Why Philadelphia Will Be The Death Of Unions

PHILLY POST: Until last week, the pharmaceutical and biotech (read: big bucks) convention Interphex was in talks to bring its annual 10,000-person event to Philadelphia in 2014. According to Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau president and CEO Jack Ferguson, Interphex was looking at Philadelphia as a more inexpensive option than its 2013 destination, the Javits Center in Manhattan.  If you’ve ever been to one of these big conventions, you know the setup: a giant room filled with exhibitor booths showcasing the latest in whatever it is that the convention is about. Exhibitors typically assemble their own displays. Naturally, this being the 21st century and all, an exhibitor might want to make use of a cordless electric screwdriver to make the job a little quicker and easier, maybe a Black & Decker that you can pick up at Lowe’s for 20 bucks, and this was the case with the folks at Interphex. But no. Way back in the flush days of 2003, the leaders of the six local unions that work at the Convention Center signed a 21-page Customer Satisfaction Agreement, which was supposed to be dedicated to “creating and maintaining the highest level of customer satisfaction.” In addition to laying out some ground rules for union members’ behavior (no verbal or physical threats against the conventioneers, no selling or using illegal drugs while on the job, no “shoving,” and no weapons “of any kind”), the CSA also spells out rules and “rights” for the exhibitors. And there it is, right there in Exhibit C, Paragraph E, Subsection 1: An exhibitor “may use hand tools … but not power tools including battery operated tools, or ladders.”  As anyone with good sense would do, the Interphex people took issue with this clause and expressed their concerns to the Convention & Visitors Bureau. According to Gregory Fox, president of the Convention Center Authority’s board of directors, there was something resembling an attempt to accommodate Interphex’s needs by making available a small group of screwdriver-toting union carpenters, supposedly for free. “But that didn’t do the trick,” says Fox, and Interphex turned its back on Philadelphia last week, a loss of $15 million in economic impact, according to the CVB’s Ferguson. MORE

RELATED: By 1998 Philadelphia earns the distinction of having the second-highest convention center labor costs in the country, just behind San Francisco. If you’ve ever spent a few days in Frisco’s wallet-Hoovering economy, you know what an impressive accomplishment this is. Labor pricing and inefficiency become major issues in Philly three years later when the East Coast Volleyball Association, a nonprofit organization, documents that it took six union laborers and a couple plumbers two hours to set up a volleyball court. The association notes that the job takes eight 14-year-old girls one hour in any other facility. It costs the volleyball group $135,000 to hold an event in Philadelphia that usually averages $15,000 in other cities. They won’t be coming back. MORE

RELATED:  Dealing with union aggression has become an occupational hazard of opening up a restaurant in Center City. Off the top, Brauhaus Schmitz, Marc Vetri’s Amis, Devil’s Alley, Smokin’ Betty’s and Barbuzzo are just a few recent examples of restaurants that drew protests for not hiring all union. Down in South Philly, the electrician’s union trotted out their 14-foot buck-toothed blow-up rat for Bistro la Minette. Most of these are small-business enterprises. Stories get crazier as the jobs get bigger. Perhaps the most notorious one, the only-in-Philly parable told with the same tone as the old “Philly pelted Santa Claus with snowballs” trope (except this one’s true) went down in 2006 during construction of the Comcast Center. In an effort to “green” the building and obtain LEED certification, architects incorporated waterless urinals. But the plumber’s union, Local 690, protested the plan—waterless urinals use less pipes, which means less work for plumbers. The compromise? The Comcast Center installed the waterless toilets. But they also got a complete network of pipes that aren’t connected to anything “in case” the building wants to convert back to old-style toilets: a 975-foot tall monument to the power of union muscle in Philadelphia. MORE

RELATED: The former factory building at 12th and Wood Streets has been the scene of an extraordinary standoff between the Pestronk brothers, two young apartment developers who are challenging the city’s labor traditions by employing a partially union workforce, and a large contingent of construction workers dispatched by the Building Trades Council, an umbrella group for the city’s unions. One wants to keep costs down by using some nonunion labor, the other wants to keep wages up by retaining the closed shop. Since the protest began, getting equipment and supplies delivered to the site has become a test of wills. Every time a Pestronk truck turns off the Vine Street Expressway, it is greeted by a phalanx of protesters, who shuffle slowly in front of it, blocking its path for hours. Some suppliers have turned back rather than confront the union workers. Although the tactic falls into a gray area of legality, the Nutter administration has not moved to stop it. To avoid the same fate for a crucial crane delivery, the Pestronks said they devised an elaborate ruse to distract the protesters long enough to sneak the machine onto the building site. The operation required days of planning, a decoy truck, a private force of armed guards, and an extra complement of city police. The measures cost them an additional $30,000 on top of the normal $20,000 price, according to Michael Pestronk, 31, who runs Post Bros. Apartments with his older brother, Matt, 35. But they said the ploy was worth it: The crane settled into its berth without incident about 11:30 a.m. Overall, they say, they’re saving 25 percent with nonunion workers, even though they’ve had to hire a private security force and resort to such extreme measures to get supplies. MORE

PHAWKER: Let us be clear, because our position of labor unions has been misunderstood in the past. We ARE pro labor unions. We are pro-collective bargaining. We are pro-Middle Class and believe that a well-trained workforce that earns a fair and competitive wage with reasonable benefits under safe and responsible working conditions is the key to the health and well-being of the American economy. We threw our unconditional support behind the Wisconsin unions when Governor Walker tried and succeeded in stripping them of collective bargaining rights. We think RIGHT TO WORK STATES is an Orwellian abuse of the English language. What we are against is intransigence, inflexibility, thuggish behavior, intimidation, harassment and self-defeating demands for non-competitive wages way out of line with what the market will bear. Because even though those tactics might win the battle, in the end, as sure as day follows night, they will lose the war.

Illustrations by Jay Bevenour