Usually, the peons wait for the pols.
Not so last Thursday on the corner of Fifth and Market streets, where, at 2:35 p.m., state Rep. Babette Josephs, City Council candidate Irv Ackelsberg and former City Controller Jonathan Saidel, a stand-in for mayoral candidate Bob Brady, lingered like teens on a spring evening. They were waiting for purple-clad laborers from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ, who were supposed to have arrived at 2:30 p.m. with signs and bullhorns.
Evan M. Lopez
SEIU had called a rally to protest the practices of Statewide Environmental Services, a janitorial company that SEIU says pays its workers as little as $6.50 an hour with no health coverage (around half of what local unionized janitors, who also collect benefits, receive).
The union holds these rallies fairly regularly, often as a prelude to an organizing drive. It would be unfair to say that politicians rarely join them. But last week's was particularly well-attended it even attracted letters of support from mayoral candidates Brady and Chaka Fattah. "I urge you to finance a cleaning contract that pays decent wages and benefits to the cleaners at all of your commercial office properties," Fattah wrote to the company. The pols, it seemed, were coming out of the woodwork.
A cynic might think this had something to do with the upcoming elections.
Union endorsements can be valuable to campaigns for several reasons, including prestige, money and, perhaps most important, labor: Some unions put their members on the street in the weeks preceding an election to get out the vote for their preferred candidates.
For this reason, the most coveted union endorsements in Philadelphia mayoral races traditionally include the electricians' Local 98 (John Dougherty's union) and Laborers' Local 332, which both have strong field operations.
SEIU is an interesting case. Though it hasn't long been a powerhouse in Philadelphia politics, it's the fastest-growing union in North America, and, frankly, the most innovative. In 2005, SEIU split from the AFL-CIO because it thought the American labor movement needed to be shaken from a stupor. Consequently, it carries a certain cultural cachet: It's the "progressive" union.
Locally, many of SEIU's members are custodians and reside in the city, so, unlike many building trades union members, they can actually vote for their union's candidate. And the union has a majority of minorities: Most of its members are immigrant or African-American.
When SEIU held its rally last week, the city's other majority-black union, the Laborers, had already endorsed Dwight Evans, so the union's support had become all the more coveted. An SEIU endorsement would be a real coup for one of the white candidates (more likely Brady, who has a longstanding relationship with labor). Conversely, it could solidify Evans' black union support. And neither Chaka Fattah nor Michael Nutter wants to be shut out by the major unions.
The morning after the rally, three local SEIU organizers sat down in their Center City office to discuss the union's selection. They didn't want to divulge their thoughts on individual candidates yet "It's a tough decision," organizing coordinator Jeff Hornstein said coyly when asked about prospects. But they offered insight into how the union will make its choice.
SEIU began its formal consideration a few weeks ago by creating a questionnaire and forming a member committee to interview the mayoral hopefuls. Some of the concerns it brought the candidates were general, like making sure the city's commitment to provide universal health care, demanded by voters in a 2003 referendum, would be met. Others were labor-specific.
Among these was concern over the city's "prevailing wage" law. Prevailing wage is the minimum amount that can be paid people doing government-funded work. Philadelphia has good laws in this regard, says Hornstein, but they have "very little teeth." The union wanted to hear what mayoral candidates would do to make sure prevailing wage got paid.
After the interviews, SEIU convened a closed-door candidates' forum at the union hall on Spring Garden Street. Beverly Sims-Miller, a Center City janitor, was in attendance with several hundred other workers. She says her main concerns, recreation centers and competition from low-wage janitors in the suburbs, weren't really addressed: "The answers were based on, really, what they'd done, instead of answering what [they] would try to do," she says. Nevertheless, at the end of the forum, a vote was taken.
Within the next several weeks, the union's leaders will sit down, consider the results of the committee interviews and the forum poll, and make their pick. They admit somewhat awkwardly that the rank-and-file will not have the final decision. It's important to SEIU organizers that their organization be bottom-up and it's true that the union's endorsement can't blatantly contradict the rank-and-file's wishes, or workers wouldn't hit the streets in support of the union's candidate. But, says Hornstein, "We're not going to go poll every member."
In addition to member input, the leadership will consider candidate viability (the union doesn't want to pick a loser), and previous support for the union's efforts efforts like last Thursday's rally.
So for the next couple of weeks, look for politicians on street corners, eagerly awaiting their chance to suck up.