Throughout the pandemic, as the coronavirus death toll mounted and the city’s essential workers risked their health on the job, some of them wondered: Where is our union president?

“He hasn’t shown his face," said Christina Turner, a 52-year-old Water Department dispatcher.

“Totally absent,” said Pete Cutty, a 36-year-old mechanic at the airport.

They say that’s how it’s been in recent years under longtime AFSCME District Council 33 president Herman “Pete” Matthews. And it’s why they’re voting for Ernest Garrett, a union official at the Water Department who is promising change.

If Garrett, 51, wins the election, now underway by mail-in ballot, the city’s blue-collar municipal union will see its first new leader since 1996, when Matthews won the job. The results are to be announced Oct. 23.

The top job at the union carries significant clout. It’s one of the biggest unions in the city, representing 15 locals comprising 10,000 of some of the most visible city employees in the coronavirus era, from sanitation workers to correctional officers. It has the power to effectively shut down the city by calling a strike. And it shapes not only the city budget but Philadelphia’s labor movement.

Matthews, 73, still has a base of supporters. They say they know that Matthews and his slate have been fighting for members during the pandemic, as they always have.

“Just because they’re not on TV discussing this doesn’t mean they’re not doing something," said Mary Kachline, a library assistant who has been with the city almost 30 years.

Omar Salaam, a business agent for the sanitation workers' Local 427 who is running for vice president of AFSCME DC 33, speaking at a rally in 2018.
SYDNEY SCHAEFER / Staff Photographer
Omar Salaam, a business agent for the sanitation workers' Local 427 who is running for vice president of AFSCME DC 33, speaking at a rally in 2018.

Matthews, who oversaw a bitter five-year contract battle with Mayor Michael Nutter that ended in 2014, has fended off several challenges over the years. But the climate for labor has changed since his last contested election in 2012.

Rank-and-file union members, from UPS workers to teachers, have been fighting to unseat veteran leaders who they say have grown out of touch and too comfortable. Public support for unions — a major factor in calling a strike — is higher than it’s been in nearly two decades. And with the coronavirus and a season of protests against racial injustice, workers have grown angrier, more desperate, and more willing to fight.

But although the election has divided District Council 33, with many choosing sides in either camp, others say they’re fighting for more drastic change — the kind that goes beyond electing a new leader.

Garrett says Matthews hasn’t fought hard enough for his members, accusing him of not advocating for such benefits as hazard pay or pushing to relax a requirement that workers live in the city.

Matthews, he said, is squandering the union’s “political might.”

“We’re the laughingstock of the city of Philadelphia in the labor movement,” he said on a campaign event on Zoom last month.

DC33 chief Herman "Pete" Matthews at City Hall in 2014. Matthews and his union were locked in a bitter five-year contract stalemate with Mayor Michael Nutter that ended that year.
DC33 chief Herman "Pete" Matthews at City Hall in 2014. Matthews and his union were locked in a bitter five-year contract stalemate with Mayor Michael Nutter that ended that year.

Matthews scoffs at allegations that he has checked out.

“For them to say I don’t fight for my members,” he said, “how would I be here six terms?”

During the pandemic alone, he said, he negotiated a one-year contract extension that got most of his members a 2% raise, got the prison commissioner to agree to hire 100 more correctional officers this year, and prevented nearly 200 layoffs. He also got COVID in April, which took him out for two weeks, though he says he was still working.

“I couldn’t even lift up the phone," he said, “but I was still negotiating.”

As for Garrett, Matthews said: “Do I think he’s qualified? No, I don’t.”

Garrett, a water department employee since 1998, was elected business agent in 2016 after two failed attempts. It’s a coveted post as the only full-time position in the local, a role that’s focused on protecting members' rights and dealing with management.

As head of DC33, Matthews makes $323,140, according to federal records, almost nine times what the union said is its members’ average salary: $36,000.

Garrett, who has accused Matthews of having more in common with a CEO than his own members, said he would take a pay cut if he were elected president, though he would not say how much.

Matthews’ backers say he has proven himself over the years.

Gregory Trueheart, president of the largest local in DC33, the 1,900-member correctional officers' Local 159, said he and his union officers are backing Matthews, who has always seemed to get his members a good contract.

“I’m going with what I know and who I know,” he said.

Local 394 business agent Ernest Garrett talks to airport workers in Local 1510 at Philadelphia International Airport.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Local 394 business agent Ernest Garrett talks to airport workers in Local 1510 at Philadelphia International Airport.

Supporters of Garrett’s slate, which includes Omar Salaam, an increasingly high-profile business agent for sanitation workers Local 427, say they are ready for change.

Turner, who started at the Water Department in 2003, said she used to support Matthews but has grown disillusioned with him.

“We have to live in the city, we have to pay taxes in the city, but we can’t really afford to buy a house in the city,” she said. “We’re not moving forward. We’re stagnant.”

Then there’s a group of younger DC33 members — many of whom have been organizing against layoffs and racial discrimination with fellow city workers regardless of union affiliation — who say they’re voting for Garrett simply because he’s not Matthews.

“The bar is real low,” said Matt Catron, a library assistant who said his union is so inactive that it almost feels as if he has a nonunion job.

LaPina Burris, a Free Library worker, speaks at a rally against Mayor Jim Kenney's proposed cuts to the city budget in May at Dilworth Plaza.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
LaPina Burris, a Free Library worker, speaks at a rally against Mayor Jim Kenney's proposed cuts to the city budget in May at Dilworth Plaza.

Catron, 30, said many of his coworkers — library security guards, custodians — had no idea an election was happening.

Shannon Ballou, a library clerk, was disappointed to hear Garrett hadn’t reached out to the Concerned Black Workers of the Free Library, a coalition of union and nonunion workers that successfully campaigned to oust Free Library director Siobhan Reardon last summer — among the most visible signs of city worker power in recent years. Ballou, 27, said she didn’t hear from Matthews and his slate about Reardon’s ouster, either.

Still, she voted for Garrett, hoping that “some change is better than none at all.”

What kind of leader would she be enthusiastic to support?

“I don’t even know what I’m looking for here," Ballou said. "I just know this ain’t it.”