Unions in the Neighborhood

In the United States today, labor unions are waning, as is their approval among the general population. In 2020 about 6% of private sector workers were in a union. Combining private and public sector workers, about 11% were unionized (a third of public sector workers are unionized but they make up a smaller segment of the workforce). Currently, half of the country approves of unions; half disapproves. A walk around the Baldwin Park neighborhood shows a very strong union presence, specifically along Spring Garden Street. This article will look at union activities with ties to the neighborhood since its industrial beginnings.

Employers have more power if they can negotiate with individual workers, and they resist efforts on the part of the employees to form collective bargaining units. Organization for self-interest was not just a labor prerogative, however, as shown by the association of some of the manufacturers in the neighborhood into the Metal Manufacturers Association of Philadelphia in 1902. Among the members from our neighborhood were Niles-Bement-Pond (20th and Callowhill), William Sellers (1601 Callowhill), Stanley Flagg (19th and Callowhill Cut), George Cresson (once at 18th and Hamilton), and Otis Elevator (later at 500 North 19th). Notably absent from the group was Baldwin. Most neighborhood employers were able to resist conversion to closed shops (union membership required to be an employee) until the 1930s, when more progressive local and federal governments, plus restrictions on immigration, tipped the balance in favor of labor.

 

Two unions have already been discussed on our website, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Carpenters' Union. This article will discuss some notable union and anti-union activities, and two other specific unions, in the neighborhood.

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Percent of workers in the United States with union membership from 1880 to 2000.
The graph is from outside link here, along with a very short discussion of the causes of the decrease.
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Speaking of the Carpenters' Union, this image is from 1835. This shows journeymen carpenters on the job, which at that time meant working six days a week, from 6 am to 6 pm. The Journeymen House Carpenters Association was an early collective bargaining unit, started in the same year, 1835, that Matthias Baldwin moved into our neighborhood. The Association, as part of a general strike in Philadelphia in 1835, was fighting for a ten-hour workday. In 1890, P.J.McGuire, whose picture is in the front window at today's Carpenters Museum at 1809 Spring Garden Street, led a successful union strike to win the eight-hour day for 28,000 members.

 Stetson

 

Hat-maker John Stetson had his mansion at 1717 Spring Garden Street. As discussed in the article about his mansion here, his strategy for resisting a closed shop could be called welfare capitalism by his proponents, or feudalism by his detractors. Labor relations, as seen by Stetson, were familial, where the owner was the head of household and would provide what was needed for his workers. In his Kensington hat factory, Stetson had opened his own on-site cafeteria so the workers would not go out to lunch and imbibe. He instituted home loans for his workers, a savings fund, year-end bonuses for those who stayed the year, a hospital, an auditorium for social and cultural events, sports teams, a Boy Scout troop, and Americanization classes for the immigrants. Stetson had the largest nonunion hat factory in the United States. Declines in sales due to fashion trends and the Depression of the 1930's created more pressure for productivity on the workforce, which responded by joining the AFL's United Hatter, Cap and Millinery Workers. When a list of worker demands were rejected by management, a strike in 1936 was won by the workers. The results were a 5% raise, overtime pay, a forty-hour work week, seniority rights, and negotiated rather than paternalistic benefits. Within seven years, Stetson would be selling off the iron in its buildings for war scrap, and high labor costs and poor hat sales would lead to the dismantling of the company, sending jobs down south.

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1910 Christmas assembly at the Stetson auditorium
Turkeys and year-end bonuses would be given out around the same time.

Baldwin

Matthias Baldwin had a different approach to keeping his workforce happy. He provided minimal benefits, but he paid well. In 1880 Baldwin machinists made $2.46 per day, while the same job across the street at the Sellers factory paid $2.00 per day. This differential persisted. In 1915, metal workers at Baldwin were paid 22 percent more than other metal workers in the city. He also ran an apprentice program that trained teens across the different crafts, and preferentially chose sons of his current workers as apprentices. Baldwin rewarded effort by paying piecemeal wages, and as the workforce grew he kept the small-team spirit alive by having internal contractors bid for jobs and choose and pay their laborers. Baldwin kept management ranks to a minimum, so there were fewer of the middle managers that plague workforces today. For example, in 1916, Baldwin's white-collar employees made up only 4 percent of the total workforce, as opposed to an average of 15 percent for the rest of the metal-working industry. In addition, Baldwin took on partners for cash infusions, and most of these partners had themselves started out as workers in the machine shops. This upward mobility and close philosophical connection of managers to labor blurred the line between capital and labor. Thus a strike in 1860 had been instantly quelled as a victory for management.  

In February of 1910 the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company fired 173 members of the Keystone Carmen union. The resulting strike became the most violent in Philadelphia's history. On February 23, police shot at two strikers, striking one in the leg. Men watching from the Baldwin buildings along Broad Street began to throw nuts and bolts through the windows at the police, who themselves responded with shots fired into the Baldwin buildings. No Baldwin workers were injured that day, although in toto 29 people were killed during the entire strike. Baldwin president Samuel Vauclain did not have to quell a strike by sending jobs down south or overseas, since BLW had just bought extensive acreage in Eddystone. Younger, non-union workers were moved to production in that facility, and when the next recession came, the union sympathizers in his Broad Street complex were the first to be fired. Vauclain also used incremental benefits, employee spies, Pinkerton detectives, and smart public relations to stay an open shop for as long as possible.

 

The Depression heralded massive furloughs of workers, and Baldwin Locomotive Works went through a bankruptcy reorganization in 1935, reemerging in 1938. BLW would remain an open shop (union membership not required for employment) until 1936 when the thirteen separate but cooperative craft unions there joined the Committee for Industrial Organization's United Steelworkers. The CIO, founded in 1935, merged in 1955 with the American Federation of Labor as the Congress of Industrial Union.  After the collapse of orders after World War II, another strike in 1946 gave the workers a greater piece of the pie, but Baldwin's failure to pivot to diesel electric locomotives spelled its eventual demise. Baldwin would build its last locomotive in 1956.

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A crowd gathers at the BLW factory on Broad Street in February of 1910 in sympathy with the striking transit workers.
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Mayor Reyburn, who then lived at the southeast corner of 18th and Spring Garden Street, called in the constabulary (basically the state police) to quell the violence associated with the strike.
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The Socialist perspective on the police response
For more on the strike, see eleven-page outside article here (free registration required).
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Photo from September 25, 1936.
Robert A. Pinkerton (on the left), president of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, was summoned by the Senate committee investigating strike-breaking. He disclosed the $1.5 million in revenues between 1934 and 1936, paid by companies including Baldwin, to investigate "Communistic activities." 

 Bement

 

William Bement and Son (later Niles-Bement-Pond, at the northwest corner of 20th and Callowhill Street, now the Target) had a subtle technique to avoid a closed shop: he hired blacks. Numerically, Bement matched his black workforce proportion to the proportion of blacks in the general population of Philadelphia. He also paid equal wages to all races.

 

Unions in the mid-1800s excluded blacks, so Bement threw a silent ultimatum to the unions: admit blacks to union membership or forego a closed shop. By and large the unions remained exclusionary, and Bement would publicly say that he had no quarrels with unions in his shop, although he knew he was probably protected.

Sellers

As discussed in our article on William Sellers, his machine shop was located between Pennsylvania Avenue (now the Callowhill Cut) and Buttonwood Streets between 16th and 17th Streets. His company had the longest tenure in the neighborhood, from 1848 to 1947. In 1873 he purchased the failing Butcher Works in the Nicetown neighborhood of Philadelphia, and renamed it Midvale Steel, becoming the largest defense contractor in the nation by 1905.

 

One person at Midvale acquired quite the foul reputation among laborers and pushed their unionization bent: Frederick Winslow Taylor. He used his stopwatch and observation of workers to develop protocols that would allow managers to maximize the efficiency of the workforce. He published his ideas in a book, The Principles of Scientific Management, in 1911. The workers saw this as a demeaning attempt to reduce their craft skills to just another gear in the giant machinery of production. In 1918, an attempt by the International Association of Machinists union  to strike was squelched by the National War Labor Board, and an internal union was created at Midvale. This union lasted only four years. In 1937, the expanding CIO's United Steelworkers entered Midvale and its workers joined the Baldwin workers in the ranks of organized labor.

Tabor

Tabor manufacturing, at the southeast corner of 18th and Spring Garden Streets after the move north by George Cresson, was a great fan of Taylorism, as the new scientific industrial management was known. Taylor was in fact a part-owner of the company. Its president, Wilfred Lewis, opened his "Taylorized" shop to students of Taylorism by 1906.

 SEIU

 

In addition to the carpenters' and electricians' union, there is another active union in the Baldwin Park neighborhood. Reminder, discussions about unions are filled with acronyms, which I will try to keep to a minimum. There are nested hierarchies, loose affiliations, and multiple unions for the same trade, which makes these discussions confusing. Nevertheless, here goes...

In 1921, William Quesse led the merger of seven janitors' unions in Chicago to form the Building Services Employees International Union (BSEIU). The occupations represented by the union diversified into healthcare, public services, and property services, so that in 1968 the "B" was dropped from the name to become the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). SEIU was the largest union within the larger AFL-CIO, until SEIU disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO in 2005 over disagreements on goals. The SEIU wanted to work on increasing union membership, while the AFL-CIO was focused on electoral politics. With a motto of "$15 and a union," SEIU is working to organize low-wage service sector workers, previously thought impossible to organize. SEIU is still involved in electoral politics and has been the nation's top contributor to federal campaigns in the last three decades. SEIU spent $233 million since 1990 on federal campaign contributions, of which 99% went to Democrats, the total being more than twice as much as the next largest federal campaign contributor, the National Education Association. With headquarters in Washington, D.C. the union has 150 local branches and 1.9 million members nationally.

Before 1970, public employees were not allowed to bargain collectively or strike. Pennsylvania Act 195 was passed in 1970, permitting union activities by public employees, which included employees of non-profit organizations and institutions. For decades there had been professional organizations in many trades, and after Act 195 these organizations simply became unions. Several local unions in Pennsylvania were consolidated into a new state-wide union, Local 668 of SEIU, which included the Pennsylvania Social Services Union. SEIU Local 668 represents 20,000 social service employees from all the counties in the state. For a short text history see here, and for an 18-minute video (put out by the union) see here.   

 

 

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Portion of 1942 land use map showing a union in the three-story house at 1924 Spring Garden Street, which runs horizontally at the top of the image). 
The International Association of Bridge, Structural, & Ornamental Iron Workers Union Local 401 (founded 1901), which had been at 1924 Spring Garden Street for at least four decades, sold the site to PSSU in 1993.
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1920-24 Spring Garden Street in 1958. The current SEIU building would occupy the site of the very dark building on the right. The building on the far right is still there.
As noted before in these articles, when the Historical Commission shows up to photograph your house, it usually means a surface parking lot of decades duration is nigh.
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The squat new building at 1924 Spring Garden Street in 1971, built for the Ironworkers Union. PSSU bought it in 1993.
Get your taxes done at 1928 Spring Garden for three dollars!
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Two-story building at 1924 Spring Garden Street in 2021. It runs south all the way to Nectarine Street.
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One of the four Mural Arts murals in the Baldwin Park neighborhood.
This is on the east side of 1924 Spring Garden Street, along the parking lot that is behind a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire.
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This title section of the mural, Stronger Together, is on the far southern corner of the mural. It was painted in 2004.
The other three murals in the neighborhood are:
  • 1999 Secret Book, north face of 312 North 19th Street
  • 2003 Lifelong Learning, north face of the Watermark
  • 2019 Industrious Light: The Baldwin Locomotive Works, south face of 417 North 20th Street
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The sign on the western wall of 1918 Spring Garden Street is for a business, not a union, although the business seems to be a member of the Roofers Local 30. The business, Union Roofing Contractors, bought the building in 1997 and still owns it.

 Electrical Switchgear Union

 

One other union that was in our neighborhood deserves mention. In 1942 the Electrical Switchgear Union was located at 550 North 17th Street, on the southwest corner of Brandywine and 17th (now a parking lot for the IBEW administration building). In 1954 the union purchased 1836-38 Callowhill Street. I-T-E manufactured switchgear on the blocks north of that Callowhill site, so the move matched the early growth of I-T-E in the neighborhood. The building at 1836 Callowhill would be occupied by the union until the early 1970's. In 1987 the building became the Mirabelle Restaurant & Cafe, until sold in 1990. In 2008 it became the existing Kite & Key Gastropub.

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Photo looking west from 1834 Callowhill Street (with barber pole - no longer there) and the basement entry doors (still there).
1836-1838 Callowhill is the light brick building.  1840 Callowhill is a vacant lot. 1842 Callowhill, with the gas pump on the sidewalk, is a service station with curb discharge of gasoline. There was a drive-in gasoline station on the southwest corner of 19th and Callowhill Street at this time.
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View from the opposite direction, looking east down Callowhill from 19th in 1955.
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Just as an aside, 1834 Callowhill Street had a barber since at least 1896, when this ad appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer
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The Kite and Key at 1836-42 Callowhill Street.
The mural on the east face of 1844 Callowhill Street at far right is not a Mural Arts mural.
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Exclusionary sign on Spring Garden Street adjoining the IBEW Union building.
For open shop advocacy articles, see 2008 outside article here and 2012 article here. Both involve the building trades, especially their high labor costs and tactics.
Draft article, unfinished, by Joe Walsh