Unions built Philadelphia. Hell, they built America. But today, Philadelphiaâ€™s public unions are leading the city into permanent decline.
Thatâ€™s a painful conclusion if, like me, youâ€™re a liberal who believes deeply in the right of workers to advocate for better pay, benefits and workplace conditions. Look around the city, though, and this is what the evidence shows:
â€˘ Public unions drain the cityâ€™s resources. There are roughly 35,000 public-sector pensioners in Philadelphia, consuming up to 18 percent of the cityâ€™s budgetâ€”money not used to do things like keep libraries open. Most of the blame can be placed on past mayors who refused to set aside enough money to keep their retirement commitments, but AFSCME district councils 33 and 47 havenâ€™t joined with Mayor Nutter to reform a burdensome system, either. So weâ€™re stuck.
â€˘ They block the fixes we need. The School Reform Commissionâ€™s plan to split the district into smaller parts may or may not be the best thing for Philadelphia, but itâ€™s telling that school unions took to the streets after it was announced â€¦ to protest their own lost jobs. The cityâ€™s schools have underperformed for decades, driving parents to the suburbsâ€”and the unions seem to mostly defend the indefensible status quo. Incredible.
â€˘ They simply donâ€™t care about the city. Remember when SEPTA workers went on strike in 2009? They did so at 3 a.m., without warningâ€”strandingÂ workers and schoolchildren who didnâ€™t know theyâ€™d lost their commute. Strikes are supposed to create inconvenience, but the SEPTA showdown was a poke in the eye to tens of thousands of residents.
â€˘ The Fraternal Order of Police canâ€™t stand us. Officers negotiated so they no longer have to live in the city after five years of service, and now the union has moved its headquarters from Spring Garden Street to the Northeast. We get the hint.
This is not a call for a Wisconsin-style crackdown. Working for City Hall shouldnâ€™t require a vow of poverty, but at some point it will require a change of attitude. Public unions should be partners in building the cityâ€”not just another constituency that demands favors.
This article originally appeared in the July issue of Philadelphia magazine.