The building trades — especially through their leader, John J. Dougherty, head of Electricians Local 98 — have long been political power players in Philadelphia, pouring money into campaigns and winning legislation that favors their members.

They’ve often overshadowed their service-worker union counterparts — unions that largely represent low-wage, black, brown, and immigrant workers.

But now, in City Council’s at-large race for the two seats reserved for non-Democrats, the service unions are joining together to build their own political clout. The result is that the trades and the service workers are in a sort of labor showdown.

In one corner, the building trades are supporting Republican contenders — steamfitter Dan Tinney, incumbent Al Taubenberger, and business owner Bill Heeney. In the other, the service workers are pushing the two progressive candidates running on the Working Families Party ticket: Nicolas O’Rourke and community organizer Kendra Brooks.

Given Philadelphia’s status as the poorest big city in the country, the service unions are looking to flex their muscle. The at-large race will be a test of their power.

Emergence of a progressive labor voting bloc

Last weekend, five service-worker unions, all of which are represented on the Working Families board, announced their endorsement of O’Rourke and Brooks: SEIU 32BJ, Unite Here, District 1199c, SEIU Healthcare PA, and the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals. (Other unions and labor groups, including the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the AFL-CIO, said they have yet to go through their endorsement process for November.)

Brooks, a former 1199c member, and O’Rourke — both largely seen as long shots — said that if elected, they would focus on enforcing the growing slate of Philly labor laws on the books, a cause that has been taken up by labor groups, as well as raising the minimum wage in Philadelphia. Despite a state law that prevents it, they said they could get it done with a more progressive City Council.

Both candidates have made the rounds this summer attending multiple labor rallies, including those to try to save Hahnemann University Hospital from closing and last week’s action to fight for airport workers’ health care.

The endorsements represent the emergence of a progressive labor voting bloc, said Gabe Morgan, 32BJ vice president. These unions collectively haven’t thrown their weight behind a candidate since Larry Krasner in the 2017 district attorney’s primary race. (The trades endorsed John O’Neill.)

“We’re the unions that represent working-poor and working-class people," he said, “which is not to take away what any other union does, but we are the ones that tend to rep folks in service and health care, the biggest employment sectors in the city.”

Community organizer Kendra Brooks, a candidate for City Council at-large, marches at a UNITE HERE rally at the Philadelphia airport in August to raise awareness for the union's fight for more affordable health care for airport workers.
Arielle Klagsbrun
Community organizer Kendra Brooks, a candidate for City Council at-large, marches at a UNITE HERE rally at the Philadelphia airport in August to raise awareness for the union's fight for more affordable health care for airport workers.

Morgan’s union has ramped up its political involvement at the city level, scoring increasingly consistent legislative wins, because cities have become “the battleground” for worker issues, he said.

Mustafa Rashed, a political consultant, said he expected to see the influence of non-trades unions grow “because they’re recognizing that they have to more forcefully advocate for the needs of their members.”

These are also the only unions in the city that are growing.

Money vs. membership

Union endorsements can make a difference for two main reasons: money and voter turnout.

The trades have a history of spending big in elections in part because of the contributions its high-paid members make — the three that have spent the most of all unions so far in 2019 are Electricians Local 98, the Carpenters, and painters union IUPAT District Council 21. Local 98′s Dougherty, also head of the Philly Building Trades, declined to comment. He’s facing federal corruption charges in connection with alleged union misspending.

But the lower-wage service sector unions have power in numbers. The five that are backing the Working Families candidates have a combined 36,000 members in Philly. And while the trades are a sprawling 50-union group, many of their members live outside of the city. The question remains of whether the service-sector unions are able to engage their members to vote, as low wages have been linked to low voter turnout.

Pastor Nicolas O'Rourke, a candidate for City Council at-large, speaks at a UNITE HERE rally in August at the Philadelphia airport.
UNITE HERE
Pastor Nicolas O'Rourke, a candidate for City Council at-large, speaks at a UNITE HERE rally in August at the Philadelphia airport.

The trades generally back candidates on both sides of the political spectrum, while the service sector unions tend to back Democrats — which makes the endorsement of independent candidates significant. The Democratic City Committee has decried the O’Rourke/Brooks candidacy, saying it will take votes away from Democrats.

Some unions backing O’Rourke and Brooks have made campaign contributions but campaign staffers declined to disclose numbers before the upcoming filing deadline.