SEUI workers demonstrate in Philadelphia Credit: Via

Philly is a big labor town. From the influence of the building trades union in local politics to the city’s ongoing war with Harrisburg over workers’ protections, labor policy is a constant source of outrage and ire. The city, state and federal governments play different, often adversarial roles in the workplace.

Here are some of the key things to know.

The biggest debates

  • Union power: 2018’s landmark Supreme Court ruling has some grave implications for Philly’s unions.
  • The minimum wage: Will Pennsylvania rise above the $7.25 federal hourly standard, as other states have?
  • Philly vs. Harrisburg: City and state lawmakers often tangle over regulations passed onto private businesses, especially when it comes to working conditions.

How national policy can address labor issues

The federal government regulates labor laws big and small, and passes enforcement standards down to municipalities across the nation. Some are easier for city and state governments to work around than others.

When it comes to major labor laws — as with case of Janus vs. AFSME — the nation’s highest court has the final word. The landmark decision in that case effectively barred public unions from making union fees mandatory for public sector workers. In Philadelphia, that means unions like the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers now must make their dues optional, rather than obligatory. Labor advocates worry that more workers will opt out, weakening public union strength and participation across the country.

The federal government also regulates major debates like the minimum wage, which currently sits at $7.25 an hour. This is the baseline for local municipalities, but states do have the option of raising mandatory wages above the federal minimum — and many are doing just that.

How state policy can address labor issues

State labor regulations are just as influential as federal rulings.

On the minimum wage, dozens of states have upped it to $8 per hour and above. Massachusetts is moving toward a $15 minimum wage of the next five years, while Seattle is mostly already there. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s minimum wage hasn’t budged — and a state law prevents local municipality from raising their own standards.

In nearly every labor law debate, Harrisburg and Philadelphia are at each other’s throats. Local lawmakers accuse the state of failing to mandate decent working conditions in the city, which is the state’s largest economic engine. Harrisburg often accuses Philly of imposing onerous regulations on its private businesses.

The catch is that Philly has a legal precedent to sidestep Harrisburg, at least on certain regulations.

How city policy can address labor issues

Philadelphia lawmakers are deeply involved in labor policy for employers in the city limits. Currently on the table is Councilwoman Helen Gym’s “fair workweek” bill. If passed, the new law would force chain retail and fast-food workers in Philly to provide consistent weekly hours for the city’s 130,000 service industry workers.

But the bill is not an isolated legislative effort.

With special rights under the state’s home rule law (because of its size), Philadelphia is able to skirt statewide ordinances and pass its own labor regulations on private businesses. Under this exemption, City Council was able to implement the city’s paid sick leave law in 2015 — the only one of its kind in the state. Of course, that hasn’t stopped some state lawmakers from trying to dismantle Philly’s labor reforms in Harrisburg.

Of broader concern to local policymakers, the Pa. House of Representatives is currently considering a bill that would strip Philadelphia’s labor preemption abilities once and for all, restoring all private business regulation to the state.

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Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...