Thomas Fitzgerald: Unions can't drown out public discontent

Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers has a new Rat Mobile. (Photo from the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO)
Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers has a new Rat Mobile. (Photo from the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO)
Posted: May 08, 2013

It's hard to make out the speaker's words on the video as he argues for the wisdom of privatizing the state liquor stores during a news conference in the rotunda of the Pennsylvania Capitol.

That's because Wendell Young IV, leader of the union representing State Store clerks, keeps darting into the picture, shouting him down.

"Putting thousands of Pennsylvanians out of work for your own profit!" Young yells at one point in the March confrontation, captured on YouTube for all time. "There's a picture of profit before people, folks," Young says at another moment. He's joined by a dozen or so members of the United Food and Commercial Workers wearing their trademark yellow T-shirts.

They are "trying to exercise the heckler's veto here," says David N. Taylor, executive director of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers' Association, the man with the microphone and the target of the protest.

If that was the case, the veto was overridden. The libertarian-leaning Commonwealth Foundation put the video online, which probably made the pro-privatization argument even better than Taylor's talking points could have.

Not long after, hundreds of members of Philadelphia's largest city workers' union, carrying posters portraying Mayor Nutter as a clown, jammed the galleries of City Council chambers and shut down his annual budget address with jeers and chants.

On one level, the frustration is understandable. Organized labor is at a low ebb, with collective-bargaining rights under assault, particularly for public-employee unions.

Consider how Scott Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin, became a hero of the right in 2011 when he pushed through legislation eliminating most collective-bargaining rights for state and municipal workers and teachers. Labor rolled back a similar change in Ohio in a referendum, but New Jersey and other states have continued to chip away at their workers' benefits.

In Philadelphia, after four years without a contract and with negotiations at an impasse, Nutter has asked a court to impose tough terms on AFSCME District Council 33, the union for the city's blue-collar workers. The mayor wants them to accept cuts in pension benefits, limits on overtime, and furloughs.

And members of the United Food and Commercial Workers certainly face an existential threat from Gov. Corbett's drive to break up the state's monopoly on liquor and wine sales.

But do noisy protests and other made-you-look tactics - such as the giant inflatable rats that building-trades unions haul out at nonunion construction sites - really help the cause? Or do they alienate possible supporters and hurt the union? A Gallup Poll in August, for instance, found that 52 percent of Americans approved of labor unions, nearly the all-time low. Forty-one percent of respondents said they would like to see organized labor have less influence in the future - up sharply since 2009. Before then, an average of 32 percent said they wanted weaker unions.

Young apparently hasn't harmed his members' cause where it counts, in the Legislature. Even though poll after poll shows a majority of Pennsylvania voters want to see liquor privatized, key Republicans in the state Senate majority are skeptical of Corbett's proposal, which has passed the House. Most analysts believe the Senate will pass a hybrid form of privatization that leaves some of the State Store system intact.

The UFCW's campaign of radio and TV ads blasting Corbett's "risky scheme" may have something to do with that. It's just as likely, however, that senators are hearing the concerns of private-sector beer distributors, who dominate that market but could face competition in a new world.

John Dougherty, the influential head of Local 98 of the electrical workers' union, is going beyond the stationary inflatable rat that has become a staple of union protests. He recently unveiled the Rat-Mobile, a converted minivan with a long snout, sharp claws, red eyes, and pink ears (with Bose speakers in them).

The idea is to confront nonunion builders whom Dougherty sees as taking jobs and depressing wages - confront them not only at work sites but at their Shore homes, he said. He believes the workers have to fight back, concerns about civility be damned.

"The labor movement could use a little jolt," Doc said Monday, noting that rat symbols and rallies fire up the troops. "There's no place to go but up. ... Do you think I care about what some Birkenstock-wearing suburban liberal says about it?"

Evidently not.


Contact Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com, or follow @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Read his blog, The Big Tent, at www.philly.com/bigtent.

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