In Philadelphia, the literal birthplace of the labor union, Labor Day is an occasion for parades and festivals for proud self-declared members of the working class.
On a national scale, Teamster drivers won a very favorable new contract from UPS after threatening a strike that could have disrupted package deliveries across the country. Among those who rallied for a new agreement were some of the 5,000 Teamsters in the Philly region, a major hub for the company.
Locally, workers and organizers continued to battle for official recognition or improved pay and benefits from a number of prominent employers. Those include Starbucks, the University of Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia International Airport and its contractors, among others.
There’s also been pushback to the recent unionization trend at the city’s coffee shops, with one group of cafe workers seeking a union decertification vote.
Here’s a look at some of the many labor actions and developments in Philly this summer.
PHL Airport workers
Workers at Philadelphia International Airport and their counterparts at several other airports around the country held rallies in June in support of proposed federal legislation requiring that they be paid at least $15 per hour and receive health care benefits.
The protest in Philly was organized by SEIU 32BJ, which represents 950 workers at the airport. Getting fair pay and union recognition has been an ongoing battle for years, union members said. A 2014 city law requires that airplane cleaners, baggage handlers, and wheelchair attendants receive a “living wage,” but but it took the threat of a strike and intervention by America Airlines before contractors would agree to begin negotiating with them, workers noted.
Their first contract, finalized in 2018, guaranteed them a $12 per hour minimum wage and an increase to $13.60 after two years. In 2021 city raised the airport minimum to $15.06, plus a health subsidy and paid sick leave, but not all contractors have complied.
Unionized restaurant workers at the airport also picketed earlier this year over a dispute with their employer, OTG Management. They filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging OTG agreed to wage increases and other concessions and then withdrew from the agreement. OTG countered that a contractual agreement had never been reached.
Labor activists’ long-running battle with the world’s largest coffeehouse chain continued in July with a rally outside City Hall and a one-day strike at five unionized cafés in the city.
The work stoppages came in response to alleged threats and intimidation by a store manager during an earlier strike, and coincided with a Workers United bus stopping in Philadelphia during a 13-city tour, the Inquirer reported.
Members of Workers United have called for the city to close a Starbucks kiosk in Dilworth Park as an expression of support for their unionization efforts, and as a response to the company’s alleged union-busting in Philadelphia and elsewhere.
The national union also filed a National Labor Relations Board complaint alleging Starbucks banned Pride Month decorations in its stores, a charge the company denied. Policies on LGBTQ+-affirming decor vary among Philadelphia-area Starbucks locations, with some posting Pride flags and others apparently banning displays.
A potentially calamitous nationwide strike by unionized drivers at UPS was averted when the two sides reached a five-year agreement in late July.
The strike would have affected about 5,000 Teamsters union members in the Philadelphia area, a major hub for the package delivery giant. Ahead of an Aug. 1 deadline, local workers held a protest outside UPS offices on Oregon Avenue in South Philly. They inflated a cartoon “fat cat” — complete with diamond pinky ring — shown in the midst of strangling a delivery driver.
The Teamsters had demanded UPS share some of the increased profits it has seen in recent years. The resulting deal bumped up pay for both full- and part-time union workers, ended forced overtime on drivers’ day off, stopped use of driver-facing cameras in truck cabs, equipped more trucks with air conditioning, and provided a number of other key concessions.
SAG-AFTRA and Writers Guild
Members of the Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and the Writers Guild of America held rallies in Center City over the summer to support their unions’ national strikes against big studios and production companies.
Among those participating in a rally at Love Park in July were “Abbott Elementary” stars Sheryl Lee Ralph and Lisa Ann Walter. Mayor Jim Kenney spoke at a City Hall rally in August in support of the strikers.
SAG-AFTRA is demanding better wages and benefits, especially from streaming services and for background artists. They’re also looking for protections against losing their jobs if their images are used and manipulated via artificial intelligence.
Disclosure: Some Billy Penn staff and staffers at our parent company, WHYY, are members of SAG-AFTRA, but operate under a different contract than that of Hollywood actors.
In mid-August, the union for the Philadelphia Orchestra, Local 77 of the American Federation of Musicians, voted to authorize a strike if negotiations over a new contract break down. The current four-year deal expires Sept. 10.
The union is bargaining over compensation and benefits and is pushing orchestra management to fill 15 vacant positions. It last went on strike in September 2016, resulting in cancellation of that season’s opening night. An agreement was announced two days later.
The orchestra’s 2023-24 season is scheduled to open Sept. 28 at Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center.
During the orchestra’s recent summer residency at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, conductor and music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin wore a blue T-shirt supporting the union during an open rehearsal.
Penn residential advisors
Residential advisors and graduate residential associates at the University of Pennsylvania scored a victory Aug. 21 when the National Labor Relations Board recognized them as employees and ordered an official unionization vote.
The NLRB rejected Penn’s arguments that the residential advisors, who oversee dormitories, are not payroll employees but rather students with “an educational relationship” to the school. About 220 RAs are eligible to vote Sept. 27 and 28 on whether to unionize.
It’s only the second time the federal agency has ruled that RAs are employees and the first election to result from a hearing, the Daily Pennsylvanian reported. The RAs and GRAs are pushing for better compensation, including an expanded dining plan.
Penn has also seen labor activity at its medical school, where 1,400 residents and fellows voted to unionize in May, and among undergraduate and graduate student workers who are seeking union recognition. The action at Penn follows a long grad student strike at Temple in February that resulted in higher pay, added health benefits, an improved grievance process and other changes.
SEIU service workers
At least a thousand workers representing office cleaners, maintenance workers and other members of the Service Employees International Union filled the streets of Center City for a huge rally in late August, including about a dozen busloads of people from the New York area.
Democratic mayoral nominee Cherelle Parker was the keynote speaker, returning early support SEIU gave her, before she was considered a frontrunner in the primary.
The gathering was a show of strength and solidarity as 32BJ SEIU workers along the East Coast headed into bargaining for a new union contract, which would replace the current deal that expires on Oct. 15. They are negotiating for wage increases to keep up with inflation and trying to protect their health care benefits.
Good Karma Cafe
A rare union decertification effort is underway at the small Philly coffee chain.
A group of Good Karma employees petitioned the NLRB to order a vote Sept. 7 on whether to end their representation by the Workers United union, according to the National Right to Work Foundation, an anti-union group that is assisting the employees.
That’s the same Workers United that represents Starbucks employees in Philadelphia and elsewhere. The NRTW says it is working with Starbucks workers in Pittsburgh, New York, Salt Lake City and other places who are seeking decertification votes.
Good Karma employees voted to form their union in March 2022. The chain subsequently closed two cafés permanently and a third temporarily, for various reasons. A number of other coffee shops in Philly have also unionized over the past year, including Vibrant Coffee Roasters just last week.