We’ve All Got the Wrong Idea About Philly Unions — and That’s the Unions’s Fault

5 suggestions for improving their public image — and updating their business model.

What do you think of when someone mentions “unions.” Me? I think of striking workers marching down streets. I think of Tony Soprano. I think of cement shoes, Jimmy Hoffa and four giant, muscled guys taking turns screwing in a light bulb. That’s what I think about. And it really couldn’t be further from the truth.

The truth is that unions are not like that. For the most part they are made up of competent and skilled workers who build and maintain things that we rely on every day, from roads to electrical systems to office buildings. They are the guys you see at Wawa at six in the morning as they’re heading out to their outdoor jobs in February. They’re the people who are out in the middle of the night doing what they do so we’re not inconvenienced during the day. They teach our kids, drive our trains, transport our goods and nurse our loved ones. But we don’t usually hear about those people.

Instead, we hear about the carpenters, stagehands, teamsters and riggers at the Pennsylvania Convention Center who threaten to strike right before a big meeting comes to town. We hear about the SEPTA staff who walk off the job and bring our public transit to a standstill. We hear about the teachers who picket City Hall and are scorned by mayors and governors. We hear about how their weak offense can’t muster enough goals to win a playoff spot. Oops… wrong Union. Sorry.

John Dougherty, the business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 98, wrote earlier this week about Philadelphia Mayor Nutter’s lack of leadership and the need for tax reform. “Philadelphia needs forward-thinking, growth-oriented leadership to position our city for a stronger future,” Dougherty said. “Raising taxes or slashing services every year will only drive more taxpayers out of the city. Instead, we need to overhaul our tax structure to make Philadelphia a more attractive place to do business.”

He’s right of course. Who’s going to argue against lower taxes and more “forward thinking, growth-oriented leadership”? But it’s not what we want to hear from the leader of one of the city’s major unions. That’s because most people I know (including myself) have an incorrect, uneducated and ignorant impression of unions. But that’s not entirely our fault. That’s the unions’ fault. The unions need to make some changes in their public image. That way when people like myself read things written by guys like John Dougherty we consider his point of view in a different, more positive light. And that way unions like his can survive and grow in the next decade. What kinds of changes do unions need to succeed? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Deal with reality. “Labor and pension costs are often blamed for Philadelphia’s financial challenges,” Dougherty wrote. “But these obligations were fairly negotiated, are manageable, and must be honored.” He is absolutely right. The obligations were fairly negotiated and are manageable. But the reality is this: Union contracts were negotiated in the past between people (like Dougherty) who reasonably tried to get as much money as possible for their members and elected officials with little business background and little desire to look past the next election cycle. These are often bad deals. This happens to me all the time. Customers promise something and then six months later come back and say they can’t pay what they promised. A deal is never a deal, particularly when economic realities take precedent. I’ve learned the hard way that nothing is ever permanent, even contracts that have been “fairly negotiated.” That’s my reality. That’s the reality of anyone who runs a business. And the unions have to face this.

2. Re-negotiate or go out of business. Cities across the country, under the burden of oppressive pension, health and other labor costs, are throwing up their arms and declaring bankruptcy. When this happens, everyone loses. Members of Detroit’s unions, just like many in the once-powerful auto unions, will not get what’s owed to them. In fact, because things have gotten so bad they may very well find themselves with little to show from their “fairly negotiated” contracts, especially compared to what they could’ve gotten if they had re-negotiated their contracts earlier. Cities like Philadelphia will not be able to honor our fairly negotiated (but lousy) deals made by lousy officials from years past without crippling ourselves or going bust. And if this happens, our own union members may find themselves seriously out of pocket. I’m asked to renegotiate “fair” contracts all the time and in many cases I have to because I have no other choice: Either keep the client at a lower profit or lose them altogether. The bigger the client, the more pressing the negotiation.

3. Create a long-term marketing plan. If you want to really ensure your members’ futures, then invest in a long-term education program to better explain to the public just how good you are. Because you are good. We just don’t appreciate that. And don’t create those silly commercials telling us how “important” you are. We don’t care about that. Instead, teach us. Tell us stories. Get some of your members on TV, online, in print and in person at local events and have them share some knowledge. Electrical tips. Driving tips. Construction tips. Education tips. Soccer tips. Oops… sorry. Wrong Union. Put human faces to your organization. Show us your very best and let them demonstrate to us how good they are by helping us improve ourselves. It’s not about you and your unions. It’s about us, the community. And the role your people play that helps our communities get better.

4. Change your partnership with city and suburban businesses. When a business owner hears “union” we get nervous. But that’s not fair. I have a client in Philadelphia who has been unionized for decades. They have a good relationship with their union. And they value the expertise and training of their employees. I think of a union as being a built-in group of experts where a business owner can potentially turn for skilled and experienced workers. Does a business have to be a complete union shop? Can a union supply a few workers to a non-union company? If a trade show is coming to town, what do you need to do so that the organizers actually desire your people because of the added value they bring to the show? And do you have to make it a requirement that businesses operating in certain places must use your workers? Do you like it when you’re forced to do something? Of course not. Times have changed. We have too many choices for too many things. Your model is outdated. You have to compete and prove to your customers just how much better you are. Competition will make you better. You’ll lose some business, sure. But you’ll create more opportunities from companies who choose to hire your workers because of the value you bring.

5. Capitalize on unemployment. Why is there such high unemployment and yet companies are begging for more skilled workers? One big reason is that technology is replacing unskilled jobs and there are not enough people who can do higher-level jobs. This is an opportunity for unions. Today’s employers are struggling to find trained developers, technicians, healthcare workers, machinists and database experts. Is there not somewhere we can go where we know to find these people? Unions have the resources, the infrastructure and the know-how to branch out of their traditional role and provide higher-skilled employees to a hungry business community. Oh, you’re not a staffing service? You’re not an employment agency? Oh yes you are. And you have the credibility and history too.

Hopefully this advice helps. But at the very least, is there not something you can do to keep those “Sons of Ben” fans of yours under control?