The Last Union Town
Can a reform-minded mayor and a feisty City Council save us from economic hostage by trade unions?
FRANK KEEL RECENTLY placed an enormous hand on a hallway wall in City Hall. The broad-shouldered spokesman for Philadelphia’s electricians union grimaced, and literally leaned on the corridors of power.
“We’ll be all right,” he said.
Inside its chambers, City Council considered what might at first seem like just another bit of legislative drudgery: whether to allow non-union workers to bid for jobs at the new Convention Center expansion. But everything that led up to that moment — and much that followed — signals a turbulent time for unions, and so likewise for the City of Philadelphia.
In the hallway, Keel shook his head, incredulous at the very idea. “We expect to see this — this problematic amendment about non-union workers — removed,” he said.
A few days earlier, a couple of blocks away, the same electricians union had been outbid for a job repairing a bit of wiring at the Five Guys burger joint. The electricians are headed by John Dougherty, one of the city’s most vocal and visible union leaders, who has a reputation for rough tactics when it comes to union business. The union — Local 98 — sent picketers who insinuated that the restaurant was unclean due to a vermin infestation. The restaurant manager posted a small bill on the storefront, titled, “What is Really Happening Outside?” It said there were no vermin anywhere inside and never had been; also: “We are being picketed by members of the electrical workers’ union (Local 98) because they are upset that a Local 98 subcontractor didn’t win a contract. … The Local 98 bid was three times higher than the bid by the winning subcontractor.”
The Convention Center expansion is worth $700 million. Allowing lower bids from non-union contractors could cost the unions vast sums, entire horizons of money. When Local 98 was outbid for a job wiring up a burger joint, it sent troops with signs and rumors to try and shut down the business. Now, facing the loss of this — the single largest expenditure in the history of the state — the union sent Frank Keel.
He’s a massive man with a rumbling manner, and he moved through the gilded passageways of City Hall like a Sherman tank through a field of tulips. He’s John Dougherty’s mouthpiece, brash and warm at the same time. In his gray suit and kelly green tie, he looked like a distillation of the history of Philadelphia trade unionism poured into the vessel of one man: big and Irish, with long arms and a loud voice.
The “problematic” piece of legislation stemmed from a push by City Council for more racial balance in the trade unions, following a series of stunning revelations in previous weeks.
The prospect of non-union competition sent a tremor through unions across the city. The maneuvers by City Council had joined a confluence of social, financial and political circumstances that together offer one of the biggest challenges to Philadelphia’s unions in the past two centuries.
On the day Council deliberated on the idea, 400 people packed into Council chambers at City Hall, stuffed into rows of creaking wooden chairs and peering down from the balcony.
Among them sat Frank the Tank, looking well-rested and prepared for a siege.
A BIT ABOUT the battleground.
The latest crisis — in an array of crises — for Philadelphia’s unions started in December. A black union worker shook City Council with testimony about an encounter he had with another man on a construction site, 45 floors above Philadelphia’s streets. His story — which we’ll get to eventually — moved Council to investigate the racial makeup of the city’s trade unions.
Council members asked the boss of Philadelphia’s building trades, Pat Gillespie, to come speak at a hearing. Gillespie contends they set him up.
“I got a call about a quarter to six the evening before,” he says. No one told him specifically what City Council wanted to know; when he arrived, he felt taken aback when Councilman Frank DiCicco launched into questions about race, boiling down to: What percentage of his unions’ membership are minorities?
Gillespie said he didn’t know. Council recessed so he could look up the numbers. When it reconvened, Gillespie held firm: He didn’t know the numbers, and couldn’t get them.
In years past, that answer might have satisfied any politician’s curiosity; Philadelphia’s unions have long financed and influenced the city’s most powerful people. But there’s something new happening in the city. And incredibly — dangerously, even — Council reacted by broaching the possibility that maybe non-union outfits should have a crack at the Convention Center.
“For Pat Gillespie to act surprised that a Council member would have the audacity to ask for the numbers — well, I’m dumbfounded,” DiCicco said recently.
Gillespie fired back, “I don’t know what his agenda is, but it’s not affirmative action. It’s not inclusion.”
DiCicco said there’s no conspiracy afoot. He and other Council members simply want to do what’s right: “I think it may be that I have carried my concern — about minorities and women in the union — further than Gillespie thinks a white man would.”
Gillespie dismissed the idea.
“Those people wanted a fight,” he said. “And fighting is what we do.”
LABOR UNIONS HAVE swayed the City of Philadelphia for so long now that the street-level observer can hardly tell which props up the other: which is the scaffolding, and which is the structure.
Through the years, the unions, particularly the building trades, have entwined themselves into the material of the city, so that the very idea of introducing a free market has become almost unspeakable. Meanwhile, the unions, for all the good they once did, strive to hold on to their power even as the city staggers beneath their weight. That’s why there’s no non-union work allowed at the Convention Center, and any non-union work elsewhere in the city is often done literally under the cover of darkness, hidden from the unions’ vigilant watchers.
In its recent effort to introduce racial balance to the unions, City Council tapped — however lightly — the idea of competition from non-union workers. In doing so, it shocked the unions into compliance, in word at least, and took a good step toward racial fairness in Philadelphia’s workforce. But the threat of non-union work still looms. Building a house in Philadelphia continues to cost one-third — even one-half — more than building an identical house in the suburbs. So the question remains: Are Philadelphia’s leaders willing to address the city’s larger peril?
To fully grasp the enormity of the current moment, we’ve got to look back to the beginning: of the unions, of the city, of America itself.
SO MUCH IN Philadelphia changed, in the days following the Revolutionary War, that some critical events have faded into oblivion. Consider the Cordwainers Conspiracy Trial, which may have shaped the city as much as anything that happened next door in Independence Hall.
Cordwainers made boots and shoes. They made each pair by hand, back then, to fit their customers’ feet. There were a lot of cordwainers, since every citizen needed footwear. Shortly after the war, though, a few cordwainers in Philadelphia realized they could sell more shoes, more efficiently, by employing a crew of less-skilled makers to turn out stock shoes, which they could ship wholesale to customers around the infant America.
Almost immediately, in 1794, some of those crew members did something novel: They formed the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers, the first American union. In 1799 they went on a strike, during which they tried to prevent non-Society workers — called “scabs” even then — from working. They did the same in 1805, using rougher tactics, and eight of the Society’s leaders were brought to court on charges of “threats, menaces and unlawful means”: the first showdown between management and labor in America.
Two teams of Philadelphia lawyers raged for and against the Society members’ behavior: They had harassed non-Society workers, roughed them up, thrown potatoes studded with boot nails through their windows.
The case closed in a near-stalemate, with the Society men told to pay $8 and the lawyers’ fees, but allowed to continue their Society work. They had created a model for how labor in Philadelphia — and the country — could organize. And they had demonstrated the importance of solidarity in the workforce, exemplified in a subtle slogan: “Organize or die.”
ETHNICITY DIDN’T ALWAYS threaten the city’s unions. Quite the opposite: It once saved them.
As decades passed, some of Philadelphia’s prominence waned, as the industrial belt rusted and the city had no automobile or steel industry to keep it growing. But Philadelphia’s unions — particularly the building trade unions — would outlast those elsewhere, because the city had a core stronger, even, than steel: It had the Irish. It had the Italians. It had the Polish. That is, it had neighborhoods.
“Sheet-metal workers, carpenters, masons, electricians. Great strength,” says Walter Licht, the Annenberg professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. “That strength came from ethnic kinship.”
When laborers in Philadelphia organized themselves, they didn’t just feel strongly about work; they felt strongly about brotherhood. About language, and tradition, and Catholicism. And so when American industry rose and fell, shaping and shattering unions in other cities, Philadelphia’s unions only turned inward, and tightened their ranks.
“They would bring their children and nephews into the apprenticeship programs, into the unions,” Licht says. “They could control their membership and keep extraordinary loyalty.”
The unions found invincibility through homogeny. As long as their neighborhoods stayed true to their blood — stayed Irish, and Italian, and Polish — they could survive.
THE PURPOSE OF all that ethnic solidarity isn’t ethnic solidarity itself. That’s just a means of existence. And so the opposite — ethnic diversity — isn’t, in itself, the death of unions. No, the greatest threat, the one lurking behind ethnic inclusion, and the one wielded by City Council, is the threat of non-union competition. To understand the scale of devastation — the wreckage — a single non-union project can inflict on a union, we don’t have to look so deeply into the city’s past. The history of trade unions in Philadelphia reached a pivotal, defining moment in the early 1970s, with the violent saga of J. Leon Altemose.
In the summer of 1972, Altemose won a contract to build one of the largest developments in the region: the Valley Forge Plaza, a 24-acre hotel, office and retail complex that would cost $18 million — a whopping figure, at the time. Altemose believed in a variation of the “open shop” policy, in which his workers were free to choose whether they wanted to unionize. Philadelphia unions were as strong in the suburbs as they were in the city back then. They wanted a “closed shop” — union members only — and Altemose offered a split: 70 percent for union workers, the remaining 30 percent for his regular crew.
The offer enraged Tom LeGrand, a former boxer and plumber, and then head of the area’s Building Trades Council. “I don’t represent 70 percent of nothing,” he told a television crew.
Altemose installed a mile-long chain-link fence around his work site, and proceeded without the unions. He started carrying a pistol, which he practiced shooting while wearing his coat and tie.
He and his workers received threats — such as acid in their kids’ faces — if the work continued. Altemose installed a device on his car so he could start it by remote control each morning in his driveway.
In June, a thousand union men showed up in Valley Forge, wearing hard hats. They trampled over the chain-link fence and began what the state Supreme Court later called “a virtual military assault,” using color-coded smoke bombs to designate targeted areas, along with firebombs and — incredibly — hand grenades.
“The scene at that construction site was right out of Vietnam,” the Evening Bulletin reported the next day.
Union men burned seven of Altemose’s trucks and a construction trailer, damaged a variety of large equipment and destroyed a concrete foundation, costing Altemose $2 million. LeGrand shrugged it off: “Not one person was hurt up there.”
The perpetrators weren’t merely angry about one big job. They knew that if Altemose succeeded — if he built the Valley Forge Plaza without union workers — he might break the influence of Philadelphia unions in the suburbs.
Two months passed. In August, Altemose visited his bank at 15th and Chestnut in the city, and as he left, he encountered a group of about two dozen union supporters. Under the marquee of the Duchess Theater, they fell on him, punching him until he dropped, then kicking him in the face. They threatened to kill him.
“Egotistical fool. What was he doing [in that area]?” LeGrand told 60 Minutes. “Maybe one of our wives did it.”
As Altemose predicted, the three union members charged with battering him were found not guilty in a Philadelphia court. But Altemose continued his work in Valley Forge, and eventually finished the Plaza.
The unions never quite recovered in Philadelphia’s suburbs.
In 2001, a developer named John Westrum moved his business from the suburbs to the city, where he encountered stronger unions. This past November, he testified before City Council about the relative cost of construction in Philadelphia.
What are construction costs outside city limits? a Council member asked. Not with land — just straight construction.
“That’s $60 to $75 per square foot,” Westrum said.
And with the same materials, inside the city?
“That’s $125 per foot.”
THAT BUSINESS IS all in the past, union leaders say. That stomping and burning and bombing and so forth. Those guys were uncultured and uncouth. Nobody does that now.
It’s difficult to get anyone who works with the trades to speak openly about the power they still wield. But with time, stories start to emerge: a black town car sitting at the school bus stop where a contractor’s children wait. Cars following a developer’s employees from Center City across two counties. Handbills distributed to children at a school. Threats.
“Look, I can’t talk about this stuff on the record,” one major Philadelphia developer said. “You’re talking about some rough people. And this is my living. These are my children.”
A developer who recently relocated to Philadelphia from another city said he’s now forced to allocate a million dollars each year for security at his job sites — “All union-related,” he said.
What was his security budget his last year in the previous city?
“Zero,” he said, forming a circle with his fingers and thumb.
One developer arms his workers with pocket-size video recorders, so they can capture any nefarious acts on film.
It’s been well documented that in 2003, some of John Dougherty’s electricians turned up to disrupt Sam Katz’s mayoral campaign — “Thugs,” Katz calls them. And Frank Keel — then Street’s right-hand man, with the loud voice and long arms — once sent public letters under a false name to the Daily News, disparaging Katz as the election approached. So did Keel’s wife.
Some business owners say certain unions — and not all unions are alike — run an efficient shakedown operation: If you don’t hire us, at three times the lowest bid, protesters with picket signs and insinuations might show up at your burger joint. In years past, such a union protest might have stopped Philadelphians from entering a business. But that’s changing; on the day the electricians picketed Five Guys — perhaps signaling a shift in public regard for the unions — diners filled the restaurant like any other day.
Other businesses claim similar encounters with Philadelphia unions. In 2004, the producers of MTV’s The Real World famously packed up and left town when confronted by the city’s unions. They returned eventually — after public demonstrations against the unions — but the debacle made Philadelphia notorious in the film and television industry. Likewise, the city’s reputation has long suffered among groups who book events at the Convention Center, only to encounter union entanglements. For instance, due to labyrinthine union work rules, multi-step tasks must be done in a certain order; masonry workers might stand around waiting for carpenters to build a new form to hold their cement, while the carpenters wait for laborers to demolish the old form, and they in turn wait for the electricians to shut off power. Meanwhile, everyone is paid. Even worse than the cost is the embarrassment for the city: In 2002, for instance, a carpenter and his union’s leader got into a fistfight on the Convention Center floor.
It’s as if Philadelphia wants to host a fancy party, but the crazy-uncle unions always drink too much and soil the living room carpet.
A poll a few years ago revealed that only 17 percent of Philadelphia’s Convention Center shows chose to return to the city. The PCC commissioned a group of consultants to find out why. They reported back that “virtually every customer reported that PCC show labor was inefficient, hostile, or both. The PCC labor situation is perceived as the worst encountered anywhere in the country at this time.”
That is to say: The unions here are the worst in America. The Convention Center’s desperate administrators cry that the unions scare off customers, and — to give a sense of scale — all Center City feels the impact. Restaurants suffer. Hotels suffer. Movie theaters, souvenir shops, taxi drivers suffer. Taxpayers all.
A couple of years ago, Philadelphia witnessed one of the worst moments — or the best, depending which side you’re on — in the history of its labor unions. The day of disgrace — or, again, triumph — began with a claim to bragging rights. Thanks to the new Comcast tower, Philadelphia would boast the country’s tallest “green” building: 58 floors of ecological friendliness. The designers found special glass, special paint, special toilets and special carpet that would earn the building an official seal from the U.S. Green Building Council: a prestigious and forward-thinking achievement for the City of Philadelphia.
But about those special toilets.
They’re flushless urinals that require no water; gravity does the work, pulling the waste through a filter and then down a pipe and into the sewage system. It’s clean and efficient, and in the Comcast building alone, it would save the city 1.6 million gallons of water each year.
Not so fast, the city’s plumbers union said. Less water means fewer pipes. Fewer pipes mean less work. And so the union blocked the job, threatening the completion of the building, and in turn delaying all the business that would happen inside it. But worst of all was the prospect of losing the title of “tallest green building” to that most dastardly of cities: New York. The Comcast tower would stand 975 feet, only a bit taller than the 962-foot Bank of America building under construction in New York. And the Big Apple’s building came equipped, of course, with the special toilets.
In a stunning testament to the power of Philadelphia’s unions, the city twaddled in the face of the obvious choice: “We’re still looking into this,” the top building code official told the Inquirer at the time. “I want to make sure they’re safe.”
Sounds prudent, except that flushless toilets have long been installed at elementary schools elsewhere in the state, as well as in state government offices. And so far, both children and bureaucrats have remained intact.
One clue to Philadelphia’s paralysis lies in the city’s building code: Philadelphia is, for example, said to be the only large city in America that doesn’t call for PVC pipe as the standard plumbing material. It still calls for cast iron. PVC is cheaper, lighter and longer lasting. But one plumber can carry 10 lengths of PVC pipe; it takes 10 plumbers to carry a length of cast iron.
One reason for the political, financial and social strength of the building trade unions in Philadelphia is that construction — unlike textiles, say, or automotive work — can’t be outsourced overseas. So without competition in the market, the building trades maintain a powerful grip on one of the citizenry’s most basic needs: shelter.
Philadelphia’s unions have such a hold on construction costs in the city that they — unlike home prices, unlike job salaries and taxes — can disobey the market. So the city’s residents and businesses are squeezed between economic reality on one side, and unions on the other: lower home values, higher building costs.
Knowing the power of the trade unions, the developers of the “green” Comcast tower had little option but to strike an absurd deal: The Comcast tower got its new toilets. But only because it also got a full set of old-fashioned pipes, installed by union plumbers. The pipes run throughout all 58 floors, just like in any other skyscraper.
Except in the Comcast tower, they’re not connected to anything.
THE LATEST AND largest cataclysm to shake the foundations of Philadelphia’s unions almost went unnoticed: a strange encounter between two men high in the scaffolding of the Comcast tower.
A bit of context, first: The biggest immediate challenge facing Philadelphia’s unions, as noted, is race. The neighborhoods from which unions drew strength for decades — even centuries — are quickly shifting. New people with new ethnicities are moving in, while the old people move out. The unions have, in one sense, succeeded too well: An electrician making six figures per year will very possibly move to a suburb in search of a better school system; so begins the crumbling of the stronghold. Pat Gillespie, the head of the building trades, says he doesn’t know how many workers under his purview actually live here.
“Yes, okay, a substantial number of people do live in New Jersey or the four counties,” he says. “But there’s also a substantial number in Philadelphia.”
That’s a meek pronouncement; in fact, apart from laborers, who are paid the least, 70 percent of the city’s building trade union workers live in the suburbs — a far cry from the days when a man’s neighborhood defined his livelihood. Two Street. Kensington. Iron, wire, shingle, wood. Black and Hispanic workers couldn’t get trade union cards, so they usually found work in the municipal unions — which we’ll come to momentarily — while blood bound more lucrative trade unions together. Fathers and uncles passed down union cards like a birthright: They found survival through solidarity. But that very mentality — the tight ethnic knit — now threatens to unravel the unions.
In October, a black hoist operator named Paul Solomon stopped his elevator at the 45th floor of the Comcast tower — the same one where plumbers once blocked the special toilets — to pick up a glass worker. As the hoist came to a stop, according to Solomon, the glass worker swung a noose and said, “I want to kill someone.”
Solomon was hesitant to tell anyone about the incident. But eventually, word reached Bruce Crawley, one of the city’s most prominent black businessmen. “I was shocked,” Crawley says. “I was shocked because it had happened five or six days before, and nothing had been made public.” Of course, Solomon — a 14-year member of the heavy equipment operators union — had hesitated for a reason.
“Man, they’ve just worn me down,” he said recently. “I don’t even know what to do anymore.” Before the noose incident, he worked full-time. Afterward, he couldn’t find work. His own union, he said, had labeled him “a troublemaker.”
Meanwhile, Solomon had, unwittingly, touched off a power struggle that reached the highest offices in the city.
CITY COUNCIL WAS shocked by testimony from Paul Solomon about the noose incident, leading Councilman DiCicco to demand that Pat Gillespie reveal the percentage of minority workers in his unions. Gillespie said he couldn’t.
The request shouldn’t have caught Gillespie so far back on his heels. An early warning came as long ago as 1969, from the unlikely figure of then-President Richard Nixon. He demanded in his “Philadelphia Plan” that the city’s trade unions working on federal projects set “goals and timetables” for hiring minority workers.
A question looms: If even Richard Nixon had identified a racial disparity in Philadelphia’s unions, how could they still be racially imbalanced, all these years later? Public relations executive Larry Ceisler enjoys a unique view on the people involved, since he is spectacularly and strangely well-connected: He represents both Local 98 and John Westrum, the big-time developer who once testified that unions are driving up the cost of construction in Philadelphia.
“The majority of the City Council was elected with the help of the building trades,” Ceisler says. “Maybe every member. Financial and political support.”
Perched on his wooden chair in Council chambers, Keel looked down on the heads of the Council members and confirmed Ceisler’s thought: “Oh yes, absolutely.”
Philadelphia’s unions are the most politically savvy in America. The most luminous union personalities aren’t just known for their skill in negotiating with powerful politicians. They are politicians. John Dougherty isn’t just head of electricians Local 98; he has flirted with runs for mayor himself, and controlled some of the most influential bureaucracies in the city, like the treasury of the Democratic Party, the Delaware River Port Authority, and the city’s Redevelopment Authority. Pat Gillespie doesn’t just run the Building Trades Council; he once served as a state legislator, he’s currently on the board of the Convention Center, and during John Street’s final days as mayor, Street named Gillespie to the Zoning Code Commission.
The line that separates unions and politics in most cities has disappeared in Philadelphia, and over the years, a quid pro quo emerged: Powerful unions, which had been gathering steam since the days of the potato-hurling cordwainers, threw their support behind certain candidates. And those candidates worked to protect the unions against the sort of open-shop fiasco that Altemose created in the suburbs.
Something happened recently to upset that balance: A Philadelphia mayor took office without the help of the city’s unions. It’s a fundamental shift in the city’s political structure, and joins the rumble of circumstances that now threaten the unions.
“The building trades did not back the winner of the mayoral election. Nobody did,” PR exec Ceisler says. “Well. Except the voters.”
WHILE CITY COUNCIL debated, a block away, the incoming mayor, Michael Nutter, sat in his makeshift office, dining on a packet of Mallo Cups and taking a never-ending series of phone calls about Council’s pending decision.
Nutter enjoys enormous independence regarding the unions. Since they didn’t support his candidacy, he owes them nothing. But he also takes office over a city full of fault lines: Powerful union interests. Powerful black interests. And, maybe most important, powerful black union interests. In the next few months, contract negotiations come due for the four major municipal unions, which are separate from the trade unions and have a high percentage of minority workers. Nutter will bear much responsibility for those negotiations, and if they fail, the city could grind to a stop.
So Nutter’s position is somewhat delicate: He has the freedom to push against the unions, except that he needs to maintain cordial relations with the municipal unions. But then again, many of the municipal union members are black. So the current situation — the push to bring racial balance to the unions — offered the one brilliant situation in which he could tiptoe between the fault lines unharmed.
He lobbied hard, pulling and pushing against what he called an “apartheid” on Philadelphia job sites, which are full of people who don’t live in the city. “I think finally many citizens, black and white, have said enough is enough,” he says. “We’ve got an excessive crime rate going on in this city, with all this work taking place and people in Philadelphia not having those opportunities.”
Union leaders say Nutter is playing the proverbial race card, aligning himself with black power brokers against the unions, and employing inflammatory language like “apartheid” as a political weapon. It’s a tactic he’s used before, they say: Just look how he maneuvered his way to the top spot at the Convention Center, when John Street was mayor. “I don’t like Nutter,” Gillespie says. “I don’t like him for what he did to Bernie Watson and John Street over at the Convention Center.”
That’s where this story, like all such stories about Philadelphia, must pass through a maze of political allegiance and intrigues. Here’s the union leaders’ version of what happened in 2002: John Street was on the verge of a deal with the city’s unions to do work at the Convention Center, except for the lone-holdout carpenters union. Nutter was a councilman at the time. He undercut Street and orchestrated a coup at the Convention Center by aligning himself with Republicans and Sam Katz, Street’s opponent in the upcoming mayoral election. The coup pushed out previous chairman Bernie Watson, in part on the premise that the Convention Center needed a black leader, which seemed absurd since it had had one: Bernie Watson. Nutter presented himself as a suitable replacement, and so — by playing the factions against each other, and capitalizing on race — he emerged as chairman of the Convention Center, overseeing the most ambitious project in the state.
Problem is, that’s not what happened, according to the true mastermind of the deal: Sam Katz. “Bernie Watson was already retired in Florida,” he says. “And Michael Nutter had nothing to do with making Michael Nutter head of the Convention Center. He didn’t even ask for the job. I approached him about it and pushed for his appointment because, frankly, I thought it would help my mayoral campaign. It would show that I, a Republican candidate, could work with minorities and Democrats. To say that he somehow orchestrated a takeover is just nonsense.”
Furthermore, while Nutter may not look too kindly on the unions that didn’t support him — and while he may have overreached with “apartheid” — the odds are against his attacking the unions without some introspection. Those four municipal contracts — with police, firefighters, and blue-collar and white-collar worker unions — will all be up for negotiation by June. Nutter has big ideas that depend on a cooperative city workforce, from fighting violent crime to wiping out governmental corruption. He also has to tell that workforce that Philadelphia’s cupboard is bare. Katz says with a chuckle that it’s a challenge so daunting, “It makes me think, gosh, I’m glad I didn’t win.”
So Nutter’s path was clear: Push the unions, but not too far. Push for racial balance, but not necessarily for competition in the marketplace. It was the only viable political path.
BACK IN COUNCIL chambers, as Council members chewed through an agenda of dull legislative housekeeping, the crowd dwindled throughout the day. Four hundred became 300, then 200, then 100. The clock overhead showed noon, one, two, three. But there, as still and immobile as the lone rock in a time-lapse photo, sat Frank Keel.
Council took a recess. The crowd thinned from 100 to 50, then 10. Then four. And there sat Frank the Tank, carved from granite and threatening to collapse his wooden chair. As hours passed, he seemed to grow more Irish; color flooded his cheeks, and he wavered once, momentarily, about 8 p.m.: “Now they’re into cocktail hour,” he said. “Jaysus.”
Throughout the recess, various Council members met in Council president Anna Verna’s office, possibly in violation of the state’s Sunshine Law, which dictates that public representatives should meet openly, where they’re accountable to the public they serve. Councilman DiCicco dismisses this: “It was just conversations.”
At 10 p.m., Council reentered the chamber and voted on a bill regarding the Convention Center: Somehow, as if by miracle, the question of non-union work had disappeared from it during the recess, replaced by a demand that the unions come up with figures proving they’ve hired 40 percent minority workers; currently, apart from the laborers, unions are 80 percent white. There would be no non-union workers at the Convention Center. No chain-link fence and no color-coded smoke bombs.
Frank Keel lifted himself from his seat, strode out into the corridors of power, and placed a quiet phone call. Later, Pat Gillespie said, “I see no problem for us, here. I’m thinking right now of one union whose apprenticeship classes have been 100 percent African-American for the past five years.”
Could he share which union that is?
“I’m duty-bound to not reveal that, just now.”
In the end — of this scuffle, at least — it appears that everybody won. The incoming mayor and City Council all scored political points by twisting the unions’ well-muscled arms for the unassailably good cause of racial fairness. Black labor workers won because they will now — if the unions follow through — find more work. And the unions won because they managed to stamp out the possibility of non-union work on their turf.
But none of that addresses the large economic imbalance confronting Philadelphia. None of it salves the fierce antagonism between workers and management in the city. None of it makes Philadelphia a more attractive place to do business. And maybe most critically, none of it reduces the outsized cost of construction in city limits, so the average citizen can afford a home built here. Time will reveal whether the new mayor and City Council serve the citizenry as well as they serve the interests of powerful lobbies, in secret meetings.
Of course, the free market may be at work, invisibly. While unions may have stared down City Council on this particular issue — minority hiring — Councilman DiCicco says their influence is crumbling: “They don’t have the power they once did. Growing up, I remember a day when Philadelphia was the textile capital of the world. The unions had real sway then. My relatives all worked in the tailor shops: Botany 500, After Six, Wanamaker shirts. And every Election Day, they would go work the polls. But things have changed.”
Walter Licht, the historian at Penn, says that society will change, power will fade and flare, political kings will rise and fall. But union people — carpenters and metal benders and roofers and train conductors and clerical workers — put their faith in the unassailable fastness of numbers.
“Has membership declined? I don’t think so,” Licht says. “Is the number of non-union jobs going up? No.”
And so this remains: Organized labor may face powerful forces — a changing economy, shifting public attitudes, neighborhoods in transition, a mayor who owes nothing. But Philadelphia unions existed before each of those things, and will almost certainly outlast them all.