The Labor Movement created the eight-hour workday and brought us the weekend. The battles that won those basic perks were often bare-knuckled and fought in the streets.
But in subsequent years, union membership has been decimated. Now, developers Michael and Matt Pestronk have opted to use some non-union labor to convert the former Goldtex factory at 12th and Wood streets into apartments. The unions have attempted to make their lives hell — and been met with an avalanche of negative media coverage: stories of blocked deliveries and assaults of workers.
It seems the building-trades unions fail to elicit the public solidarity once extended to Norma Rae.
It’s no mystery why: The trades are largely white and suburban, and have a history of excluding black Philadelphians. Meanwhile, business interests criticize high wages, absurd work rules and inter-union jurisdictional disputes that impede development. They point to the Comcast Center — where a set of iron pipes, unconnected to anything, was installed to appease the plumbers’ union — as a 58-story emblem of union intransigence. Neither Philly’s low-income majority nor the city’s business elite feel themselves well served by construction unions.
Of course, Philly is still a union town, and one where labor strife is now rampant. Firefighters and municipal workers, both mired in messy contract fights, prove more sympathetic characters.
But the building trades aren’t focused on the public: They have politicians. For example, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 leader John Dougherty wields an enormous campaign war chest. So the trades seem unconcerned that Philadelphians aren’t rallying around the white guys with Jersey plates.
Yet workers do worse without unions. Non-union sectors are rife with exploitative bosses, and when an industry is heavily unionized, even non-union workers earn more. And what happens when unions disappear? Just look at the U.S. over the past three decades: The richest 1 percent captured the majority of the income gains. All told, one-third of the growth in economic inequality over the past four decades has been caused by union decline.
The Pestronks — who have applied for a public subsidy in the form of a 10-year property-tax abatement — would not be heroes in this dispute if the unions hadn’t grown used to playing the villain.
The trades’ serious failings aside, the real problem with unions is that more of us aren’t in one.