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Philly elected more worker advocates. But, where are the jobs?

Despite all the friends of the working people, Philadelphia remains among the poorest of America’s large cities. Where are the jobs?

Philadelphia City Councilman David Oh (right) faces Councilwoman Cindy Bass (left) at a Dec. 14, 2017, session reviewing a Bass proposal to force businesses to remove bullet-resistant windows. Oh sided with small-business owners against the ban.
Philadelphia City Councilman David Oh (right) faces Councilwoman Cindy Bass (left) at a Dec. 14, 2017, session reviewing a Bass proposal to force businesses to remove bullet-resistant windows. Oh sided with small-business owners against the ban.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

If talk were jobs, Philadelphia would be the workers’ paradise. Especially after Tuesday’s City Council elections. Though, to be sure, only a minority voted -- the rest apparently trust any gang that spends their wage, sales and property taxes.

Helen Gym, a prime mover of the city’s labor-policy laws and an ally of the teachers’ union, got the most votes. Kendra Brooks, of the Working Families Party, which doesn’t think the Democrats do enough to secure workers’ rights and wants rent control on landlords, earned one of the citywide seats for non-Democrats. Electricians’ rep Bobby Henon and others backed by building-trades unions were reelected.

And yet, despite all these friends of the working people already pulling down $130,000 a year plus staff, offices, fat pensions, and, often, side gigs, Philadelphia remains among the poorest of America’s large cities. Where are the jobs?

While newly reelected Mayor Jim Kenney brags that city employment has finally recovered to 1990s levels, it remains far below its 1970s peak. And most of the growth has been in jobs that pay less than $35,000 a year, such as restaurant and hotel workers, according to the recent Center City District annual report.

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According to the report, 60 percent of the jobs created in Philadelphia in the last 10 years pay less than $35,000 a year. By contrast, among 25 largest cities, 70 percent of new jobs pay more, and significantly more jobs pay more than $100,000. And Philadelphia added fewer jobs, given its size, than all but two of those cities over the last 10 years.

That’s a contrast with Boston, New York and other big cities, where new jobs tend to be in private-sector fields that pay higher, “family-sustaining” wages. Philadelphia’s pro-worker legislation has not attracted private employers.

In Philadelphia just this last year, one big hospital went bankrupt and closed. The state-backed refinery went bankrupt and closed. The city’s last rail-car factory lost a SEPTA contract to a state-controlled Chinese rival and closed. A plan to expand the city-owned port stalled, and Penn professor Carl June’s Tmunity, a flagship of the biotech manufacturing industry on which Kenney and others have pinned prosperity hopes, chose to open its new R&D center and factory in suburban Montgomery County.

Maybe the most remarkable result of Tuesday’s election was that David Oh kept his citywide Council seat, despite left-wing urging to unseat Council’s last Republicans -- and sniping from leaders of his own GOP, who tried to bump him out of government.

Oh make enemies for the right reasons. For example, he pushed city and state auditors, who are Democrats, to check the books of the Philadelphia Parking Authority, a longtime GOP patronage-job haven, for the millions it is supposed to be sending city schools.

He says he kept his seat with a diverse coalition that ought to send a message to both parties: “Artists, veterans, people interested in sports, and small-business owners -- and ethnic business owners, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russians, Mexicans, Dominicans, Africans -- because of my support for small employers and for practical education that gives people opportunities to earn a living.”

Oh brags that he knows what it is to meet a payroll, having built a sole-practitioner law office into a 20-member firm. Few on Council have run the kinds of businesses they seek to regulate. “I appreciate that problems with running your business in the city that some people might think are small can put you right out of work.”

Now he’s bracing for “a sharp turn to the left on Council. As a result of who is voting” -- a lot of anti-Trump voters -- Council members “will be tempted to go more in the direction of rhetoric than substance. And they can be very close-minded, about risks and unintended consequences. But the creation of jobs is a lengthy process that takes a lot of cooperation."

Rob Wonderling, the former state senator who runs the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia, says his group “will work individually and collectively with anybody who wants to support job growth. If anybody introduces legislation that makes it harder for a shopkeeper, employer or entrepreneur, we’ll be opposed.”

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Wonderling noted that six returning Democrats -- Squilla, Henon, Bass, Parker, Domb and Green -- along with Oh and Northeast Philly Republican Brian O’Neill, signed the Chamber’s “Neighborhood Growth Program” agenda, which calls for lower business taxes and less regulation, among other business-friendly principles.

Oh is skeptical of the liberal Philly doctrine that you can force locally captive employers to treat workers a lot better than what the law requires in rival cities or next-door suburbs. “When you try to force people to do things better, you often end up removing the bottom of the market,” the small and start-up businesses, the most affordable apartments, the jobs at starting salaries, he warns.

Big companies can better afford the new mandates even when they grumble. But new employers will tend to locate elsewhere.

He agrees that the city has underfunded the Community College of Philadelphia. He understands (now-retired) Senior Judge Gene D. Cohen’s $50 million property-tax refund order: “We have had years of illegal assessments, years of bizarre, inconsistent assessments. The major losers have been the new residents of Philadelphia, and long-term residents in gentrifying areas.”

What about the impact of Philly 3.0, the political support group run by Alison Perelman and backed by marketing mogul Richard Vague and venture capitalist (and Inquirer board chair) Josh Kopelman, among others?

It’s more a coalition of politically liberal “people with money” than a pressure group for growth, said Oh. He said it’s unclear how 3.0-backed Jamie Gauthier will improve on the incumbent she defeated in the primary, West Philly Democrat Jannie Blackwell, “the hardest-working person on Council.”

Blackwell had an arrangement with Penn, the largest private employer in her district (and the city), in which the school left neighborhood change to private developers while it recruited in Blackwell’s district to fill thousands of union service jobs.

Liberals on Council want Penn, Temple and Drexel to pay the city millions in tax-like payments. Would they, like Philly’s vanished banks and manufacturers, respond to higher costs by growing elsewhere?

Philly has no shortage of pro-worker talk, just a shortage of well-paying employers. But this is what Philly voters want, mostly. It’s like buying chainsaws, without planting any more trees.