In an apparent victory that is sending shock waves across the city, the members of Philadelphia’s blue-collar municipal union AFSCME District Council 33 have elected a new leader for the first time in more than two decades.

Ernest Garrett, an official at DC33′s Local 394 representing Water Department workers, beat incumbent Herman “Pete” Matthews for the top spot of the 10,000-member union. The vote, tallied Friday, was 2,129 to 1,043, said Deborah Willig, DC33′s attorney. Certified results from the American Arbitration Association, which ran the election, were not yet available Saturday.

“This is only the beginning,” the 51-year-old Garrett wrote in a message to his supporters on Facebook. “We will bring respect, dignity back to DC33.”

Matthews, 73, did not respond to requests for comment.

AFSCME Local 1637 would like to congratulate all the winners of District Council 33's election. SPECIAL SHOUT OUT TO...

Posted by Afscme LOCAL 1637 on Friday, October 23, 2020

Garrett’s supporters accused Matthews of being absent during the pandemic, even as thousands of his members risked their lives on the job without hazard pay or adequate personal protective equipment. Matthews' supporters, meanwhile, said he had always won good contracts for his members.

The top job at DC33 carries significant clout. It’s one of the biggest unions in the city, representing 15 locals 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. Mayoral hopefuls and other politicians must court the council’s leadership for endorsements. And the union shapes not only the city budget but Philadelphia’s labor movement.

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 has said he will take a pay cut but did not say how much.

Garrett’s slate includes Omar Salaam, an increasingly high-profile business agent for sanitation workers Local 427, and Frank Halbherr, president of Local 1637 that represents, among others, Parking Authority workers and 911 operators.

The first major task of their four-year term will be negotiating the next DC33 contract. In March, after the pandemic hit, Matthews and the city agreed to a one-year extension of its contract.

Pete Matthews (center, hands up) chops it up at the annual election day luncheon at Relish restaurant in November 2016 with (from left) Mayor Jim Kenney, then-Philadelphia Sheriff Jewel Williams, U.S. Congressman District Dwight Evans, and then-City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Pete Matthews (center, hands up) chops it up at the annual election day luncheon at Relish restaurant in November 2016 with (from left) Mayor Jim Kenney, then-Philadelphia Sheriff Jewel Williams, U.S. Congressman District Dwight Evans, and then-City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)

Garrett’s victory is the latest leadership upheaval at a Philadelphia union during a time when rank and file members across the country have been challenging establishment labor leaders. These insurgents say veteran leaders have grown too comfortable and have failed to adapt in an increasingly desperate time for American workers.

Last year, package handler Richard Hooker and his slate won control of Teamsters Local 623, a 4,500-member UPS workers union that, like DC33, had been run by the same leaders since the ’90s. A group of public school teachers and support staff has also been fighting since 2014 to take over another one of the city’s biggest unions, the 13,000-member Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, though it lost its election earlier this year.

It’s no small feat to topple a union leader, as incumbents generally have the money to mount a campaign, as well as unfettered access to members. Insurgents have to campaign on top of working their day jobs.

The first election Matthews won, in 1996, bitterly divided the union.

Matthews accused incumbent and longtime rival James Sutton of stuffing ballots in the initial election, which Matthews lost by a few hundred votes. Supporters of the two candidates pushed and shoved one another at the union headquarters that night. The U.S. Department of Labor investigated the fraud allegations. Eventually, AFSCME, DC33′s parent union, threw out the election results and ordered a special election, during which federal marshals stood watch to ensure a brawl didn’t break out. Matthews won 4,970 to 4,279.

In those days, delegates from each local cast votes for union leadership. After Matthews became president, he changed the format to a popular vote. This year, 32% voted, a lower rate than in previous elections, where turnout hovered around 45%.

Still, Evon Sutton, wife of James Sutton and a former DC33 official who challenged Matthews several times unsuccessfully over the last two decades, marveled at how members were encouraging one another to vote. Members attended Garrett’s campaign events on Zoom. Sutton, 69, said she had never seen anything like it.