Off the Cuff: April 2011

The problem with powerful unions

IT SEEMS TO ME THAT at last a wave of common sense is washing across America. We’ve come to the realization that our state and local politicians have sold out to the public-sector unions in exchange for money and votes. I’m talking about the confrontations in the statehouse in Wisconsin and Governor Christie’s fight with teachers and municipal workers in New Jersey. I’m referring to battles in Ohio and New York, and in counties, cities and towns all over the country.

Public-sector unions have continued to push far too hard for higher wages and benefits and rich retirement plans that they now claim as their rights.

Finally, though, we are beginning to push back. We’ve got some brave souls willing to say, Enough!

But now we’re about to see a horrendous example of private-sector union greed play out here in Philadelphia, with the expansion of the Convention Center. This is a new and dangerous chapter in a long saga. In Philadelphia, we’ve been giving in to unions for half a century, and they are only too happy to keep right on taking. What’s at stake is merely our economic future.

Recently, the Inquirer asked a pertinent question: “Would you invest $786 million in a business that lost millions every year, charged more than most of its competitors, and left many customers angry and unwilling to return?”

The answer is that we have, in doubling the size of the Convention Center.

Convention centers do tend to lose money, but they reap great dividends for cities, with thousands of visitors paying for hotel rooms, dining and shopping. Yet our center has a long-standing and widespread reputation for being inhospitable because of the expense and attitude of the trade unions that work there. A recent study revealed that the city’s hotels lost 400,000 nights of potential business between 2007 and 2009. Why? Because when trade shows and other convention customers come in and set up, they learn the hard way not to pick up a hammer or screw in a lightbulb — unless they enjoy incurring the wrath of the carpenters’ or electricians’ unions. So many conventions never book a second visit.

I know this firsthand; Philadelphia magazine no longer books its annual Best of Philly celebration at the Convention Center — a perfect venue for it — because of the draconian work rules there. While the atmosphere has supposedly gotten better, it’s still not nearly good enough, which is why management wants the unions to take hospitality training. Naturally, the unions are balking at that.

The truth is, we’re so used to union power in this town that we don’t even seem to understand the depth of the problem. Electricians’ union head John Dougherty, who has laid low for a few years after losing a state Senate election, is back trying to control upcoming City Council seats — four are up for grabs. Ed Coryell lost almost $50 million of his carpenters’ union pension fund buying a piece of the Inquirer and Daily News a few years ago.

Does anyone in Philadelphia ever ask why a trade-union boss has so much political power, or what another union leader was doing buying a piece of the local newspaper of record?

Convention Center head Ahmeenah Young continues to fight hard against the union attitudes there, but until our attitude about unions changes in this city — and until we have politicians willing to risk losing their support and stand up to them — unions will continue to control the business atmosphere in Philadelphia.

Nationally, we are finally recognizing that we can’t keep giving in to union demands. I’m skeptical, however, that the wave sweeping the country will ever wash into this city.