People in Philadelphia comment on how it’s a “union town”, but regardless of history, the labor laws and current lack of unions here currently sucks.
Jacobin published a piece in September 2019 about how Philadelphia has a history of labor activism. There’s a lot of interesting history there, and it’s well worth the read.
That article instigated me to write this post. Even though I’m presenting a counter-argument, I want to emphasize, it’s a good article, and I have nothing against it.
However, it’s a great example of a certain discourse that I have seen since I moved to Philadelphia two years ago. People always talk about how Philadelphia is a “union town”. That was true once, but it hasn’t been true for a long time.
Actually being a member of the workforce in Philadelphia, for most people, is hell. When Philadelphians brag about the labor history here, I want to grab them by the shoulders and shake them and be like “Do you realize how shitty it is to work here now?”
In this piece, I want to show how the Philadelphia workforce shouldn’t be celebrated, because it’s not a good place to work. That’s not to say Philadelphia’s labor history shouldn’t be celebrated, but it isn’t conducive to focus on that, without constantly acknowledging those days are long gone.
I think if a lot of Philadelphians went to another city with, you know, labor laws, they would feel absolutely betrayed and confused about their prior working conditions.
A tale of two workforces
Before I moved to Philadelphia, I lived in Portland Oregon. I have worked multiple jobs in both cities. I will go into my jobs more specifically, but first, I will spell out basic differences in labor laws.
The current Portland Metro area minimum wage is $12.50. When I worked there, it was first $9.25, then $9.75, then $11.25. My first summer job, before I properly entered the workforce, the minimum wage was $9.25. And yet, I never actually made minimum wage – most employers are pretty good at offering something more competitive. Even my first job, where I worked at a concession stand at an amusement park, I made $0.25 over minimum.
Meanwhile, the minimum wage in Pennsylvania is $7.25, the federal minimum, and has been for years.
Another thing is in Oregon, everyone is legally obligated to, at least, a ten minute break every four hours, and a thirty minute lunch break every eight hours. This means a conventional eight hour shift goes: 2 hours of work, short break, 90 minutes of work, 30 minute lunch, 2 hours of work, short break, 90 minutes of work.
In Pennsylvania, there’s no legal obligation to a break.
Another difference is Pennsylvania uses “tipped minimum” laws, whereas in Oregon, you’re guaranteed the minimum wage, whether you’re tipped or not.
I will explain this for non-Americans, because it’s so profoundly stupid: in many US states, if someone works for tips, they aren’t obligated to get paid the minimum wage from their employer. The federal, tipped minimum wage is $2.13, meaning as long as your tips+$2.13/hour=the minimum wage, then the employer isn’t obligated to pay you more.
There are some other policy differences, but these are big ones. They may sound small, but the difference between $7.25/hour and $11/hour is profoundly huge. The difference between having three small breaks and not having a break at all is profoundly huge. If you’re a stuffy capitalist, you wouldn’t realize this, or if you did, you wouldn’t care. But just put yourself in the shoes of someone making $58/day before tax, without getting a single break. Then realize the Oregon minimum wage is almost double that daily wage.
Wage deception in Philadelphia
The labor laws in Pennsylvania are abhorrent, but there’s more to it. I’m about to get into anecdotal details, so I can’t claim these represent the Philadelphia workforce as a whole. However, I have lived here for two years, and I’ve had six different jobs: I was a busser at a bar, I sorted trash at an Eagles game, I canvassed for ACLU, I worked utility in an Aramark cafeteria, I was a janitor at a casino, and I now work at a small film distributor office.
I’ve not only worked many jobs here, but I’ve worked a wide variety of jobs, so I hope that gives some credence to my anecdotes.
For one, I’ve had two different jobs in Philadelphia where I was deceived about how much I would be paid.
The first, I worked as a busser at a bar. They said if you work during the day, you don’t get as many tips, so you make $11/hour. If you worked at night, you earn minimum wage, but you also get part of the tips, so they insisted I’d make “well over” the $11/hour that one makes during the day.
However, when I got my first paycheck, they told me they were giving me the minimum wage, but they were really giving me the tipped wage. Of course, the tipped wage is the absolute minimum wage, but it was misleading because the tipped wage isn’t called the minimum wage, technically nor casually.
You might be saying, “you weren’t deceived, you just misunderstood!” Yeah, maybe. But the thing that makes it obviously deceptive is that, I got such a small portion of the tip pool, that I didn’t make “well above” $11/hour… I made $7.75/hour – the minimum wage. What this means is that, I may have been making “a minimum wage”, but the tips still didn’t equal an amount that surpassed “the minimum wage”, so it was way less than they said I’d make, no matter how you cut it.
The other job where I was deceived was when I sorted trash at a Philadelphia Eagles game. I wasn’t deceived on my wage exactly, they straight up told me it was $8.50/hour. What they didn’t tell me, is I had to get a “background check”, which they deducted from my pay. They deducted $20, which was about 3 hours worth of work, after tax, for a ten hour workday. The weird thing about it is, I gave them my information for the background check the day before I went to work, and there’s no way to do a legitimate background check in that time, especially because any relevant background information about me would come from out of state. So as far as I could tell, the temp agency pocketed my $20 and told the client I passed the background check.
A third example of shitty pay, although not based in deception, was when I worked as a canvasser. I could write a single, extensive post about how exploitative and flat-out terrible Grassroots Campaigns is.
But just to give basics, the way their pay-model works is everyone in the office goes out and cavasses. Every week, the bottom 20% of donation earners get minimum wage, while the top 80% earn $11/hour. When I was there, the managers actually negotiated a wage increase to $12/hour… but still minimum wage for the bottom 20%. Not only that, but if you go two weeks in a row making less in donations than your own hourly wage, you get fired.
In other words, in theory you can have the job indefinitely, making $12/hour. In reality, many people (myself included), work there for a couple months for $7.75/hour, before getting fired. Of course, Grassroots Campaigns is in many states, with just as oppressive labor policy. The difference is, the bare minimum wage in many of those states is much higher. If I was canvassing in Portland, and was in the lowest 20% of earners, I would be making more than the top 80% of earners make in Philadelphia.
Unprofessional, condescending, controlling bosses
There are also several more intangible elements to the Philadelphia workforce that signify a toxic social culture with regards to workers.
In general, every workplace I’ve been in Philadelphia is much less organized than my workplaces in Portland. For example, I worked multiple jobs where employment would skimp heavily on supplies, and would create an environment, I think purposefully, where employees would fight with each other over the supplies, in order to work. Every job I’ve had here offered subpar training, where the manager would then get mad at you for doing, or not doing, something that you were never trained to do. And in general, the workplace was disorganized. There were instances at many different jobs where I had nothing to do, weren’t given anything to do in my downtime, and had no way of organizing or prioritizing tasks. It’s a highly inefficient workforce.
Probably the most glaring social workplace issue that immediately struck me, is that at every job I’ve had here, bosses emphasized the “work family” mentality. Of course, that happens everywhere. I remember applying for a job at Chipotle in Portland and they said you shouldn’t work there if you didn’t want a work family. But in Philadelphia it’s different. In Portland, it’s lip service because it’s a free and easy way to try to placate workers, but everyone knows it’s hollow rhetoric.
In Philadelphia, every boss I’ve had exhibited paternal, domineering and patronizing attitudes. I felt like they were literally attempting to LARP as my dad, or worse, some type of feudal lord. Sometimes, the boss would treat me like a relative in an unprofessional way, like talking to me like an intimate inferior, rather than a worker. Sometimes, the boss would act like an asshole dad, antagonizing, shouting at, and picking arguments with staff.
A similar social dynamic is, at jobs in Portland, I wasn’t expected to respect higher-ups if I didn’t work under them. If someone was a high-level manager, but I didn’t work with them directly, they were seen much more as a peer. I didn’t answer to them, we just worked in the same place. In Philadelphia, everyone who makes more money than you is functionally treated as your boss.
When I worked as a busser at the bar, I stepped outside for a five-minute break (remember, I wasn’t supposed to take breaks there), and the drink server manager reamed me out. I had never worked with her before, or even talked to her before. I dismissively shrugged her off because I’d never experienced something like that at work, and then she spoke to my manager because I didn’t kiss her ass.
When I worked at a casino, this was even more drastic. Upper management made it abundantly, explicitly clear that they saw the company in a tight hierarchy where the more money an employee makes, the higher they are in the hierarchy. Not only did I have managers in completely different departments, who I’ve never seen before (in a workplace of 1,500 employees), bark orders at me, but I also had fellow, non-managerial employees, like drink servers and card dealers, bark orders at me, because they made more money.
In general, there’s a high level of unprofessionalism amongst managers in Philadelphia, and a strong double-standard where workers are expected to be unreasonably professional.
Managers here will frequently gawk at and scrutinize the workers, make inappropriate comments, ream out employees on their breaks and in front of customers, etc. Meanwhile, employees would get put in their place for joking around, talking with coworkers, glancing at their phone, etc.
I have one anecdote that perfectly encapsulates a lot of my gripes about the social dynamics I’ve experienced in the Philadelphia workforce. When I worked at an Aramark cafeteria, there was some downtime, so I asked the chef if he minded if I took a quick break. I went outside and took a break, came back less than ten minutes later.
When I came back in, the kitchen manager cornered me, in front of customers. He got in my face and said “Don’t ask for breaks. Don’t talk about breaks. You don’t get breaks, unless you sneak out and no one notices.”
All of these elements are things that have happened to me more than once. And none of those things – not the asking for breaks, being cornered, being reprimanded for taking a break, being embarrassed in front of people – would be commonplace in the Portland workforce.
When unions are the only thing giving people labor rights, but then they shrink
I want this post to have an impact, not just be a series of anecdotes. All of these labor issues aren’t incompatible with Philadelphia’s history as a “union town”, it’s the logical consequence of it having been a union town in a neoliberalized world.
It shows the limits of industrial unions. Of course, industrial unions are great, but they also only fight for labor rights within the industry they represent. This leads to several issues.
Industrial unionism is a more universal type of unionism than craft unionism. Craft unions organize around the specific, qualitative labor performed. A good example would be the Writers Guild, because they don’t organize and represent the entire film industry, they represent writers.
Because of this, craft unions have issues between worker competition. For example, if directors, writers, cinematographers, etc all had the same union, they would all be working for their collective interests as an industry, rather than being split into different groups that may compete with one another. This is industrial unionism.
So, while industrial unions are more universal than craft unions, they’re still limited in scope. For example, ILWU represents longshoremen (I only use ILWU as an example because it’s a union I highly respect). But even still, ILWU doesn’t care about the wages or rights of a retail worker. Of course, the individual members of ILWU surely want labor rights to all workers, but it’s outside of the purview of the ILWU as a union.
Add the facts that most prominent unions in the US kowtow to capitalist interests, and more radical unions were heavily neutered by the US government. Then, to top it off, unionized labor has been largely outsourced, and replaced with non-unionized labor.
Because of this, unions didn’t, and don’t, fight for the labor rights of all workers. That’s okay, that’s not what they were designed to do. But, there is no failsafe when the unions were reduced to having very little power. The unions were, and are, protecting their industry.
This is why, if the American Left is to have any permanent gains for the labor movement, they need to be more universal and more militant. I’m not a union organizer, so I’m not trying to play backseat driver. But just from my observations, if unions don’t, at least on some level, attempt for universal labor rights, then they will be undermined by an even more exploited and disorganized non-union workforce.