PUBLIC SERVANT OF THE YEAR: Ryan N. Boyer, Conscience of the Labor Movement

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LABORERS’ District Council Business Manager Ryan N. Boyer.

Born at 11th & North Streets in North Philadelphia, not half a mile from his corner office today overlooking Broad Street, Ryan N. Boyer has literally seen the building of our city all his life. In fact, he built the building his office now occupies – along with much else around it and much more to come.

As business manager of Laborers’ District Council of Philadelphia & Vicinity, Boyer is integral to the construction and rehabilitation boom that is the most-prominent feature of Philadelphia in this decade. But his leadership extends into important public bodies as well.

It certainly helped that he was born into his trade. His father, Nate Sabir, was secretary-treasurer of Laborers’ Local 332 when it was guided by its legendary Business Manager Sam Staten, Sr. “These were the men I looked up to when I was small,” Boyer said. “They showed me how a man could find a place of respect in the world.”

Laborers had not always been prestigious. A hundred years ago, they performed the simplest tasks in the construction workplace, work often relegated to Blacks and other minorities. But as construction became more mechanized and more complex, Laborers began to occupy more skilled niches in the field. They can do a number of different things, usually in close coordination with other building trades. A particular specialty is highway blacktop.

In the Philadelphia area, Staten played a transformative role in this process that served as a national model. He insisted that Laborers concentrate on rigorous technical training for high value-added skills. He and James Harper, Sr. founded a state of the art training center in Exton, Pa. where apprentices could master sophisticated modern construction equipment. By the 1990s, a journeyman Laborer was a solid middle-class worker with an assured livelihood, well represented by a powerful union that held its own with the other building trades.

“When my dad got into union organizing, my family’s ascension was very quick,” Boyer noted. “We moved from the projects to Germantown to Overbrook. I saw what a good union career could do.”

Education was the family password. His mother, Jacqueline Boyer, stressed its importance, sending him to Gesu School, a nearby private school with a reputation for maintaining high standards in working-class North Philadelphia. He was something of a trouble-maker, he recalls, but bowed to family pressure to keep his grades up. Boyer went from Roxborough High School in 1989 to West Chester University on a full scholarship, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business management.

After a stint with a real-estate rehabbing company, he joined his father’s union local, working for the Philadelphia Housing Authority from 1993 to 2000. Along the way, he was taken into Local 332’s organizational team, serving as his father’s assistant. It was an easy learning curve: “I did what my father and Mr. Staten told me to do,” shrugged Boyer. On his father’s death in 2003, Boyer took over his job, managing a $5-million budget and negotiating contracts.

Wade Stevens was then Business Manager of the Laborers’ District Council, an umbrella body that handles pensions, training, health and welfare, and prepaid legal services for members of Local 332 and three other unions: Local 57, Local 135 and Local 413. Together they play a dominant role in construction throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania.

On Stevens’ retirement in 2008, Staten briefly stepped in to steady the ship. But he knew he needed a younger leader to seize the rudder. Boyer was tapped to take over.

Boyer’s Era Commences

Every new leader comes with a style and a mission of their own. 2008, the year of the Great Recession, was a tough time for bold dreams. But Boyer committed himself to a signature project: a new headquarters.

“When I took over, it was a really well-run organization that had been operated by my absolute heroes,” Boyer reflected. “I came in with a good team and didn’t want to screw it up. But I knew we needed to keep on that path they had set. I wanted to focus on being data-driven decisions, moving ahead technologically and expanding our footprint in state government.”

And LDC’s old office wasn’t up to the job. “It was a three-story walkup – with steps not up to code,” said Boyer. “And we were a building-trade headquarters!”

RYAN BOYER played a key role, hosting a joint press conference Monday for Philadelphia political and labor leaders to protest the federal tax changes under review in Washington. Photo by Wendell Douglas

So in 2013, a new, five-story office building was opened. It was one of the most substantial office investments on N. Broad Street between the Vine Street Expressway and Temple University for decades. This new headquarters sent a message: The younger generation of Laborers would not rest on their laurels; instead, they plan to pick up speed in the 21st century.

“The building was a gold mine for us,” said Boyer. “Symbolically, it preserves the memory of Sam Staten Sr. But functionally, it created a one-stop shop where all our members’ needs can be taken care of from the same waiting room.”

Boyer boosted LDC’s social media as well, pioneering an app to look up benefits online.

Others began to take note. In 2010, Boyer became VP of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO. On 2012, he was appointed by the Pennsylvania Senate to be its representative on the Pennsylvania Public-Private Transportation Board. In September 2014, he was elected president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Southeastern Pennsylvania Chapter. CBTU is a constituency group under the AFL-CIO that is dedicated to ensuring proper diversity and inclusion within the union movement, and to mentor and train young minorities to assume union leadership.

Ryan currently serves on several boards and commissions; such as the Pennsylvania Convention Center Board Authority, Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board (Philly Works) and The Philadelphia Jobs Commission.

Boyer is a lifelong technology wonk. He has attended many conferences and seminars on green technology and sustainable energy, researching this new economy – and ensuring new job opportunities for Philadelphians.

Education is a passion for Boyer.

“Foregone is the day when you send kids who can’t make it academically into the trades,” he insisted. “Our work is necessarily physical. But it has become a more-sophisticated challenge to run a successful apprenticeship.”

In this business of education, Boyer thinks his trade has much to bring to the table.

“A trade union remains more forgiving than college,” he said. “If you are willing to learn, we will keep working with you.”

LDC’s next major project, which it hopes to complete by 2020, is to turn the old William Penn High School campus at Broad & Master Streets into a training center – to be co-administered with Temple University. Quite a step up for a trade union that climbed its way up from wheelbarrows!

And quite a step up for lower North Philadelphia as well. When Boyer was growing up there, some thought it was not worth replacing the windows on that stretch of Broad Street. No more; the niversity is hot in Philadelphia and so are the construction trades.

LDC’s latest project will be a 50,000-sq.-ft. facility in which 20% of the slots will be reserved for local residents. LDC will deliver the “hard skills,” Temple the “soft skills,” to succeed as a construction craftsman at building the infrastructure of our era.

Now the Market and LDC Are up

Business is booming for the Laborers of Southeastern Pennsylvania, like most of their brothers and sisters in other building trades. Philadelphia is on a development binge that it hasn’t seen since the 1950s. Somebody has to build all these new buildings and restore all these old ones; and somebody has to do it right.

ALL ON the Laborers’ team with Ryan Boyer are numerous area elected officials such as Congressman Dwight Evans, State Reps. Morgan Cephas and Joanna McClinton, and City Council President Darrell Clarke.

Laborers have played a key role in nailing this assignment, asserted Boyer. “Our man-hours are unparalleled in their workforce unity; our esprit de corps can’t be beat. We are partners with our construction companies in getting the job done efficiently and expertly.”

LDC represents 5,900 members, 900 of whom are pensioners. It manages a pension fund of $1.2 billion – it is jointly managed with 100% member contribution. Its members typically work for union-oriented contractors represented by the General Building Contractors Association, Contractors Association of Eastern Pennsylvania, Interior Finish Contractors Association, Pennsylvania Landscape & Nursery Association and many asbestos-removal companies, to name a few.

Pension work is vital to the building trades. That’s because few contractors are able to maintain “on-staff” pension funds for the craftsmen they need periodically. That mission is picked up by the unions, which maintain a supply of skilled labor in the marketplace. Without the pension funds of the building trades, little could be built in the United States; and nothing of substance would be built well.

“We make money for our contractors by the quality of our work,” said Boyer. “And we make money for our members as well. Our last quarter was the best quarter, in terms of man-hours, in 15 years.”

He’s Become Our Bridge-Keeper

In 2015, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf appointed Boyer to chair of the 16-member board that oversees operations of the bi-state Delaware River Port Authority that the Keystone State shares with New Jersey. The DRPA is a regional transportation agency that serves as steward of the Ben Franklin, Walt Whitman, Commodore Barry and Betsy Ross Bridges and the PATCO subway-surface line.

This is a major public responsibility. DRPA’s annual operating budget is around $100 million. Its capital plans run to $655 million. Talk about construction!

Boyer has two missions for DRPA in his sights. One is hiring. Traditionally, 75% of its 955 employees were New Jersey residents, he asserted. He wants to shift that balance toward 50/50%. State Sen. Vince Fumo (D-S. Phila.), who was Philadelphia’s previous éminence grise on the DRPA board, favored Philadelphia professional contractors – but not the working men and women who took your toll, fixed your pavement or drove your train. Boyer is more concerned with advancing the bottom of the workforce than the top.

The other is the resuscitation of the Franklin Square Station on the PATCO Line. This station was opened in 1936 and closed in 1979 for lack of traffic. But the Old City and Chinatown neighborhoods are popping these days. Many city planners argue that reopening this station will promote keener business and tourist development in a part of town that is already taking off; Boyer is among them.

Laborers Are Bipartisan

A construction trade has no permanent political loyalties, only permanent interests.

Laborers thrive by working with private management and public leaders alike. Construction can advance in counties run by Republicans as well as those run by Democrats. Boyer affirms his relations with all four party caucuses on Capitol Hill are good.

“Whoever is going to deliver an environment where construction thrives, that’s whom we will work with and support,” he said. “Give me a job and I won’t need any welfare. Our training fund we pay for ourselves. Our pension fund is fully self-funded.”

Boyer is all in with Democratic Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney. He is comfortable with State Senate Majority Leader Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson). He commends State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-W. Phila.) and describes State Rep. Jordan Harris (D-S. Phila.) as “up and coming.”

Diversity Is Inevitable

There is a long-standing habit of hammering the building trades for lack of racial diversity. But Boyer thinks that era is actually over; most folks just haven’t realized it yet.

America’s cultural push toward college degrees and away from manual labor has hollowed out the white families that once funneled their kids into the building trades. But the need for buildings is just as big as ever. Therefore, the crafts of the next generation must be filled by Americans of all backgrounds. It’s less about whether we want it to be this way and more about that it has to be this way. Market forces will carry the day.

That the Philadelphia building trades discriminate against minorities in hiring today, said Boyer, is “an unfair characterization.” The building trades are the worst self-promoters in the field of diversity, he stated.

Boyer cited the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98’s role in funding a charter school targeting Philadelphia minority students. It had trouble enlisting many of its graduates directly into IBEW apprenticeship programs. But that, Boyer said, was because so many of them wanted to go to college.

NATIONAL leaders like Vice President Joe Biden and civic leaders like Mayor Jim Kenney seek out Ryan Boyer’s counsel.

Boyer is hardly against college: look at his own life. But he believes there is an anti-trade bias in contemporary American society that cannot be blamed on labor unions themselves.

Boyer is concerned about the state of urban schools. “The inequality that is built into them is unsustainable for us as a society,” he said.

But as the manager of a competent pension fund, he cannot help noticing that pensions in general are not in good shape in the USA at this time – neither Social Security nor in the private sector. The numbers don’t work, he said. He sees no way to cover the shortfall for most people without raising taxes.

Likewise for infrastructure – the meat and potatoes of the construction trades. “Professional bodies consistently rate the nation’s infrastructure as ‘D,’” he said. “So we have to make this investment as a nation.”

The Future Is Automated

Boyer is confident about the present. It’s the future that worries him.

“Automation is what keeps me awake at night,” he expressed. “I like technology but automation scares me. How are we going to have enough jobs for the next generation? How do we not get run over?”

Boyer notes with some alarm the arrival on the construction scene of the Brokk demolition robot. “What happens when robots do everything?” he asked.

NATIONAL leaders like Vice President Joe Biden and civic leaders like Mayor Jim Kenney seek out Ryan Boyer’s counsel.

As a result of such concerns, Boyers finds himself becoming a bit crabby about job-eliminating technology breakthroughs. He is a sullen holdout against EZ-Pass, against self-checkout…. Welcome to middle age, Ryan; you are not alone.

But the man is bullish on Philadelphia.

“We’re going to have a population boom,” he vowed. “The commute between here, Washington and New York is ideal. We are within a day’s drive of 75% of the US population. We have the restaurants, the culture, the diversity. All strong reasons Amazon should come here.”

At Day’s End, a Family Man

Enlightening as he is when the fate of Philadelphia and society is at stake, Boyer turns into a dull boy when he’s off duty.

“The best thing that ever happened to me is that I married well,” he said of his wife Farida. “When I’m not here in the office, I’m home.”

Boyer likes sports – particularly his children’s sports. One son, Raghib, plays football for Cheyney. Another, Sultan, swims for Boys Latin School in West Philadelphia. Rydesha and Ryan, Jr. are graduates of Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Howard University, respectively. Raki is coming up.

Teamwork comes naturally to a Laborer. “We have a great team of guys and gals,” Boyer insisted. “I never look at me, I look at us.”

Together, he said, “The Laborers can be the moral conscience of the labor movement. We can create pathways out of poverty for everybody.”

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