In coping with tough economic times, local union leaders said the best defense was a good offense.
"I'm the business manager of IBEW Local 380," said Kenneth R. MacDougall, whose union represents 1,000 electricians working in suburban pharmaceutical facilities and power plants.
"But," he said, "I like to say I'm the business
Instead of singing the blues at the bargaining table, unions, he and others said, need to work with employers to generate business. "It's about profits," MacDougall said. When unions do that, they can be in a better position to negotiate, regardless of the economic climate.
MacDougall was one about 140 local labor leaders who gathered in Atlantic City for a three-day conference organized by the Philadelphia Council of the AFL-CIO. The conference ends today
Top on the agenda was the presidential election and labor's response, the looming negotiations between the city and several municipal unions, and the controversy of minority access to the building trades, which sent various union leaders into sidebar meetings.
Mayor Nutter addressed two out of the three issues in a brief appearance Sunday evening. He called for diversity in membership and leadership, and he said, "It's time for labor and management respect in Philadelphia."
Nutter also stressed the importance of unions in economic development, just as union leaders did in interviews during the conference.
"The dynamics of the economy actually fall back on the union," MacDougall said.
Electrical contractors are the actual employers of members of MacDougall's local of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, based in Collegeville.
But the contractors get their work from companies such as Sunoco Inc., Merck & Co. Inc., and GlaxoSmithKline P.L.C.
"We actually went to Merck and other end-users and asked, 'How can our union make your business more profitable?' " MacDougall said.
First, he said, the executives had to lift their jaws off the floor. "We built a partnership. I found out what they are trying to achieve as a company, and then I can tailor the electrical piece."
The drug companies asked the union to train electricians in certain federal safety standards. That helped lower insurance costs. "We are adding value," MacDougall said.
Michael Barnes, the business agent of Local 8 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees stagehands union, pointed to successful joint-lobbying efforts by his union and others and the business community that will bring two large film studios to the the region.
"That's literally hundreds of new jobs in what we consider our 21st-century manufacturing," he said. "Culture is our second-largest export behind military."
Coming into negotiations with the city, Cathy Scott, president of the 6,500-member union that represents Philadelphia's white-collar workers, said it would be important for her union to help the city improve efficiency - especially if a slowdown erodes the tax base.
Scott, who heads the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 47, said one strategy the union would push was the relaxation of residency requirements for job applicants - not for job-holders.
That should make it easier, for example, for the city's health department to hire its own pharmacists, she said, instead of using more-expensive outside contractors.