White-collar union leader is getting results

Frederick Wright (left) talks with Candido Silva Jr., an outreach coordinator for D.C. 47, and Dorothea Wilson, president of the retirees unit, at their Walnut Street offices.
Frederick Wright (left) talks with Candido Silva Jr., an outreach coordinator for D.C. 47, and Dorothea Wilson, president of the retirees unit, at their Walnut Street offices. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 05, 2014

Growing up in Abington, Frederick Wright learned about the labor movement at the knee of his father, a union millwright at the U.S. Steel plant in Fairless Hills.

He also learned about management from his father, who on the side operated a landscaping company that employed Wright and his older brother.

One summer, his brother was put in charge of collecting payments. Once his brother realized how much money their father was making and how little they were being paid, he dispatched Frederick to ask for raises.

"Man, he cursed me, talking about his overhead," Wright said last week, laughing at the memory. That was the day, he said, that he truly learned the difference between labor and management.

Wright brought that rounded perspective into a career as a labor leader that has spanned more than 30 years. In that time, he has negotiated more than 50 contracts.

His most recent deal, though, might be the most memorable.

On Tuesday, Wright sat next to Mayor Nutter in a hotel conference room as both men signed their names to a tentative contract for 3,600 of the city's unionized white-collar workers.

The agreement, which faces a ratification vote Wednesday, ended five years of debilitating stalemate, and shot Wright from relative obscurity to major player in the political scene.

Nutter, bedeviled throughout his two terms by union strife, couldn't have been more effusive in his praise of a man he met just a few months ago.

"Fred Wright is a man of integrity. He is a man of his word," the mayor said after inking the deal. "He is a hardworking, serious, focused individual whom I have come to enjoy working with."

Wright, who unseated Cathy Scott as president of AFSCME District Council 47 late last year, arrived on the scene without the bad blood built up over five years of acrimony.

"He wasn't boxed in a corner," said Lou Agre, a labor lawyer and Democratic ward leader who has been friends with Wright for more than a decade. "He wasn't burdened by the past. He was open to new ideas."

When Wright first met Nutter and his top aides, he told them he "wasn't there to attack anyone's character."

"You don't get anything at some point by embarrassing the other side," Wright said during an interview in his Walnut Street office. "I just wanted to sit down and negotiate a contract."

That's a far cry from the tactics Nutter has faced - the inflatable rat shadowing his appearances, the Nutter-as-Bozo caricatures, and, most famously, the booing, heckling, whistling crowd of workers who drowned out his budget address last year.

Leading the jeers that day on the floor of City Council was Pete Matthews, the firebrand president of District Council 33, the city's blue-collar union.

D.C. 33 members also have gone five years without a contract and a pay raise. While negotiations have restarted, the progress seems slower, the animosity deeper. Friday's face-to-face meetings between city and union negotiators lasted only minutes.

After signing his deal last week, Wright urged D.C. 33 to "get in here and negotiate a contract" for its 8,800 members. Wright, who is as soft-spoken as Matthews is resounding, said he hasn't heard from Matthews about that comment.

"All workers deserve a pay raise. Times are tough," Wright said. "There's nothing wrong with me saying that. I hope no one takes offense at that, but it's true."

With a female-dominated membership, laden with single mothers, Wright "let it be known from jump street that money was number one." Under the terms, D.C. 47 members, whose ranks include social workers, registered nurses, and health technicians, will get a $2,000 signing bonus and three raises over the life of the contract, which would run through 2017.

Thomas Paine Cronin, who was president of D.C. 47 from 1980 to 2007, said he has "nothing but respect" for Wright, and said he thought Wright got a good bargain for his members.

"I don't think you can judge him by his tone of voice or his lack of bluster," Cronin said. "There are plenty of labor leaders who are full of bluster and don't get results."

Wright, 57 and the father of two daughters, remains something of an outsider on the city scene. He still lives in Abington - in the house where he grew up - and has never been a city employee.

Instead, Wright was head of Local 1739, which represents social-service workers at nonprofits. He nurtured that local from four chapters and 300 members to nine chapters and 1,300 members - the second largest local at D.C. 47.

He defeated Scott in September - and was immediately beset with the challenge of a depleted health-care fund. "We had a bill that was due, and we didn't have any money to pay it," he said.

Wright, who faced a re-run of the election after Scott challenged the results, had two choices: double employee contributions, or ask the mayor for an advance.

Nutter agreed to advance the union $2.5 million.

"They took a gamble on me winning again, and me not taking the money . . . and saying, 'I'm not talking to you until the money runs out,' " Wright said. "At that point, we both backed off. I said, 'I'll see you when I win again.' . . . Once I won again, I asked for dates right away."

The two sides sat down in late January - and had a deal about a month later.

To make the bargain, Nutter slackened his stance on furloughs and requiring new employees to enter a different pension plan - items he had described for years as absolutely necessary.

Wright knows Nutter had his own pressure to strike a deal - all 16 members of City Council signed a letter urging him do so last week, and this year's budget address is Thursday. D.C. 33 is planning to target him again in protests.

But if, on Wednesday night, D.C. 47 ratifies the contract its new leader negotiated, the mayor at least will have that agreement in his pocket.

"The mayor didn't want to have another budget address without a contract," Wright said. "It was time to really put the thing to bed."


tgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-2730 @troyjgraham

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