the job.

When asked, Pastor provided a list of the 20 dismissed. Two contacted by the Daily News confirmed his account.

"When somebody suggests racism, I take it personally," Pastor said. "It destroyed me that day to read [their accusations]."

Pastor said that he'd given the women tips on other jobs and told them to use his name.

Both women denied Pastor had offered help on other jobs. "That's a lie," Butt said. "He's just trying to make it look better."

Coryell noted that the union had paid the dues for Butt and Mitchell for a period when they were laid off.

Butt confirmed that, but said that the union did nothing to help them find work, and did nothing about their complaints of discrimination.

Coryell said that he doesn't get involved in individual members' complaints, but he insisted that the union doesn't discriminate in admission or employment.

The union's apprenticeship test, which includes basic math skills, is open to anyone with a high-school diploma or GED. Those who pass can become an apprentice if they find a contractor willing to employ them for a year or more.

Applicants thus indentured become dues-paying apprentices for four years, and then journeymen carpenters eligible for union work.

But Coryell said that nearly all employment comes from carpenters finding their own work with contractors.

"We don't have a hiring hall," he said. "Open solicitation [for work] is in our bylaws." Coryell said that contractors look for carpenters who have a broad range of skills and are productive workers.

"I don't care if you're black white, or female, if you can hang 30 or 40 [wallboards] a day, you're going to work steady in this union," Coryell said.

Coryell said that he has no plans to appear before Nutter's commission, referring to it as "that circus down there."

Miller said that Coryell has some valid points to make, and that the commission "needs to figure out how it's going to hear from the unions."

Its next hearing is July 23.

The carpenters union pension fund is an investor in Philadelphia Media Holdings, which owns the Daily News and Inquirer. *

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