Labor Unions Are Hurting Philadelphia

How public unions are leading the city into permanent decline.

Unions built Philadelphia. Hell, they built America. But today, Philadelphia’s public unions are leading the city into permanent decline.

That’s a painful conclusion if, like me, you’re a liberal who believes deeply in the right of workers to advocate for better pay, benefits and workplace conditions. Look around the city, though, and this is what the evidence shows:

• Public unions drain the city’s resources. There are roughly 35,000 public-sector pensioners in Philadelphia, consuming up to 18 percent of the city’s budget—money not used to do things like keep libraries open. Most of the blame can be placed on past mayors who refused to set aside enough money to keep their retirement commitments, but AFSCME district councils 33 and 47 haven’t joined with Mayor Nutter to reform a burdensome system, either. So we’re stuck.

• They block the fixes we need. The School Reform Commission’s plan to split the district into smaller parts may or may not be the best thing for Philadelphia, but it’s telling that school unions took to the streets after it was announced … to protest their own lost jobs. The city’s schools have underperformed for decades, driving parents to the suburbs—and the unions seem to mostly defend the indefensible status quo. Incredible.

• They simply don’t care about the city. Remember when SEPTA workers went on strike in 2009? They did so at 3 a.m., without warning—stranding­ workers and schoolchildren who didn’t know they’d lost their commute. Strikes are supposed to create inconvenience, but the SEPTA showdown was a poke in the eye to tens of thousands of residents.

• The Fraternal Order of Police can’t stand us. Officers negotiated so they no longer have to live in the city after five years of service, and now the union has moved its headquarters from Spring Garden Street to the Northeast. We get the hint.

This is not a call for a Wisconsin-style crackdown. Working for City Hall shouldn’t require a vow of poverty, but at some point it will require a change of attitude. Public unions should be partners in building the city—not just another constituency that demands favors.

This article originally appeared in the July issue of Philadelphia magazine.