Rain, worker uncertainty mark Labor Day parade

A sign from Teamsters Local 929 is pasted on a truck in the parade on Columbus Blvd.
A sign from Teamsters Local 929 is pasted on a truck in the parade on Columbus Blvd. (TOM GRALISH / Staff)
Posted: September 04, 2013

It was not a happy crowd at Philadelphia's annual Labor Day parade Monday.

And that's even overlooking the rain, which was impossible, since downpours soaked a bigger-than-usual crowd, turning Philadelphia's union members into a brigade of the plastic-ponchoed.

Nothing builds labor solidarity faster than seeing how many union brothers and sisters, and their kids, can crowd under one umbrella, or squeeze under roof overhangs at the sheet metal workers union hall on Christopher Columbus Boulevard, where the group rallies for speeches before marching north to the annual picnic at Penn's Landing.

But Monday's parade was unusual, compared with those of past years, for the number of unions and issues vying for attention - school district employees, PGW workers, dockworkers, airport skycaps, municipal employees, and restaurant servers.

With the city's schools set to open Monday amid a financial crisis, no one could ignore the red-shirted teachers, members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

They rallied in the rain as their president, Jerry Jordan, continued negotiations in advance of a huge membership meeting set for later in the day at Temple University. Their contract expired Saturday.

"I won't take a pay cut," said Alex Humes, a social studies teacher at Central High School. "I'd rather go out on strike." Humes objects to critics who point out that teachers in other districts contribute to their health benefits.

"Why should we pay for our benefits when we make less money?" he asked. "It'll drive talented teachers out of the city."

Due to a transportation snafu, the union representing assistant principals missed the rally.

Rob McGrogan, president of the Commonwealth Association of Principals, returns to the bargaining table Tuesday.

Forty-five assistant principals, of more than 100 laid off, were recalled Friday, in seniority order, raising the possibility, he said, that in some schools there will be no administrator with any experience in that school.

As he walked to his car, McGrogan said he is worrying about chaotic situations Tuesday as newly appointed principals "are handed the keys and the alarm code" to their new schools and have to open to students, with no experienced assistant principal to help with orientation.

Everyone was wet, but Philadelphia School District personnel weren't the only ones who were angry.

For the last few years, AFSCME District Councils 33 and 47, the unions representing most city employees, have turned out - angry that they've been without a contract.

This year, their fifth without a contract, their leaders turned up the rhetoric.

Mayor Nutter, who had spoken at past parades, wasn't invited to this one, so he missed the blistering attack from Pete Matthews, president of District Council 33, the blue-collar union.

"He hates labor, he hates teachers, he hates city workers, he hates all union labor," Matthews yelled to the crowd. "Stop sitting down. Get off your a- and fight."

Spokesmen and spokeswomen for Mayor Nutter were not immediately available for comment.

Most years, Local 686 of the Utility Workers Union of America, the union representing Philadelphia Gas Works employees, barely musters a handful of members to march.

Monday, several hundred turned out in opposition to the possibility that Philadelphia might sell the Philadelphia Gas Works, threatening the jobs of the local's 1,150 members.

"We want to make sure our concerns would be heard," said union president Keith Holmes.

"I don't want them to sell PGW," said field technician Joseph Little, a 19-year employee from West Oak Lane, who brought his children. "That's my livelihood."

If there were an award for the most verbiage packed on a T-shirt, it would go to the shirts worn by the International Longshoremen's Association Local 1291.

The back of the red shirt, which thanked supporters who backed the current deepening of the Delaware River, included a timeline with key points in history of the dispute over dredging. The dockworkers' union says deepening the river will bring more jobs because larger vessels will be able to negotiate the Delaware.

The T-shirt's front referred to a disagreement with rail companies over rates being charged to a potential new client for the city's Tioga Marine Terminal - a Brazilian company that wants to unload wood pulp at the Northeast Philadelphia port and ship it by rail to paper factories in northeast Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

Longshoreman Brian Jones said his union wanted to apply pressure to the rails to keep their rates favorable so the port can win the business. "It's a lot of jobs."

Jim Savage, head of United Steelworkers Local 10-1, provided the only silver lining to Monday's clouds.

As he marched with a small crew of steelworkers, Savage recalled that two years ago, in September, Sunoco announced plans to close its South Philadelphia refinery, putting 850 out of work.

The union and politicians worked to persuade a private equity company to partner with Sunoco to keep the plant open.

"We're bringing on 70 new workers tomorrow," Savage said.

Contact Jane Von Bergen at jvonbergen@phillynews.com, @JaneVonBergen on Twitter, or at 215-854-2769. Read her workplace blog at www.philly.com/jobbing

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