Last Tuesday, the city’s unions and City Council took the first tentative steps toward ending a standoff over the billion-dollar, four-block expansion to the Convention Center. City Council had resisted contracting out the multitude of jobs associated with such a massive project to unions because of their lack of city-resident or minority status. Unions released membership data that revealed, indeed, that their ranks were 80 percent white and 70 percent suburban. Council’s verdict: problem solved.
Yes, amazingly all the unions had to do was release some statistics and say that they would try to do more to include city workers and minorities in the future. Not even all the unions complied. Four simply said no and refused to reveal their member rolls. Yet the show goes on.
You can argue that the unions can do whatever they want with their own organization, include whomever they want from wherever they want. That’s all well and good until you start involving taxpayers in the equation, as well as the city’s absurd policy of using union labor in any and all circumstances simply because union leaders have political clout. This whole incident underscores the problematic stranglehold unions have on our municipality.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with the city using union labor. I also don’t have any problem with unions or collective bargaining; I’m a card-carrying socialist. But part of believing in trade unions is also believing that they should be run efficiently and fairly if only for the sake of maintaining the reputation of organized laborers as the most qualified tradesmen in the world, bar none.
The reputation of organized labor in Philadelphia is a far cry from that, for precisely the same reason that this debacle arose in the first place. There are only so many open slots for union apprentices in the city, and they are given out with priority to the sons, nephews, or buddies of the already established, mostly white union workers.
Some have made progress, like Local Ironworkers 401. One in five members is from a minority group and better than one in three lives in Philadelphia. They know as well as any the problems most unions in this city are ignoring.
“Our problem wasn’t discrimination,” 401’s business agent, Joe Dougherty, said last week. “It was nepotism.”
While this city’s unions like to champion Philly as a “union town,” the reality is most members don’t even set foot in the city until a lucrative government contract gets shaken loose from City Hall.
And, as I’ve intimated in previous columns, the city and its residents should always come first. We have enough unemployment as it is to be tossing contracts out to the suburbs, especially for a building project right in the heart of downtown. We also have enough fiscal worries that we certainly don’t need to be subsidizing unions that are simply shaking us down for tax dollars to finance a new home in New Jersey. Council didn’t have the guts to end this stranglehold or even force the unions to reform. Make sure you remember that come election time.
Ryan Briggs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.