Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Wins and losses for Philly labor in 2018

Calls for gig workers' rights, an increased focus on the most vulnerable workers, and more.

Attendees dance in Thomas Paine Plaza at the Working People's Day of Action labor rally in February.
Attendees dance in Thomas Paine Plaza at the Working People's Day of Action labor rally in February.Read moreSYDNEY SCHAEFER / Staff Photographer

For the labor movement, 2018 was a year of extremes.

On the one hand, as union membership held at an all-time low, the U.S. Supreme Court and the National Labor Relations Board increasingly ruled against workers. For instance, the court’s Janus and Epic Systems decisions, the NLRB’s still-pending ruling regarding that could make it harder for fast-food workers to unionize.

On the other hand, the ability to fight was seen in teacher strikes in West Virginia that set off a wave of walkouts across the country. Prisoners in at least 17 states organized to protest forced labor and working conditions. And workers, from those at Microsoft and Salesforce to trade union members, turned out to support other causes, such as immigration.

Here’s a look at what happened in Philly.

$15/hour minimum wage gains traction

Health-care providers in the region did it this year: first Cooper, then Jefferson and Virtua. Holtec, in Camden, did it. The City of Philadelphia did it for all its workers, contractors, and subcontractors. New Jersey is considering doing it, statewide, though with some carve-outs. Amazon did it, too. The movement comes a few years after organizers and workers, including those in Philly, mounted a “Fight for $15,” and activists pressured the city to find a way to pass a citywide minimum wage law, despite a state law that says it cannot. Now that some of the “meds” have done it, will the “eds”?

Doc’s power is tested

John J. Dougherty, the politically powerful building trades leader who is under federal investigation, suffered some losses in the political arena this year: His candidate for the 5th District, Rich Lazer, lost, despite Dougherty starting a super PAC for Lazer that spent nearly $1 million in TV ads. So did Jonathan “J.R.” Rowan, a candidate for state House backed by Dougherty’s Local 98 electricians union. But Dougherty won other battles: City Council ultimately withdrew its tax on new construction that would fund affordable housing, a tax that Dougherty fiercely opposed. Dougherty also sparred with Council over diversity agreements in Mayor Jim Kenney’s Rebuild public works project, though both parties were eventually happy with the end product. Watch for the enforcement (or lack thereof) of the agreement. And now, the Philly Building Trades is trying to test its influence out in the suburbs, as it lobbies for a union labor agreement for the forthcoming Norristown courthouse project.

>> READ MORE: How incentives in the gig economy put workers at risk

Calls for gig workers' rights

Pablo Avendano’s death in a traffic accident while delivering food for an app called Caviar brought the plight of on-demand gig workers into sharp relief. Because they’re classified as independent contractors, these workers don’t receive any of the traditional protections that employees do — even as they are sometimes incentivized to work under dangerous conditions and are forced to take safety into their own hands. In July, two months after Avendano’s death, Caviar announced it would offer free accident insurance to its couriers. Expect more movement on this issue in the year to come, as well as with other types of workers in informal workplaces such as house cleaners, nannies, and home-care workers.

>> READ MORE: Why Philadelphia hosted anti-deportation training for Latino workers

The fight for ‘good jobs’ for the city’s most vulnerable pushes on

Baggage handlers, wheelchair attendants, and cabin cleaners at the Philadelphia Airport ratified their first contract in June, ending a six-year journey to unionize and ultimately doubling their salaries. This month, after more than a year of organizing, 130,000 retail, fast-food, and hotel workers won the right to get their schedules two weeks in advance, plus payment if schedules are changed after the fact, thanks to the Fair Workweek bill. (But it won’t get implemented until 2020.) And the city, like other labor unions and immigrant-rights groups, has focused on training immigrant workers about their rights on the job.

There’s been an increased focus on working conditions for the city’s most vulnerable, as Philadelphia’s place as the poorest big city in the country has become harder to ignore. In 2019, we’ll see more of this, with food service workers at the airport, employees at the city’s biggest hotel, the Marriott Downtown Philadelphia, and parking lot attendants, all trying to raise standards at their jobs.

>> READ MORE: In solidarity: Why labor unions have embraced immigrant rights

Labor extends outward

Organized labor’s history is marked with examples of unions protecting their own, pitting the struggles of union workers against those of immigrants, black folks, and nonunion workers. But as labor has come increasingly under attack, that’s been changing. This was most pronounced this year in the actions of the Philadelphia labor umbrella group, the AFL-CIO. Labor, its president Pat Eiding has said, is in a position to stand up for others, and should.

In August, 2,000 marched in the “Labor United to Free the Children” immigrant rights rally, including members of the building-trades unions and service worker unions. The Philadelphia AFL-CIO issued a statement against the “Proud Boys” white supremacist rally that was coming to the city. And the AFL-CIO, as well as other unions like 32BJ SEIU and UNITE HERE, were vocal supporters of Fair Workweek bill even if it did not affect all of its members.

What’s next?

We’ll have our eye on efforts to get more Philadelphians into the building trades (the Laborers' new training facility in North Philly is one initiative that seems promising), strategies workers use to build power in a changing labor environment, and enforcement: Now that Philly has a number of workplace laws on the books, what will it take to enforce them?

Send us a note to tell us what we should pay attention to or what we missed on this list.