It didn't rain on Philly's Labor Day parade, as it often does, so Joseph Ashdale, business manager and secretary-treasurer of the International Union of Allied Painters and Allied Trades, tried to put a matching bright face on the day.

"We're celebrating the labor movement. It's a celebration, not a demonstration," he said as he led union painters north on Columbus Boulevard toward the annual Labor Day party at Penn's Landing, part of a larger-than-usual Labor Day turnout.

But little is sunny for the labor movement, even in Philadelphia.

A case making its way toward the Supreme Court could — if decided against public-sector unions — severely hamper their finances and lead to layoffs. More states are adopting "right-to-work" laws mandating that in companies represented by unions, employees who don't want to belong to the unions don't have to pay dues but still must be represented. That's the view held by gubernatorial candidate Sen. Scott Wagner (R., York), who plans to challenge Democratic Gov. Wolf in 2018.

Union membership is still falling, with 14.6 million union members nationally, or 10.7 percent of workers, down from 17.7 million union members, or 20.1 percent, in 1983.

"You have a country in deep anxiety," said Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers, who spoke during pre-parade ceremonies at the Sheet Metal Workers Local 19 union hall. She cited education budget cuts and the news that President Trump apparently plans to end President Barack Obama's DACA program, which has exempted from deportation undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children.

With that, labor leaders say, Monday's message is internal: As important as it is to evangelize new members, it's equally important to preach to the choir.

"We have to be better organizers with our own members," said Patrick J. Eiding, who heads the Philadelphia AFL-CIO, the region's largest labor federation. "We want to make sure they understand what they have."

"The most important preparation we have is the reawakening of people up and down the union movement," with increasing activism in the rank-and-file, Weingarten said.

IBEW Local 98 union leader John Dougherty speaks to union members gathered to march in the Labor Day Parade about donations for Hurricane Harvey victims and the importance of unions.
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
IBEW Local 98 union leader John Dougherty speaks to union members gathered to march in the Labor Day Parade about donations for Hurricane Harvey victims and the importance of unions.

That back-to-basics approach is what John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty, who leads both the Philadelphia Building Trades Council and the politically powerful International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, told  members of the local gathered under I-95 for a pre-parade get-together of doughnuts and coffee.

"No politician gave us health care," Dougherty said, and no politician stepped in to help electrical workers make the switch to wireless from a livelihood based on running wires. Unions, he said, need to rely on themselves, not on politicians.

"Four Labor Days ago, I said I'm real close to investing [pension] money on East Market Street," he said. "No politician, nobody, from the mayor on down, put those buildings up on East Market Street. We did. That's your pension money. That's your lobbying." And, he said, it sparked nearby construction.

Here are some of the issues troubling Philly's labor leaders:

  • Stalled port expansion.  John Cook, business manager of Local 1291, International Longshoremen's Association, said that the state allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to expand the port on a 200-acre tract of land known as Southport, but that project has been stalled, with the money being used instead to improve existing facilities. "A project like this may never come along again in my career," he said, adding that it would double the number of jobs at the port.
  • Lack of film production in Philadelphia. "We need more money for tax credits," said radio broadcaster Sam Clover, president of the Philadelphia local of SAG-AFTRA, the union that represents actors and broadcasters. "You spend money, but it's fivefold what you get back."
  • Infrastructure and worker safety. Esteban Vera, business manager of Local 57 of the Laborers International Union of North America, said his construction union is waiting for the promised spending on infrastructure, but is also worried about cutbacks to programs that protect worker safety.
  • Increased workload at Community College of Philadelphia. Bargaining is continuing between the American Federation of Teachers Local 2026, which represents faculty, and the college. John Braxton, treasurer of the local, said the college wants to increase the number of classes professors teach without significantly increasing their pay. Besides the money, though, he said, "our students need us to have workloads that allow us to spend time with them outside class."
  • Loss of jobs at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. "Energy security is a big issue for our workers," said Martin Williams, business manager of Local 13 of the Boilermakers. He said that Exelon Corp. has threatened to shut down Three Mile Island if it doesn't get price supports from the state. He said about 40 or 50 of his members work there.
  • Federal budget cutbacks. If the budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration pass, 5,000 federal employees in Pennsylvania could be laid off, said Richard Gennetti, the Pennsylvania representative of the American Federation of Government Employees. These include meat inspectors for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and maintenance engineers who repair the historic buildings at Independence National Historical Park.

Meanwhile, about 100 low-wage workers and their supporters, part of the Fight for $15 movement sponsored by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), spent Labor Day morning protesting outside the McDonald's restaurant on Columbus Boulevard.

Among them were home-care workers and employees of airline contractors at Philadelphia International Airport. Last week, after four years and numerous protests, the contractors agreed to bargain collectively with SEIU 32BJ for a contract for about 1,400 passenger service workers.

Fast-food worker Alicia Hamiel, 23, of North Philadelphia, said she was on strike and had no plans to report for her Labor Day shift at a McDonald's in Northeast Philadelphia.

"I feel as though I'm being mistreated," said Hamiel, who has two children and earns $9 an hour. She said she's not discouraged about the state of the labor movement, not with legislation in many cities that has increased the minimum wage for fast food workers.

Said Hamiel: "We've been winning."