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At a time when the previous leadership of the city’s labor movement is under a federal microscope, Ryan Boyer, new business manager of the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council, sees preserving the movement as his cause.
As manager of the Laborers District Council of Philadelphia, a position he’s held for more than a decade, Boyer has advocated for 6,200 mostly Black members with similar needs in terms of work and advocacy.
Boyer now has the challenge of making sure all the unions he oversees — more than 50 locals representing everyone from sprinkler fitters to stagehands — have what they need.
He thinks he’s got it covered.
“What you have to do is have a lot of consensus building,” Boyer told Billy Penn. “And we have that, to a large extent. I would say that 90% of our needs are simpatico, and then you have each union’s idiosyncrasies. You just work through those — and work through those with honesty, integrity, and transparency.”
Last November, Boyer became the first Black business manager in the history of Philly’s Building Trades Council, following the federal conviction of his predecessor, former Local 98 chief John Dougherty. The man known as “Johnny Doc” currently awaits sentencing with his co-defendant Bobby Henon, the former city councilmember he was convicted of bribing.
Boyer said he followed the trial closely. And while he thinks the prosecution of Dougherty and Henon was more of an issue of class — and what he called the use of “rough talk” to get things done, in comparison to how corporate entities practice politics — he said the outcome won’t stop the Building Trades Council from making sure the voices of union members are heard this political season.
“Unions are going to be more politically active,” Boyer said. “We still need the legislators of the state houses, City Council, and the federal government to put policies in that favor working people, and we’re going to be aggressively doing that.”
When you talk with people about Boyer, his ability to build coalitions almost always comes up first.
During his tenure as chair of the Delaware River Port Authority, which he left in 2021, he got the board to work together despite political differences sometimes rearing their ugly heads.
“What I don’t think people recognize about Ryan’s role over at the DRPA, is that there historically had been at times a very contentious relationship between the two states with the governing authority,” said Councilmember Cherelle Parker, who stepped in as next board chair of the bi-state commission. “But Ryan laid the foundation for building a very strong working relationship between the New Jersey and Pennsylvania commissioners.”
Coalition building will come in handy as Boyer tries to change a longstanding perception of the building trades. With the exception of the men and women in the Laborers District Council, most of the other union members are white, and many live in the suburbs.
It’s something City Council has occasionally taken issue with — but it’s a blocking point Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson believes Boyer can fix.
“I think he will have the ability to forge a greater relationship between members of Council and the Building Trades around diversity and inclusion,” Johnson said. “I believe that this relationship will improve.”
The trades can do better when it comes to diversity, Boyer admits.
He said the organization does already offer programs that could make the unions more diverse in terms of race, gender, and class, as well as boost the number of Philadelphians. Problem is, he said, not everyone who could benefit from these programs knows about them.
Boyer plans to change that. “How we get better is by highlighting the programs that we have,” he said. “What we’re going to do is make it more transparent.”
He described plans for a website advertising apprenticeship opportunities to make them easier to find, and a marketing campaign that reaches more of the community, with a specific focus on Black and brown publications. “We believe that once people know the opportunity exists,” he maintained, “we’ll get a better applicant pool, and we will become more diverse. It is my goal to increase diversity.”
Boyer believes some of the criticism regarding lack of diversity misses the mark, saying, “I think that the building trades have been a very unfair whipping boy.”
Diversity in the city’s construction industry has no doubt improved immensely since 1963, when the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations found but a single Black worker among 7,200 plumbers, electricians, and steamfitters.
Among the city’s building trade unions, only the operating engineers’ Local 542 reports actual gender or racial makeup, so current demographic figures are only estimates. A 2008 report out of the University of Pennsylvania estimated 72% of Philadelphia construction jobs went to white people. A census study two years later found white people made up 80% of Philly’s steelworkers, 77% of sheet metal workers, and 74% of carpet, floor, and tile installers.
Boyer cited the makeup of Building Trades membership as 32% Black and brown.
“While the numbers aren’t where we want them to be — and we’re going to improve those numbers — they’re a lot better than most industries in Philadelphia,” he asserted. “If you go to any law firms, you won’t find that. You won’t find that with architects. You certainly won’t find that with any professional services.”
Overall, Boyer is a staunch believer in unions and their role in society. With former Building Trades manager (and political bigwig) Dougherty facing two additional trials, for embezzlement and extortion, he feels a responsibility to help the organization persevere.
That’s why he stepped into the vacant leadership role, he said, despite not having imagined it for himself.
“We have to be caretakers of the institution,” he said. “I thought it was a responsibility. I felt that I was uniquely positioned with some of the relationships that I had, my age, my temperament; I just thought of it as a responsibility that we had to fill the spot.”
The labor movement “has gotten me everything that I have in my life,” said Boyer. “So I owe this movement everything.”