On September 17, the Philadelphia AFL-CIO hosted its first-ever Workers’ Presidential Summit, a forum where those vying for the Democratic Party’s nomination addressed the hopes and concerns of the city’s rank-and-file union members. It would be difficult to choose a more appropriate place than Philadelphia to discuss the existential threats facing the labor movement. Despite being a city where unions remain a political heavyweight, Philadelphia workers have endured their share of the attacks as nurses and hospital staff, refinery workers, public school teachers, academics, those in the building trades, and others have faced closures and unsafe, undercompensated working conditions. Pennsylvania, too, continues to be a likely battleground state in the upcoming 2020 general election, one which could fall into the hands of Donald Trump once again. Three years ago, Hillary Clinton received an astounding twenty thousand fewer votes in Pennsylvania than Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign won in Philadelphia alone. Those lost votes made up nearly nearly half the margin of which she lost the state to Trump. If once-reliable union strongholds like Philadelphia are unable — or, in some instances, perhaps unwilling — to deliver their votes to a Democratic Party that has largely turned its back on labor, it could happen again.
Given these stakes, why was Senator Bernie Sanders the only Democratic front-runner to accept the invitation to the summit when it was first announced weeks ago? Shockingly, Joe Biden — who has made his political career feigning working-class — only agreed to the event at the last hour, following a two-week saga of Philadelphia labor leaders publicly lamenting the candidate’s previous unwillingness to attend. Recently surging Elizabeth Warren, darling of a particular strata of more affluent liberal progressives, remained firm in her decision to snub the event. It speaks volumes about Sanders’s commitment to building labor power — and his sheer electability — that he stood alone among the serious contenders for the office in enthusiastically accepting the call to meet with and learn from Philadelphia’s working class.
Of Faux Working-Class Candidates and Technocrats
Biden’s and Warren’s attitudes toward the summit make clear that their candidacies stand very little chance at reinvigorating the kind of worker power that will carry us not only through the 2020 elections, but beyond into a new age of labor movement ascendency. Upon learning that Biden had decided to stand them up, Philadelphia labor and Democratic Party leaders expressed dismay over the former vice president’s failure to live up to his working-class affect. There was some reason to believe that Biden would leap at the opportunity to appear before Philadelphia workers. In April, Biden held his first campaign rally with Teamsters Local 249 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he boasted about being a “union man” and brandished his moniker, “Middle-Class Joe.” There, he growled about overpaid CEOs “squeezing the life out of workers” and championed labor reforms that would give union members a much-needed leg up at the bargaining table. And at the summit this week, one could be forgiven for mistaking Biden for a class-struggle candidate when he told union members that they are “the only ones who keep the barbarians on the other side of the gates.”
Due to the kind of establishment donor base that his campaign has courted, however, Middle-Class Joe seems unable to afford his disguise as a workers’ advocate on anything more than a part-time basis. Prior to his Pittsburgh rally, Biden held his first official campaign fundraiser cohosted by Steven Cozen, chairman of the union-busting law firm Cozen O’Connor, and Comcast senior executive vice president David Cohen, who, too, has a history of union-busting. Biden’s allies in Philadelphia attempted to explain away their candidate’s earlier decision to forgo the summit by referencing a scheduling conflict. But what kinds of labor events could Biden attend if he was not schmoozing with those like Cozen, Cohen, and many other powerful enemies of labor? Given the range of his support for past and present anti-labor policies, including free trade deals like NAFTA and the TPP, as well as his persistent failure to endorse a national ban on right-to-work legislation, there would be little reason to trust Biden even if he had agreed immediately to the workers’ summit.
For many who consider themselves on the left end of the political spectrum, it appears obvious that an Elizabeth Warren presidency would be a boon to workers and unions. She does, after all, boast a significantly more progressive campaign platform than Biden and nearly any other candidate seeking the nomination. Warren’s failure to attend the summit, however, is not terribly difficult to make sense of, considering her technocratic brand of progressivism. Though her policies target the pathologies of finance capital, her political orientation is often misleadingly conflated with a program that centers the working class and its institutions as the driver of an egalitarian restructuring of political economy.
Look, for example, at decisions Warren has made when confronted with competing constituencies. When the Bernie campaign sent its surrogates — and then later the man himself — to Philadelphia earlier this summer to protest venture capitalist Joel Freedman’s move to close a union hospital and sell its real estate, Warren chose to meet instead with a largely professional-managerial crowd at the Netroots Nation convention next door. Warren, too, has made a habit of pursuing an “inside strategy” of behind-the-scenes meetings with the same Democratic Party leadership that has for decades now triangulated yearnings for social transformation in the electorate and the establishment’s investment in the status quo.
As her critics have noted, Warren has never been a movement politician. Yes, she traded in her partisan affiliation as a Republican in the mid-1990s for a more progressive policy agenda, though notably only after living through the massive assaults on labor waged by the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations. Even as a Democrat, Warren has remained, in her own words, a “capitalist to my bones,” favoring a top-down regulatory approach to matters such as financial reform that, while necessary, fails to look outside the federal bureaucracy for the ultimate sources of social change. Though some may point to the national Working Families Party’s (WFP) recent endorsement of her campaign, that, too, is little evidence that she has done little more than convince an organization with a tendency toward “quick trick” proceduralism instead of a serious infrastructure and vision for a labor left (for all the good the WFP has ever done, the shadiness around this round’s endorsement will likely haunt its integrity as a workers’ organization). Nothing about Warren’s history or her campaign platform policies — many of which are plagued by a predilection for means-testing — would help labor get its bearings.
Labor’s Candidate and a Plan for Workplace Democracy
Bernie opened his remarks by referencing his past support for labor. He could have spent his entire introduction doing so considering that he has spent his political career on the front lines of the labor struggle. He began instead by stating, “I’m not going to talk about the past. I’m going to talk about the future.” It is no exaggeration to say that Sanders’s 2020 proposals form the most pro-worker campaign platform in nearly a century. Some of his plans deal specifically with protecting unions and forming new ones. Though in fact, the rights, safety, and dignity of workers are integral to all of his legislative proposals, including Medicare for All, the Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education, College for All, and the Green New Deal. As he stated at the summit, they are plans to create “a government of the working class in this country, by the working class in this country, and for the working class in this country.”
Sanders’s Workplace Democracy Plan, for instance, aims to strengthen the labor movement and expand the rights of workers. The sweeping proposal lowers the barriers to forming unions, bans “right-to-work” laws, and extends the right to strike to federal workers. It also pledges to finally establish card check-in union elections, an unfulfilled Obama administration promise which Joe Biden was tasked with delivering.
Additionally, the plan specifically addresses the misclassification of workers as independent contractors or managers. In the construction industry, companies routinely misclassify workers as independent contractors or pay them under the table. This allows companies to pay workers less, avoid safety and health regulations, circumvent the formation of unions and the hiring of union workers, and evade taxes (these tax revenue losses total in the billions annually). Companies that do this are unfairly advantaged in contract bidding as their costs are lower than companies that employ unionized workers. The result is less work for those in unions, which goes toward explaining the national decline of unionized construction workers.
These practices also raise health and safety concerns given that construction sites employing nonunionized workers have twice as many health and safety violations as those employing unionized workers. In Philadelphia and the greater region, carpenters with the Keystone Mountain Lakes Regional Council of Carpenters, have been working to combat tax fraud, worker misclassification, and off-the-books payments.
Sanders’s Workplace Democracy Plan features a number of provisions that would end the exploitation of those classified as independent contractors as well as increase the power of unions more generally. First, it pledges to end the ability for companies to misclassify workers. Second, it institutes sectoral bargaining, which would set minimum standards for wages, benefits, and hours for entire industries. Third, it commits to passing a Workers’ Bill of Rights that guarantees safe conditions for all workers. For these reasons and more, Sanders declared at the summit that his Workplace Democracy Plan features “the most progressive, pro-labor legislation ever introduced in recent history.”
Medicare for All…Especially Union Workers
Though Sanders’s Medicare for All bill is best known for guaranteeing free and accessible health care, it doubles as a piece of pro-worker legislation. Most simply, Medicare for All would prevent employers from leveraging health care against their workers. This week, nearly fifty thousand workers with the United Auto Workers (UAW) went on strike against General Motors (GM). These UAW workers are demanding that the automaker raise wages, add additional jobs at existing plants, and reopen shuttered plants. As one union worker at a parts distribution center outside of Philadelphia explained, “We want a fair and equitable contract for our members.” As part of their strike-breaking efforts, GM has cut workers’ health care coverage, a move Sanders harshly criticized at Tuesday’s summit. Passing Medicare for All would forestall companies like GM from using health care coverage as a weapon against striking workers.
Medicare for All would also take health care off the bargaining table, meaning that workers would no longer be forced to sacrifice higher wages and better working conditions for health care benefits. Some opponents of single-payer health care have denounced it as a move to unfairly abolish union health care plans. At the summit, Biden invoked the erroneous claim that workers would lose out under a Medicare for All system and instead advocated for his public option–based plan. This ignores the fact that last month, Bernie included in his Workplace Democracy Plan a “fair transition to Medicare for All.” This means that for those with union-bargained health care plans, companies would be required to use health care savings to increase the wages and benefits of their employees.
Some of the legislation’s specific reforms would also protect against corporations and speculators who buy up hospitals and put profit over patients and workers. In recent years, the United States has averaged around thirty hospital closures annually. This startling number is the result of a few related factors including: public hospitals that cannot afford to stay open, for-profit hospital chains that acquire facilities only to close expensive wards like OB-GYN clinics, and a new trend in which private equity firms purchase struggling health care facilities in order to shut them down and sell their assets. The consequence is that patients, who are often low-income and/or people of color, are frequently left without access to health care. Additionally, shutdowns cause thousands of workers to lose their jobs, including nurses, physicians, and staff. The recent closure of Philadelphia’s Hahnemann Hospital is an especially alarming example. The hospital served around four hundred thousand emergency room patients a year and employed thousands of unionized workers, including eight hundred nurses organized with the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP). That union led an attempt to save the hospital, which included two rallies featuring Sanders and his campaign cochair Nina Turner.
Medicare for All could prevent future crises like the one at Hahnemann by changing the way hospitals are funded. Current funding systems rely on per-patient billing, in which administrative and billing expenses consume 25 percent of total revenues. A Medicare for All system would implement a global funding scheme that provides a lump sum of funding, which can be allocated to meet the needs of their particular facilities. This would cut administrative costs in half. These reforms would undercut the ability of speculators to prey on facilities that serve lower-income patients and protect the jobs of health care workers in Philadelphia and across the country.
The Green New Deal for Labor
In late June, only weeks after a series of explosions and fires erupted at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) oil refinery, the facility announced it would permanently close. In addition to thousands of contract workers who worked at the site, the facility directly employed around one thousand people, seven hundred of whom were unionized workers. As a result of the closure, all of these workers lost their jobs. Taking Hahnemann into account, that means that in the span of a few months this summer, the city lost several thousand jobs, of which around 1,500 were unionized.
These refinery jobs, however, were not mourned by as many city residents as were those lost at Hahnemann. In fact, the refinery has been a subject of controversy for years as critics have highlighted the dangers that its use of highly toxic hydrofluoric acid has presented workers and residents. Immediately after the explosion, but before the closure was announced, some community groups even petitioned against a straightforward reopening, citing the need for a transition away from burning fossil fuels.
It is hardly a solution to wait for disasters to strike these facilities and then to simply clean house (especially considering that PES executives walked away with millions as they closed the doors). Another of Sanders’s signature platform proposals, the Green New Deal, offers a remedy that attends to both the environmental and safety concerns facing workers as well as their economic livelihoods. As he affirmed at the summit, “Coal miners [and] oil rig workers are not my enemy. Climate change is my enemy.” Sanders unveiled his ambitious proposal for curbing climate change at the site of another fossil fuel fire in Paradise, California. There, he delineated a program that places a revitalized union workforce and federal expenditures at the center of the fight against an environmental doomsday. The Sanders campaign has called the Green New Deal legislation nothing less than a plan to “end unemployment” as it would establish a modern-day Civilian Conservation Corps tasked with revamping manufacturing, energy production, agriculture, and more to create a more just and livable world.
A Working-Class Solution to the Crisis of Higher Education
Though not the stereotypical face of labor, faculty and staff at colleges and universities are also hurting in Philadelphia and across the country. The latest data from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) shows that only 27 percent of college and university instructors are employed in full-time, tenure-track positions. The other 73 percent is mainly comprised of part-time faculty, full-time, non-tenure-track faculty, and graduate students. Compared with their tenure-track counterparts, non-tenure-track instructors are paid less, afforded few benefits, and have little job security. Many live well under the poverty line and have no guarantee of employment semester to semester.
Across the country, academic worker unions have been leading the fight for better working and living conditions. In Philadelphia, Temple Association of University Professionals (TAUP) — which represents nearly three thousand faculty, librarians, and academic professionals — is in contract negotiations with Temple University. The union’s demands include across-the-board salary increases, more tenure-track faculty positions, and better tuition benefits for workers and their families. In April, workers at the Community College of Philadelphia won several similar concessions from the college during their own contract negotiations. The new contract includes wage increases, better health care coverage, and standardized course loads for faculty.
Bernie’s College for All legislation is best known for its commitment to making public colleges, universities, and trade schools tuition free, a point he reiterated at the summit. Doing so would relieve the burden of working families struggling to afford sending children to college or trade school. The legislation, however, also includes provisions that parallel the demands that academic worker unions are making on their employers. The College for All Act requires public colleges and universities to increase the number of tenure-track positions and the proportion of instruction done by tenure-track faculty to 75 percent in five years. It also mandates that part-time and adjunct faculty be compensated for the work they do beyond the classroom (such as holding office hours). The College for All proposal is about more than simply making college more accessible. It is also a plan to better the lives and working conditions of those who labor in higher education.
Safer Public Schools for Teachers and Students
In May, Sanders rolled out his Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education. Importantly, the plan recognizes that improving student education is inherently connected to bettering the working conditions of teachers. Accordingly, his proposal protects and expands teachers’ collective bargaining rights and safeguards tenure. It promises to work with states to set the floor for teacher salaries at $60,000, because, as Sanders noted at the summit, “teachers, great teachers, [are] forced to leave the profession because they are not earning a living wage.” It also provides for equitable and adequate school funding so that teachers have the resources and support they need to provide quality instruction.
The plan also addresses the lesser-known issue of the deterioration of school buildings that impacts the health and safety of students, staff, and teachers. The problem of decaying schools is pervasive as 53 percent of all US schools fail to meet the standard of being in “good overall condition.” The severity of this situation can be seen in Philadelphia, where the abhorrent conditions of the city’s public schools have been thoroughly documented. In many schools, lead has been found in the drinking water and in the paint chips that fall from classroom walls and ceilings. Most buildings lack air conditioning, which has repeatedly forced schools to close or be let out early on particularly hot days. Further, the city’s teachers union, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), estimates that a majority of school buildings contain asbestos.
The effects of such conditions on the safety and well-being of students, staff, and teachers are dire. Last week, the union announced it will be investigating whether the presence of asbestos in the city’s schools had caused at least one Philadelphia teacher to develop mesothelioma, a cancer linked to asbestos exposure. PFT president Jerry Jordan underscored the gravity of the situation, stating that “students and educators are literally risking death whenever they go to school.” The total cost of repairs to make Philadelphia’s school buildings safe? Almost $5 billion (or over $2 billion more than the school district’s operating budget last year). Sanders’s Thurgood Marshall Plan recognizes the seriousness of this problem. His proposal addresses the type of infrastructural decay in Philadelphia and across the country by committing federal funds to renovate, modernize, and green school buildings.
Philadelphia and Labor’s Struggle Ahead
Echoing a line from the labor movement classic “Solidarity Forever” on Tuesday evening, Sanders stated, “One person has no strength . . . but when we stand together then we have some power.” This is the kind of sentiment that gave him the only standing ovation of the night. It, too, is why union members and activists across the country have begun working on the Labor for Bernie 2020 campaign, a national project to help rank-and-file union members organize among themselves and have conversations with their fellow members about the importance of Bernie’s campaign for labor.
In a city with a rich history of worker struggle and one that will play a crucial role in who wins the general election in 2020, Sanders’s address at the Philadelphia Workers’ Presidential Summit demonstrated how crucial the fate of the labor movement is for this election cycle and beyond.