Left: Construction workers in Philadelphia. Right: IBEW Local 98 Business Manager John Dougherty.

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Philly is a union town. It’s been said more than a few times before.

More than 150,000 Philadelphians are represented by dozens of labor and trade unions throughout the city. And sure, there are the large ones: the police, the teachers, the electricians. But collectively, unions wield a power in Philadelphia seen in few other cities in America — a power that has supported the Democratic machine over the years and kept Philadelphia solidly in the blue for decades.

As we celebrate Labor Day, Billy Penn took a look at the history of labor unions in Philadelphia and how they’ve held onto power for so long:

It all started here

Yes, unions. They started here.

The first real labor union was formed in Philadelphia in 1794 by the shoemakers, according to the Historical Dictionary of Organized Labor by James C. Docherty. Strikes date back to colonial times when Philadelphia’s Journeymen Cordwainers were demanding $6 a week, but the union became defunct after members were convicted of engaging in criminal conspiracy.

Over the decades, unions ebbed and flowed in power, but were saved by FDR and the New Deal, the first huge step toward accommodating working families. Specifically, the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act, which provided for employees’ right to organize, and bargain collectively. According to Philadelphia Divided: Race and Politics in the City of Brotherly Love by James Wolfinger, unions had been organizing, but the explicit permission in the New Deal meant they could do so free from repercussions, with the side benefit that getting more involved politically would help in creating jobs for their members.

New challenges came by the mid-1900s as more and more work was being outsourced. Unions also began harboring a bad reputation for retaliation, violence and threats. In the 1970s, developer J. Leon Altemose led the construction of Valley Forge Plaza and wanted to complete the job with part union workers, part non-union workers. That didn’t sit well with the building trade unions. Altemose had his personal property, as well as the Plaza, damaged to the tune of $2 million.

Those stories have continued over the years. One of the greatest battles of the last decade has been over the $760 million expansion of the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Some of the unions signed 10-year contracts with the Convention Center — but several did not, including the large Carpenter’s Union that’s staged a number of strikes.

The battle continues: In May, the Convention Center sued the Carpenter’s union for racketeering. And after the group allegedly didn’t sign a new customer service agreement last year, they’re still fighting to get back on the job.

How unions kept power

Some have said that Philadelphia unions don’t have the power they once did. In 2008, then-Councilman Frank DiCicco, after a spat with the unions over racial makeup, told Philadelphia Magazine: “They don’t have the power they once did. Growing up, I remember a day when Philadelphia was the textile capital of the world. The unions had real sway then. My relatives all worked in the tailor shops: Botany 500, After Six, Wanamaker shirts. And every Election Day, they would go work the polls. But things have changed.”

The amount of influence unions still have on city politics, though, indicates they’re as strong as ever. The unions in Philadelphia have been calledthe most politically savvy in America.”

It was seen just last month when presidential candidate/ union enemy/ Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker made a trip to Philadelphia and union members protested his stop to eat cheesesteaks. They held signs that read “Scott Walker sniffs his own poop” and “Scott Walker lives inside my butt.”

While those things may not be technically true (we think), unions in Philadelphia have long been politically involved and have used connections with the Democratic party in the city to fund campaigns and be sure a non-union ally (or – gasp! – a Republican) can’t make it into City Hall as mayor.

Mayors like Ed Rendell and John Street had major support from unions, incoming Democratic nominee for Jim Kenney has major support from unions (more on that later,) and a large portion of City Council has support from unions. And historically, with political and campaign support has come legislative favors.

In fact, current Mayor Michael Nutter is a real anomaly: He’s one of the only mayors in the last several decades to earn his spot in City Hall without the support of the city’s massive union network. And that’s been good for Nutter: He owes the unions nothing.

Toward the beginning of his time as mayor, Nutter actually used strong language against the unions by calling the lack of diversity in Philadelphia unions “economic apartheid.”

The racial divide

Nutter’s ire wasn’t misplaced. Labor unions, especially in Philadelphia, have long been majority white males, and his comments came in 2007 when it was announced that Philadelphia’s building trade unions were 99 percent male and 74 percent white.

The problem has been a long time coming. In the 1970s, white members International Union of Operating Engineers Local 542 attacked two of their own members — who were black — after they filed a discrimination lawsuit against the union. The courts ended up recommending that the union work on hiring more minorities.

The courts and political intervention has been the method of choice for some politicians trying to get more minorities into local labor unions. In 2007, unions promised City Council that they had a plan in place to add more women and minorities to their forces.

But five years later, little progress had been made. Now-defunct Philadelphia news organization Axis Philly reported that by the end of 2012, building trade union members were still 99 percent male and 76 percent white.

The top of the union food chain

There is perhaps no better example of the unions’ political influence and savvy in Philadelphia than John Dougherty, the business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, AKA “Johnny Doc.” The elected head of a 5,000-person union that’s contributed more to state and local politics than any other group is a political juggernaut in his own right, and hasn’t showed signs of his influence slowing.

Dougherty once ran for, and lost, a seat in the state Senate. But he’s comfortable as the hand behind the throne. He’s also the favorite to take over as the leader of the Democratic Party if current city party boss Congressman Bob Brady decides he doesn’t want the job anymore.

And J-Doc is slated to gain even more power: He’s soon set to take over as the head of the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council, an umbrella organization that represents dozens of unions in the city and the ‘burbs.

In 2014, The Inquirer reported that Local 98 had dumped $25.6 million of its resources into political campaigns since 2000. That money, which comes from dues paid by members of the union, go toward candidates that largely pledge to introduce legislation that helps working families and works to fill jobs with union members. They’re also a huge contributor of “street money,” or cash that’s used to get out the vote on election day.

“It’s a thinktank that turns into a ‘do tank,’” Dougherty told The Inky last year. “It’s not a matter of if we’re going to be all together, it’s a matter of who we’re going to be all together behind.”

IBEW’s PAC has donated to most of the people who currently hold seats on City Council, including Council President Darrell Clarke who has huge union support. IBEW Local 98 has also helped get its own members elected to Council, including current Councilman Bobby Henon, D-6th, who is 98’s political director.

The next mayor

To see the political muscle of trade unions, including and especially IBEW Local 98, look no further than the man who is the Democratic nominee for mayor and, based on electoral math, is the most likely to win his seat on the second floor of City Hall.

Former Councilman Jim Kenney, whose relationship with Doc has been up and down over the years, gained the support of Doc in his bid for the mayor’s office and therefore millions of dollars in PAC money. That meant ads supporting Kenney and his promises to serve working families ramped up as the primary approached. According to public records over the last two years, Kenney and his campaign drew more than a half a million dollars from the various unions that supported him. 

Local 98 gave the $11,500 maximum amount allowed by law directly to Kenney’s mayoral campaign — after their boy Clarke announced he wouldn’t be running for mayor —  but it alone dumped more than $200,000 into the Building a Better PA PAC which ran ads for Kenney. 

Despite state Sen. Anthony Williams being the early favorite, Kenney handily won the election, and Johnny Doc and the unions were the biggest difference makers.

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.