In 2020, it seemed everyone was engaged in a labor struggle.
Workers confronted dangerous conditions on the job, racism in the workplace, and the lack of job opportunities at all. They organized and protested. They died of COVID-19, even as they were championed as heroes by commercials and billboards.
Here’s a look at the people and organizations who shaped the labor movement in Philadelphia this last year.
In one of the most visible showings of worker power in Philadelphia in 2020, a group of library workers ousted the boss: Free Library president Siobhan Reardon. The Concerned Black Workers of the Free Library, a coalition across three union locals as well as those not represented by a union, said Reardon had long failed to address a culture of racial discrimination in their workplace after being put on notice about it. Her departure “is the first step in really taking down white supremacy at the Free Library,” said library community organizer Andrea Lemoins at the time.
These workers showed what’s possible when organizing across not only several union locals but also the nonunionized. In doing so, they protected their nonunion coworkers — the kinds of workers who are less willing to speak up because they have fewer workplace protections. And they seized on a moment of national racial reckoning. Though they had been organizing for Reardon’s ouster for more than a year, they accelerated their campaign a few weeks after the Black Lives Matter protests began in the summer, making their calls harder to ignore. Reardon stepped down a month later.
For a barometer of the year’s highs and lows, look no further than Renee Wilson, a 49-year-old hotel worker who lost her job during the pandemic, spent months sick with COVID-19, and then canvassed full time for President-elect Joe Biden in the month leading up to Election Day. Wilson, who canvassed with her union Unite Here, was the embodiment of the stakes that many felt during the election. She was one of the Black women who saw the election as a matter of life and death, as they watched the pandemic have a disproportionate effect on Black people — their jobs, their health, their families.
At a Unite Here canvassing event in October, Wilson cried while recounting her experience with COVID-19 — “I still get night tremors,” she said — and her rage at President Donald Trump’s downplaying of the virus and his experience with it. Yet she was determined, readjusting her face shield as she knocked on doors and talked to voters about Biden in a largely Puerto Rican neighborhood in North Philly. Weeks later, she was at a counterprotest outside the Convention Center, where votes were being counted, the one that became an all-day block party. That night, Wilson was dancing, jubilant, confident Biden had won: “We’re taking back our country!” she yelled to no one in particular.
Trash piled high in the summer as sanitation crews, struggling with staffing shortages due to COVID-19, couldn’t keep up with all the extra garbage produced by people isolating at home. Through it all emerged an icon. His name was Ya Fav Trashman.
Sanitation worker Terrill Haigler started posting on Instagram under the moniker in June to give people “an inside look at the daily habits of a trash man.” He racked up 22,000 followers on his account, whose recurring features include “Rate That Trash Pile” and first-person video PSAs (”Trash will NOT BE picked up tomorrow‼️‼️” reads one). He raised $32,000 for personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies for himself and his coworkers. And he brought some sorely needed joy to a year plagued with anxiety and grief.
Haigler’s star turn came at a time when the public was hungry for answers about the trash delays — and for stories from front-line workers. Though many of them scorned the term, the pandemic turned these workers into heroes, but more often than not, we did not know their names. Haigler changed that.
All year, there were challenges to the union establishment. In January, UPS union Teamsters Local 623 inaugurated its first new leader in more than two decades. A rank-and-file caucus in the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers tried for a second time to unseat reigning leader Jerry Jordan and lost. But the most momentous was that of a city Water Department union official named Ernest Garrett. He unseated Pete Matthews, a towering figure in politics and labor as the longtime president of AFSCME District Council 33, the 10,000-member city worker union.
Union leadership elections generally favor the incumbent, who can cut off access to members and has the time and resources to run a campaign. That’s why Garrett and his slate’s win — on their first challenge — was so significant. It was as much a referendum on Matthews’ leadership as on the effects of the pandemic on the members of DC33: sanitation workers, correctional officers, and many other workers who were deemed essential. But to name Garrett on this list is also to invoke the younger generation of DC33 members who were wary of quick fixes. The union’s future, they said, depended not on one leader, but on the ability of the union to build power among its rank and file.
When the pandemic hit, most of Unite Here’s 4,000 members — tourism industry workers at the airport, hotels, stadiums — in Philadelphia were laid off. Its years-long campaign to unionize the biggest hotel in the state, the Marriott Philadelphia Downtown, was all but killed, with workers who were vocal about supporting the union fearing they wouldn’t be called back. And yet, the union launched a massive door-to-door Biden canvassing program with its laid-off workers and won a slate of citywide worker protection laws dubbed “Black Workers Matter” aimed at ensuring that their members get their jobs back as businesses reopen.
For months during the pandemic, health-care workers struggled through the emotional devastation without enough PPE and paid leave. Some were fired for speaking out. But for the most part, they did not use the biggest tool they had: withholding their labor. That changed during the coronavirus surge this fall.
The nearly 800 nurses at St. Mary Medical Center in Bucks County went on a two-day strike in November, as other nurses around the country did the same. The St. Mary’s nurses, who voted to unionize with the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP) last year, went on strike to get their employer to agree to enforceable staffing minimums and higher wages in their first contract.
Though their employer, Trinity Health, sought to frame the nurses as hurting patients by walking off the job as coronavirus hospitalizations were rising, public support for health-care workers was high. A month later, the nurses ratified a contract with enforceable staffing minimums and higher wages.
Weeks after Philadelphia first shut down due to the coronavirus, meatpacking worker and union leader Enoch Benjamin died of COVID-19. Benjamin, a 70-year-old Haitian immigrant, worked at JBS Souderton, and his death was an early sign of the dangers faced by these essential workers — less visible than SEPTA drivers or hospital nurses, and so more easily forgotten. But deadly COVID-19 outbreaks at meatpacking factories across the country thrust these workers into the spotlight — along with the failure of corporations and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to protect workers.
During the 2020 primary, Philadelphians approved the creation of a city Department of Labor — a step toward making permanent the labor protection gains won during the Kenney administration. The ballot question was the work of the Coalition to Respect Every Worker, a group led by labor organizations representing nonunion workers. CREW began fighting for increased labor law enforcement last year after winning laws to provide rights to fast-food, retail, and domestic workers.
Those laws went into effect just as those low-wage workers were getting laid-off or being asked to work in dangerous conditions. In other words, enforcing laws mandating consistent schedules or contracts for house cleaners was not top of mind. For many of these workers, the most important thing was making sure they could feed their families. So groups that made up CREW, such as the Pennsylvania Domestic Workers Alliance and One Pennsylvania, fought for a worker relief fund that paid benefits to those who weren’t eligible for unemployment. The result was a $1.7 million fund that sent $800 checks to thousands of workers.
CREW’s work acknowledges the fact that just 6% of the private-sector workforce is unionized: If labor organizations aren’t fighting for nonunion workers, they’re missing a majority of American workers.
At the very end of 2019, a group of advocates and organizers were fighting what seemed a losing battle: for the public to have a say in the Philadelphia police union contract. For one, it was a campaign that organized labor would not get behind. Contracts arise out of a negotiation between employer and union, and union leaders feared that any attempt to change that for one union could spell disaster down the line for others. But then Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were killed by police, and the protests that followed — and the Police Department’s teargassing and violence against protesters — changed the landscape for the city’s powerful Fraternal Order of Police.
In November, after a bill from Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson required it, dozens of Philadelphians weighed in on the next contract — some of them in tears — during a marathon seven-hour hearing. It’s not clear how much influence the public will have inasmuch as an arbitrator makes the final decision in the contract. Deputy Mayor for Labor Rich Lazer said, “We will only be able to change so much at once.” But the sheer act of this hearing, which the FOP sued to stop, forces a complex and uncomfortable question for labor unions and advocates: Where do they stand on police unions?
What started as a public spreadsheet listing art worker salaries became one of the city’s most high-profile union campaigns in 2020. The workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art — curators, fund-raisers, the kinds of professionals not often described as “workers” — voted to form a union with AFSCME District Council 47 this summer, joining a burgeoning labor movement in the art world. They forged a model for new forms of organizing, forced management to address its record of abusive bosses, and showed that unions can have a role in storied cultural institutions, too.