It’s a quiet weekend for the Eagles as they rest up during a much-needed bye week ahead of a tough matchup against the visiting Patriots on Nov. 17. As for the Sixers, they’ll need to bounce back against Charlotte following a jaw-dropping meltdown against the Denver Nuggets on Friday night. Plus, in our weekend Q&A, we speak with Juliana Reyes, who focuses on issues that impact workers and unions in the city.
Each week we go behind the scenes with one of our reporters or editors to discuss their work and the challenges they face along the way. This week we chat with Juliana Reyes, who covers labor and work issues and also highlights Asians, artists, and nightlife in the Philly region.
You cover a broad range of issues around work, labor, but also the Asian population and nightlife in Philly. How do you balance these topics, and what kinds of stories catch your eye?
Most of the stories I write focus on work and labor but every now and then I’ll do a story about something else I’m interested in — like a queer underground rave or a neighborhood’s reaction to the closing of a beloved Chinese takeout — and I’m lucky my editors give me the freedom to do that. A lot of the labor stories I do are “capital S” serious so it’s nice to write stories with a different tone, to do a story that plays with narrative and form. UpSide editor Ronnie Polaneczky described it to me once as a “palate cleanser.” I think it’s important to be versatile; it helps you see things outside of the potentially narrow frame of your beat.
I look for stories that can both offer a window into a world readers don’t have access to — a story about what it’s like to work in a hospital’s basement warehouse, for example, or at a company that forced its workers to sign a pledge of abstinence before marriage — and that can reveal something larger about the way we live and work today. And tension and drama! That’s always helpful if you’re writing about issues that can feel dense or jargon-y (and labor is so jargon-y). You want some stakes in a story. But also, sometimes you’re just looking for a story that delights.
Unions have been a big talker both nationally and locally. What’s the biggest misconceptions around unions that you hear about/read about?
Wow, ok, so there are a lot — a labor expert named Bill Fletcher wrote a whole book about union misconceptions called They’re Bankrupting Us! I think the biggest thing is that people tend to hear "union” and only have a few reference points. In Philly, that’s often the building trades because of how politically powerful they are.
You’ll hear this a lot in the labor world: Unions are not a monolith. But it’s hard, right, because we just have that one word — union — to describe so many different kinds of organizations. (I wrote about this exact thing when labor leader Johnny Doc was indicted on federal corruption charges.) So I think it’s part of my job to paint a fuller picture of what unions are like, to complicate what people might already think about them.
What are some issues around labor that you think deserve more coverage?
Only 10% of the workforce is unionized. So if you’re writing about labor and you’re only writing about unions, you’re missing a lot. I think there always needs to be more written about the labor issues of low-wage workers — the bulk of the workforce in Philadelphia — as well as immigrant workers.
What can readers look forward to in terms of upcoming stories that you’re writing, or story lines that you hope to cover in 2020?
I’ve also been noticing more organizing that isn’t connected to unions — baristas publishing their salaries in a spreadsheet online, for example, so I’m wondering how these efforts will mature in the next year.
Also, there’s a group of teachers and education staffers who are challenging the current leadership of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the city’s biggest union. That election will be in the first quarter of 2020 and will have major implications on the city’s schools, as well as its labor movement. I’m working on a story about it right now.
Bonus: How would you best describe the Asian population in Philadelphia? Are there any stories or issues you’d point to that you think would enlighten readers about this population?
Just like the word “union” can flatten all unions — the word “Asian” does that too. What I mean is, the Asian population in Philly is so diverse, in terms of where people are from, where they live, what their economic situation is. The biggest groups, according to the census, hail from China, India, Vietnam, and Cambodia, but there are also communities of Koreans, Filipinos, and Burmese and Bhutanese refugees. Here’s a story I did about how Vietnamese tourists flock to one specific restaurant in South Philly. This 2014 Craig LaBan story about Chinatown does a really good job of teasing out the nuances of the Chinese community in Philly.
Oh, it’s really starting to get chilly out there ❄️. Thanks for braving the cold for this shot, @jwalter211.
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Ah, it was back in the late ’80s when Jerry’s, the restaurant I owned with my partner, Jerry DeLena, was closing and Dmitri, the husband of one of my friends who was waiting tables for us one night a week, asked if he could take over our lease. I insisted that he had children he needed to feed and that it was too small for that. How wrong I was and how wonderful it was to have it last so long ... with the coda that one of those little kids will now run his other place. — Rsethstrauss, on Dmitri’s, the Queen Village classic BYOB, has closed indefinitely