Philly builders, unions struggle over raises

Carpenters and members of some other unions have picketed job sites around Philadelphia this week as target dates for two-year labor agreements have passed without final contracts for some key locals.

"There are some limited strikes," Patrick Gillespie, business manager for the Building and Construction Trades Council union group, acknowledged.

He said the Plumbers, Steamfitters, Sprinklerfitters and other unions have settled, with new pay rates ranging from flat to as much as $2 an hour in raises to cover wages, health and retirement.

Carpenters, Cement Masons and Operating Engineers "are close," Gillespie added. The Roofers "were very close, and then they broke down." Electrical Workers Local 98 settled last year; Ironworkers are still under contract into the summer.

Employers have complained that Philadelphia construction expenses are close to those of New York, which has the effect of making new buildings unprofitable, because rents here and demand for office space has been frozen at 1980s levels for 20 years, despite rising construction costs; the result, they say, is that new projects can't yield a profit.

Gillespie disputes the comparison, and says the unions have been willing to work with employers. But some workers "haven't had a raise since 2008," while health insurance and pension costs keep going up, he said.