Community organizer Kendra Brooks made history this week when she was elected to City Council as a third-party candidate, but the victory also marked a milestone for Philly’s labor movement: proof of the growing clout of low-wage workers in the nation’s poorest large city.
A Philadelphia union that represents tens of thousands of cleaners, bus drivers, and baggage handlers played a major role in getting the long-shot candidate elected.
The union, 32BJ SEIU, spent $171,000 on the campaigns of two candidates backed by the Working Families Party, pastor Nicolas O’Rourke and community organizer Brooks — the first candidate not of the two major parties to get elected to Council since the body adopted a modern legislative structure a century ago. The union was the largest donor to the party’s campaign activities in Philly this fall.
The union was part of a group of low-wage service-worker unions that supported the WFP candidates through endorsements, money, and canvassing — notable because these unions have long lived in the shadows of their building trades counterparts.
“They’re flexing their muscle," said Mustafa Rashed, chief executive at Bellevue Strategies, a politics and government affairs consultancy.
The service workers’ unions, Rashed said, have realized that if they want to continue to have a seat at the table, they have to push their agenda politically in the way the building trades have done.
Brooks will be wielding the bullhorn for Philly’s low-wage workers at a time when the city has already adopted several worker-protection laws backed by organized labor and scorned by business groups — measures to regulate scheduling practices for retail, fast-food, and hotel workers, and to prevent unfair firings of parking lot workers.
Brooks has said she would fight for a $15 minimum wage and robust enforcement of the city’s growing slate of worker-protection laws.
As veteran labor organizer Kati Sipp put it: These days, building trades leader John J. “Johnny Doc” Dougherty "isn’t the only person who’s in Council every week saying, ‘We need to do this’ — and isn’t the only one with money.”
The bulk of 32BJ’s campaign spend was a $150,000 contribution to the Working Families independent expenditure committee, campaign finance records show. It was the biggest such contribution the union has made in Philadelphia, according to a 32BJ spokesperson.
The independent expenditure committee spent about $400,000 on the candidacies of Brooks and O’Rourke, WFP spokesperson Joe Dinkin said.
The building trades have historically been influential because of their money. Their members can pull in $50 or $60 an hour, while service worker union members make on the higher end about $20 an hour. But what the service unions lack in dollars, they have in members — the five unions that backed the Working Families candidates have a combined 36,000 members in Philly, and they’re the only unions in the city that are growing.
Marilyn Robinson, a security guard at the airport, was one of the 32BJ members who knocked on doors for Brooks and O’Rourke and recruited coworkers to do the same. The 58-year-old West Philadelphia resident said she felt like Brooks, a single mom and a renter, would advocate for the members of her union, many of whom are parents that are “barely making ends meet.”
Council will continue to be important for the service worker unions, as Unite Here, which represents food and hotel workers, and 32BJ anticipate that upcoming airport lease agreement negotiations could have major implications for union members, and as hospital workers fight to get their contracts recognized when their hospitals are purchased.
Meanwhile, backing from both the building trades and the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce couldn’t close the deal for Republicans running for City Council: Incumbent Al Taubenberger and steamfitter Dan Tinney finished eighth and 10th, respectively, with Taubenberger almost 6,000 votes behind his closest competitor. (Seven candidates get elected to City Council at large; Republican David Oh took the other spot reserved for those not of the majority party.)
Dougherty, leader of the building trades and Electricians Local 98, who’s facing federal corruption charges over thefts from his union, said Tinney’s loss was hardly a reflection of waning building trades power, urging a big picture look at the trades’ political success. There were many Local 98-backed winners this week, including Dan McCaffrey, elected to Superior Court, and Councilman Brian O’Neill. Tinney would be back, he said, perhaps as a Democrat.
And Dougherty said he wouldn’t be surprised if the trades helped run Brooks’ next campaign.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.