LABOR DAY: “Philadelphia? That’s a Good Union Town.”

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I grew up in Kensington and been a union member all my adult life (with a few years serving Uncle Sam the only exception).

As a member of Insulators Local 14, I worked on construction sites as far away as Atlantic City, Pittsburgh, and upstate New York. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to travel all over this country, and all over the world. And nearly everywhere I go, when the subject of Philadelphia comes up, someone will say:

“Philadelphia? That’s a good union town.”

Sometimes it sounds a bit like a slogan – “The City of Brotherly Love,” “The City that Loves You Back,” “A Good Union Town,” that kind of thing. But I think it’s more than a slogan. What does it mean to say that Philadelphia is a good union town?

Part of the meaning relates to our history. In 1794, shoemakers in Philadelphia formed the Federal Society of Journeyman Cordwainers – the first formal union in our new nation’s history. In 1806, the union’s leaders were put on trial for “conspiracy” – that is, forming a union and going on strike for higher wages — and despite a vigorous defense, they were convicted and ordered to pay a fine.

But Philadelphia’s workers continued to stand together to better their lives. In June 1835, dockworkers went on strike for a 10-hour day. Other unions downed tools and joined the strike, demanding the same 10-hour day at their workplaces. When workers for the City of Philadelphia joined them on the picket line, the dockworkers’ strike had become the Philadelphia General Strike of 1835 – and City Council promptly passed a law establishing a 10-hour workday for the City government’s employees. That 10-hour day became the standard for all workers in the city.

Because of this legacy, unions are woven into the fabric of our city. Philadelphia’s unions have raised over $3 million to fight cerebral palsy in the 30 years of the All-Star Labor Classic basketball festival. Union members lead nonprofits, advocacy organizations, church boards and youth sports leagues.

As a young man, our mayor, Jim Kenney, was a member of two unions. And as our city’s top elected official, he’s personally stood with workers demanding fairness from our city’s major employers. He’s used his authority to help Philadelphians by demanding fairness from construction companies, from employers at the airport, from the largest hotels in our city – and leading by example in bargaining fairly with the City’s employees.

The involvement of unions in every part of our community is another reason that Philadelphia a good union town.

As Philadelphians, union solidarity is in our blood. I’m proud of our union heritage. But what makes me even prouder is the fact that working people in Philadelphia continue to build on this foundation. Just in the last 5 years – which is a blip in the long history of the Philadelphia labor movement – thousands of workers in Philadelphia, from leading teaching hospitals to the Philadelphia International Airport to our major universities, have joined unions and won groundbreaking first union contracts.

Just as important, unions have joined forces with community organizations and our elected leaders in City Hall to pass landmark laws granting all workers in Philadelphia the right to paid sick leave and protecting every worker in Philadelphia from having their wages stolen by dishonest employers.

When someone tells me that Philadelphia is “a good union town”, I think of those workers and those victories, too.

Monday, Sept. 2 is Labor Day – a day to celebrate organized labor and the courage and solidarity of generations of American working people who’ve built our nation’s labor movement. As I have for the past 15 years, I’ll be proud to lead the Tri-State Labor Day Parade up Columbus Boulevard from the Sheet Metal Local 19 Union Hall to Penn’s Landing. Tens of thousands of union members of every kind of background and description, members of over 60 unions in every industry and workplace you can imagine, will march in that parade.

For centuries, Philadelphia has been a city where working people stand together for justice and equality and fairness – to me, that’s the essence of what makes Philadelphia a good, union town. I’m proud to be part of that heritage, and proud to celebrate that heritage, and renew our commitment to be a good union town, on Labor Day.

Pat Eiding is president of Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO.

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