It’s a hot August day, and construction workers in Center City are marching with protest signs that read “End the Lockout” and “Shame on You.” Alongside them is an inflatable fat cat whose paw is wrapped around the neck of a blown-up carpenter.
The Metropolitan Regional Council of Carpenters has been picketing outside of the Pennsylvania Convention Center in downtown Philadelphia for months over the loss of their jobs. In May, more than 100 carpenters as well as nearly 20 members of the Teamsters Local 107 lost their jobs at the site when they missed the Convention Center management’s deadline to sign onto new work rules.
“A good number of our members are now unemployed, looking for jobs,” said Martin O’Rourke, a spokesman for the Carpenters union. “It’s just this ongoing disruption to their lives as well as to the city of Philadelphia.”
Four other labor unions, including the electricians and the stagehands, signed the deal in time and have crossed a picket line to keep working.
How could this happen in such a traditionally pro-labor city?
Outdated rules blamed for dearth of business
Last year, the Convention Center was in trouble. It wasn’t attracting enough conferences, and critics said outdated work rules were to blame.
John Dougherty, head of the city’s powerful Electricians Local 98, said he agreed to change them to save his members’ jobs and those in the hospitality industry.
“We made them for the good of the region,” he said. “The hospitality industry, the chambermaid, the bartender, the parking attendant, the guy outside the Starbucks across the street, the McDonald’s around the corner. This was good for all business.”
The Convention Center’s management said the new deal has already made a difference, with conferences that had sworn off Philadelphia now making plans to return.
For their part, the carpenters and teamsters say that if the dispute is about new work rules, they’ve already agreed to them. The unions offered signed contracts to the Convention Center on May 9, one day before their old terms expired. The management’s deadline, though, was May 5.
United front or irreconcilable differences?
Teamsters president Bill Hamilton said the ongoing dispute is hurting Philadelphia’s labor movement. He said it was especially damaging when Dougherty ushered his members across the picket line.
“It’s given all labor a black eye, every labor union in the city,” he said. “It certainly doesn’t help anybody’s organizing efforts, and it kind of makes it look like the unions aren’t together in the city.”
But Dougherty said the city’s labor groups are more united than ever before, and the vast majority of them meet regularly. He said the carpenters, and the teamsters to a lesser extent, have long chosen not to get more involved.
For instance, Dougherty said, the carpenters opposed Gov. Tom Corbett’s transportation funding bill, while he and other labor leaders supported it. The carpenters disagreed with the legislation’s wage requirements for some projects.
Dougherty also points out that the carpenters stopped paying dues to the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council for a period of time. According to Pat Gillespie, business manager of the council, the union now only contributes a portion of what it once did. Carpenters spokesman O’Rourke declined to comment on the matter.
“There’s a pattern of the carpenter not being part of the family. There’s a pattern of the carpenter dancing to his own tune even to the point where it was the main reason why a lot of these shows did not come back to the Pennsylvania Convention Center,” said Dougherty. “Now we’re acting like there’s a break in the family. Most of the family that would eat together and vacation together anyway are staying together.”
Gillespie, whose trades council includes the teamsters, also rejected the notion that the city’s labor movement has been wounded.
“What would hurt our movement is if we didn’t have jobs, if we lost conventions, if we lost hotel construction opportunities,” he said. “That’s what hurts the perception of organized labor.”
The unity of the city’s labor groups — or lack thereof — could have a big impact on the 2015 mayor’s race. Dougherty and others want to find one candidate they can all get behind, after seeing their efforts falter in the 2007 race when unions supported a medley of different candidates for mayor.
The Democratic National Committee, which is eyeing Philadelphia to host its 2016 presidential convention, has also reportedly indicated that there cannot be any labor disruptions during the event.
“If it doesn’t get resolved and the Democratic National Convention decides to come here, then they’re going to be facing some labor issues at that point in time,” said the teamsters’ Hamilton, “and I don’t think the Democratic National Committee is going to want to do that.”
The carpenters said a mediation meeting with Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board is scheduled for next week.