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Philadelphia is still very much a labor town. Here’s how workers are fighting back.

From organizing new unions to fighting for protections for non-union workers, Philadelphia's labor movement is thriving despite an increasingly difficult climate for workers.

In October, Marriott workers, including chef Lekesha Wheelings (center), rallied outside the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown as they demanded the hotel company sign an agreement saying it would not interfere with the unionization process with UNITE HERE.
In October, Marriott workers, including chef Lekesha Wheelings (center), rallied outside the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown as they demanded the hotel company sign an agreement saying it would not interfere with the unionization process with UNITE HERE.Read moreERIN BLEWETT / MCT

In June, a coalition of labor unions and organizations won a first-of-its-kind whistle-blower protection law that made it illegal for Philadelphia employers to fire or otherwise discipline workers for speaking out against unsafe coronavirus conditions.

In July, after more than a year of organizing, Free Library of Philadelphia workers ousted the organization’s director whom they said had failed Black employees.

In August, after a spreadsheet listing thousands of salaries forced workers to confront inequity in their industry, workers at the 144-year-old Philadelphia Museum of Art voted to turn the storied cultural institution into a union shop.

Philadelphia is still very much a labor town. But what that means has changed.

Low-wage service workers, both union and nonunion, wield increasing political power. Rank-and-file workers are challenging establishment labor leaders. Highly educated workers at seemingly progressive institutions are turning to unions as a way to ensure their employers live out their values.

These shifts come at what might sound like a contradictory time for the labor movement: Union membership is the lowest it’s ever been. Just over 10% of American workers are union members, a figure that shrinks to 6% in the private sector. In 1979, the union membership rate was 27%.

» READ MORE: Philly restaurant workers are organizing for higher wages and better work conditions despite the pandemic

But public support for unions is high: 65% of Americans, according to a Gallup poll, the highest approval rating in nearly two decades. And nearly half of workers say they would join a union if they had the opportunity, according to a 2017 survey from MIT and Cornell.

And as the pandemic made workers’ struggles more visible than ever, the Black Lives Matter protests caused many to link the fight for racial justice to the fight for labor rights.

“There’s been an awakening to the fact that these issues can be addressed by organizing and legislation,” said Valerie Braman, a labor educator at Pennsylvania State University. “People are seeing the power of direct action to effect change.”

Here’s a look at some of the organizing trends that led to this point:

New union efforts

It wasn’t just the salary spreadsheet — started by museum workers around the country — that sparked a union campaign at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, workers say. It was how the museum responded to it.

As the spreadsheet started making the rounds, workers who previously hadn’t dared to break the code of silence around money were suddenly discussing unpaid internships, the industry’s reliance on contract labor, and disparities in salary across their departments.

» READ MORE: City workers facing layoffs say Philadelphia should tax the rich. Is that possible?

Museum leadership didn’t seem to have anything to say. Officials merely acknowledged the spreadsheet’s existence, said Nicole Cook, project coordinator for the museum’s academic partnerships, instead of using the moment to address inequities.

“They didn’t take that opportunity,” Cook said, “so we had to do it ourselves.”

A spokesperson said the museum addressed the spreadsheet in an all-staff meeting, noting that art museum salary data are accessible through a number of industry surveys. “Setting salaries and ensuring that the compensation that the museum offers to its employees is equitable and competitive is something we have always taken very seriously, and we continue to do so,” the spokesperson said.

Just more than a year later, a majority of more than 200 workers — curators, fund-raisers, visitors services assistants — voted to be represented by AFSCME District Council 47.

It was the latest in a series of union campaigns at Philadelphia nonprofits.

In other sectors, 4,000 nurses and techs in the region have joined the union PASNAP, including 800 nurses at St. Mary Medical Hospital in Bucks County last year. 32BJ SEIU organized 1,500 airport baggage handlers, wheelchair attendants, and cabin cleaners and is working to unionize the city’s 1,000 parking-lot workers. And a Unite Here union campaign was underway at the biggest hotel in the state, the Marriott Philadelphia Downtown, when COVID-19 hit, causing hospitality workers to be laid off en masse and throwing the future of the union campaign into uncertainty.

» READ MORE: Why a Google spreadsheet was the most powerful tool for labor in 2019

These campaigns have contributed to a citywide union membership rate that’s well above the national average: Before COVID, 16% of Philadelphia workers were union members, according to the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO.

A new class of workers also has turned to unions: They’re largely young, have higher degrees, and work at mission-driven organizations. Seventy workers at six low-income health centers run by Public Health Management Corp. (PHMC) organized last year, as did 90 media professionals at the public radio station WHYY and the city’s 200 public defenders.

The workers’ concerns are broadly the same. They hope a union will bring them the wages, benefits, and professional development to build a sustainable career. They want more of a say in how the organization is run. And they want to be able to serve their clients better.

“It wasn’t about workers’ rights,” said former PHMC physician assistant Katie Huynh. “It was about patients.”

Many saw those issues as one and the same, framing their new unions as part of a broader struggle for social justice.

“The Defenders Union asserts that the mission of the office can only be fully realized through recognition of workers’ rights, in the tradition of all social justice movements,” the public defenders said in a statement.

These union victories are “part of creating a moment in which many workers are learning how to fight,” said Keon Liberato, president of the rail workers union BMWED-Teamsters Local 3012, and show that the definition of “working class” goes beyond educational attainment.

» READ MORE: Most UArts professors are adjuncts. Now, they want to unionize.

At the same time, he said, much more organizing needs to be done to shift the balance of power between workers and employers, especially in sectors that could disrupt daily life, such as transportation and logistics.

“The reality is, in terms of structural power, which we can leverage and turn into political power, it ain’t there,” Liberato said of the new nonprofit union efforts.

Union rights for workers who can’t join unions

Corean Holloway, a 34-year laundry worker at the Warwick Hotel Rittenhouse Square, is used to fighting the boss. Over the years, the 69-year-old South Carolina native has often found herself advocating for her coworkers when management violated their union contract.

But during the pandemic, the kind of union activism she and her coworkers did shifted.

When the housekeepers at the Warwick Hotel Rittenhouse Square got called back to work during the pandemic, they quickly realized that, given the new COVID-era realities, it was impossible to clean their allotted 12 or 13 rooms a shift.

So they decided they would take the time to clean the rooms right. If at the end of their shifts, they had rooms left over, management would have to deal with it.

After a few months of defying orders, management listened to the housekeepers and lessened their workload.

In a statement, Aimbridge Hospitality, which manages the Warwick Hotel, said it is following all cleanliness and safety guidelines and understands that workers may need more time to do their jobs during the crisis.

“We have always emphasized that if any staff cannot completely clean their assigned rooms, they should contact their manager, and we will work with them,” spokesperson Kellie McCrory said.

While “the ladies at the Warwick, they not scared of the boss,” Holloway knows that many workers are afraid — and with good reason. Unless they’re protected by a union contract, most workers can be fired for any reason, except for matters relating to identity such as race and gender. Workers say managers retaliate in other ways, too, such as cutting work hours or threatening to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

It’s why her union, Unite Here, joined with two dozen other labor organizations to successfully lobby Philadelphia to pass a bill that protects all workers from retaliation during the pandemic.

The law was the latest in a series of protections won by low-wage workers in recent years. These laws have become a core strategy in Philadelphia and elsewhere as organizers focus on workers who don’t have access to unions because they’ve been excluded from federal labor law or otherwise face major hurdles to unionizing.

But the laws are effective only if there’s widespread awareness and enforcement. While the number of worker complaints received by the city’s Office of Benefits and Wage Compliance has steadily grown, from just 18 in 2018 to nearly 80 in the first half of 2020, those numbers pale in comparison with that of Seattle, widely considered to be a national leader in municipal labor enforcement.

This dynamic — flashy legislative wins hampered by a lack of education and enforcement — is why some labor organizers and workers have increasingly focused on bolstering the city’s Office of Labor. In June, these workers scored a win when Philadelphians voted to create a permanent Department of Labor, which means the office will survive even if a new mayor doesn’t prioritize workers’ rights.

Challenges ahead

Despite all this activity, significant challenges remain.

Employers spend millions to stop union campaigns. In Philadelphia, Einstein Medical Center spent $1.1 million on anti-union consultants, according to documents filed with the U.S. Department of Labor. (Its nurses joined PASNAP in 2016, regardless.)

» READ MORE: These Philly baristas are taking on Starbucks in a fledgling worker movement

Laws to protect workers who organize don’t always stop employers from firing labor activists: Last spring, Amazon fired Chris Smalls, a Staten Island warehouse worker who helped organize a work stoppage over unsafe coronavirus conditions. Leaked internal documents showed how Amazon executives sought to paint Smalls as “not smart or articulate.” White-collar workers face the same threat: Google fired five activists last year.

And unionization seems near impossible for the 130,000 retail and fast-food workers at big-box chains in Philadelphia, as workers are siloed in small workplaces.

“When a job is really toxic or exhausting or overwhelming or isn’t giving you the hours you need, the easy option is to quit,” said a former Starbucks barista who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation at his current job. “It’s so much easier to quit than to organize.”

And yet, all summer, as signs in apartment windows across the city thanked essential workers such as those picking up the trash, even as pickup ran days late, workers in Philadelphia took their message to the streets.

“Anger, agitation, frustration,” said Braman, the labor educator. “Those are powerful feelings, but the next step is how to act on that.”

Under the sun and in the rain, workers called for hazard pay and personal protective equipment, for an extension of pandemic unemployment benefits, for justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black people killed by police.

“Historically, the labor movement has been the strongest when it’s been most integrated with other social movements, and that remains the case,” Braman said. “I’m seeing more organizations say racial justice is a labor issue. That work has to continue.”