Phila. rally is test of labor's clout

Preparations were under way at Eakins Oval on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to prepare for the labor rally scheduled for Saturday.
Preparations were under way at Eakins Oval on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to prepare for the labor rally scheduled for Saturday. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)

While union membership continues to fall across the nation, organizers aim to send both parties a message.

Posted: August 13, 2012

Stepping up to the microphone at a news conference last week, the president of the city of Philadelphia's blue-collar union had a message for the nation's politicians, one that seemed aimed directly at labor's usual ally, the Democrats:

Stop taking us for granted.

No one, Herman "Pete" Matthews said, would suggest that union members should choose likely GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney over Democratic President Obama.

"That's not to say we won't sit on our hands," said Matthews, president of AFSCME District Council 33. "If you don't represent me, what the hell do I need you [for]?"

Can Obama and the Democrats really count on labor's help this time?

After all, tens of thousands of union leaders, members, and supporters gathered at the Workers Stand for America rally in Philadelphia on Saturday because, in part, union leaders were angry that the Democrats chose North Carolina, a right-to-work state, for their national convention.

"We feel that they showed us no respect for what we did for them," said James Williams, president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, back in his hometown to attend the Saturday rally.

His union is skipping the Democratic convention, which will open on Labor Day.

To be sure, analysts agree, labor won't turn its back on Obama or the Democrats.

But the bigger question is: Does labor still have enough punch to make a difference, given its declining numbers and density?

That angers Williams.

"It's been proven that our people vote and it's proven that we can make up 25 to 30 percent of the vote in certain districts," Williams said. "There are a lot of politicians that want that vote."

In the 1950s, more than one in four American workers belonged to a union. By 2011, the percentage had declined to 11.8, with 14.8 million people represented overall. Government workers tend to be more heavily unionized - one in three. In the private sector, union density had dropped to 6.9 percent in 2011.

Even so, "if the union vote splinters or doesn't turn out, it's very damaging for Democrats," said Christopher Borick, head of Muhlenberg College's Institute of Public Opinion in Allentown.

"Labor is declining as a force to be reckoned with, but it's still a force," said Bruce Haynes, a Republican strategist in a political consulting firm, Purple Strategies in Alexandria, Va., that serves Democratic and Republican clients.

His organization includes Pennsylvania among a dozen key swing states, with the focus on Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Colorado.

In states such as Florida and Virginia, "the union vote influence is insignificant," which is why the rally was held in Philadelphia and not in Florida, he said.

In Pennsylvania and Ohio, "it's important," Haynes said, particularly in Ohio, which still has a manufacturing-based economy that hires union workers.

"In Pennsylvania," he said, "the value of the union vote is dwindling because of the erosion of the state's manufacturing base and the increase of tech and health care. Many of those jobs aren't unionized."

Haynes said labor faced a common problem plaguing political parties and other centralized groups.

"In the past, people looked to institutions and leaders of institutions to help them make choices," he said. "Now they scour many places for information, so it's much more difficult for any single organization or individual to single-handedly deliver large blocks of votes."

Diverse patterns of communication have given rise to less-centralized grassroots groups.

"That's why entities like the Occupy movement and the tea party movement are the movements with all the energy, all the enthusiasm and excitement," he said. "Labor still has the ability to aggregate money and drive it through a campaign-oriented infrastructure. They have a dues structure and built-in grassroots capacity," he said.

"They are a recognizable entity and they have the ability to communicate through the press - it's still a powerful tool of theirs," he said.

Indeed, last week, local organizers of Saturday's rally were able to muster journalists to a news conference at the union hall of Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, headed by John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty.

Matthews was among a half-dozen local labor leaders who took to the stage to talk about Saturday's rally.

Williams, based in Washington, wasn't there, but he said the planned rally was the largest in 20 years.

"It's exciting," he said. Indeed, the five-hour event attracted a crowd of 30,000, police said. Organizers had expected 20,000.

Emily Brooks Randle wasn't at the news conference, either. Political coordinator for the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals, the 30-year-old union professional is part of the "campaign-oriented infrastructure" that Haynes mentioned.

The AFL-CIO hopes to build a campaign infrastructure of 400,000 volunteers, up from 250,000 in 2008. Randle's job is to recruit some of them, and she's hardly been sitting on her hands.

On Wednesday, the union will hold a voter-identification workshop near Temple University Hospital in North Philadelphia. "Because of the population there, it will get hit the hardest, so it's a priority," she said. Her union has already endorsed Obama.

Over the last two weeks, Randle has been distributing fliers outside the hospital at 6:30 a.m. and spending afternoons making phone calls to tell members about the workshop and Saturday's rally.

The Workers Stand for America rally was initially the result of union anger at the choice of largely nonunion Charlotte for the convention. But under the guidance of Edwin D. Hill, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the focus shifted to how unions could address issues important to them and to the middle class.

"There is a lot more to this than the two people running for president," said Patrick Eiding, who heads the Philadelphia AFL-CIO.

"I think the message has to be to all politicians. We as working people in this world need to be recognized for the things that we need," he said.

The centerpiece of Saturday's event was a five-point "Second Bill of Rights" on health, education, voting access, collective bargaining, retirement, and decent jobs that the rally organizers will ask politicians to sign.

"That's going to be our litmus test," painters' union president Williams said. "If they can't support these issues, we can't support them."

It's not surprising that unions are reaching out to the middle class, Muhlenberg's Borick said.

"Every politician crafts everything with the middle class in mind because that's the core, that's the median voter," he said.

William Cucinotta, a laid-off nonunion graphic artist from Philadelphia, sees himself as a member of the middle class. He said Thursday he might attend the rally.

"We have to have somebody to look after the backs of the workers and the middle class," he said. "I think we're being squeezed."

Thomas Bender, a partner at the Philadelphia office of Littler Mendelson P.C., a law firm that helps companies avoid unions, said he didn't plan to attend the rally but would monitor turnout.

"What the turnout will tell us," he said, "is how much support unions can garner."


America's Second Bill of Rights

The right to full employment and a living wage.

The right to full participation in the electoral process.

The right to a voice at work.

The right to a quality education.

The right to a secure, healthy future.*

*Refers to retirement, health care, and unemployment benefits.

Source: AFL-CIO


Labor Union Membership

Union membership has declined in swing states over the last decade. . .

                % of workforce in

State                2001         2011

Colorado          8.9%        8.2%

Florida             6.4        6.3

Pennsylvania     17.0     14.6

Ohio              17.6     13.4

Virginia             5.5        4.6

. . .and also in states in this region.

Delaware        12.6%     10.5%

New Jersey     19.3     16.1

Source: U.S. Dept. of Labor


Contact Jane M. Von Bergen

at 215-854-2769, jvonbergen@phillynews.com, or follow @JaneVonBergen on Twitter. Read her blog on work at www.philly.com/jobbing.

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