As the city cleaned up from its star-studded Made in America concert, local unionized workers took to the streets for their annual Labor Day parade.
"I'm all about having Philadelphia on a national stage, so the concerts and things like that, I'm all for," said business manager of electricians union Local 98 John Dougherty. "But people feel like, at the same time, you throw a big, national concert for people, a lot of them from out of town, what's being done for Philadelphians, workers who keep the city running?"
The day after a patriotically-titled festival wrapped up, workers
celebrated their own contributions to America.
Union members turned out in droves yesterday despite a torrential downpour raining on their parade, a condition to which many have proverbially grown accustomed as they struggle to maintain a political foothold. Employees represented by three of the city's four municipal unions have been working under expired contracts for four years.
Workers didn't let the weather dampen their spirits.
"What we what we want the mayor to do is to stop being a dictator and sit down and negotiate a fair contract," said Pete Matthews, president of D.C. 33, Philadelphia's largest municipal workers union. "He's absolutely the most anti-union mayor that we've had to deal with, there's no doubt about that."
D.C. 33 Members have been working without a contract since 2009.
A big source of contention is the city's decision to again appeal the contract awarded to firefighters union Local 22. "The firefighters should be paid," AFL-CIO Philadelphia Council President Pat Eiding said. "The city did due diligence, the arbitration came back in favor of the firefighters. They're out there every day putting their life on the line and it doesn't help to go to a eulogy if you're not going to pay decent wages. ... I think the mayor has to understand that working people in this city are just as much outraged by what's going on here as they are nationally."
It was a family affair yesterday, as many demonstrators brought their
children along for the celebration.
Nationwide, union membership has declined over 41 percent since the early 1980s. This year's Democratic National Convention is being held in North Carolina, a right-to-work state with the lowest percentage of unionized workers in America. "This is to show the Democratic party: 'Don't take us for granted. We vote, we know what's going on here. We need your support,'" Matthews said. "Because labor's being kicked in the behind."
And many leaders fear the climate will only worsen if the GOP ticket wins the November election. "I think overall, we're concerned that if the wrong people get in nationally, they're just going to make one big Wisconsin and Ohio out of us," Eiding said. "They've already said publicly organized labor has no place at the table, and we are the last bastion for all working people."
Despite some feelings of marginalization, there was plenty of support
displayed for the Democratic presidential ticket.
Some say that recent blows to union power have merely galvanized them to push back, provoking a louder, more visible presence. "They are sleeping giants and today proves it," U.S. Rep. Bob Brady said. "All this rain and they're still out here in full force. They're finally getting it. This is Romney-hood. Take from the middle class and give to the upper class, give to the rich. And they're realizing that it's getting done on their backs, on the union's backs. They're finally fired up and I'm extremely happy to see it."
Brady was one of several elected officials that braved the weather and
mingled with constituents.
Eiding said that even the local struggles with City Hall have strengthened members' bonds. "Even the rain didn't stop it, as you can see," he said. "We're out here in force. ... What we're doing in the city is really getting more people engaged, and we're together. Labor is very strong in this city. We may still be the strongest city, labor-wise."
The parade along Delaware Avenue stretched for blocks.
By the numbers
20.1 percent of American workers – 17.7 million – were unionized in 1983, the first year for which data is available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
15.8 percent of American workers – 16.6 million – were unionized in 1993.
The decline in the number of unionized workers wasn't evident in the
turnout of yesterday's parade.
12.9 percent of American workers – 15.8 million – were unionized in 2003.
11.8 percent of American workers – 11.9 million – were unionized in 2011.