Taking Care of Business (chapter 31)

For an introduction to the novel Taking Care of Business, links to all chapters posted so far, and a list of characters who have appeared so far, go here, to the Taking Care of Business resources page. To see every part of Taking Care of Business posted so far in one place, go here.)

On a chilly Saturday afternoon, Fred Gilliam bought a turkey sandwich at a stall inside Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market and negotiated his way through the masses to the public seating area, scanning the faces in search of his lunchtime appointment. After a few moments he spotted Harold Miller, the president of Philadelphia’s city council, sipping from a cup of coffee, a Post open on his table.

“Hey Harold,” Gilliam said, putting his sandwich onto the table and then pulling out a chair with one hand while extending the other toward Miller, who rose to greet him.

“Fred, good to see you,” Miller replied as he shook Gilliam’s hand and both men took their seats.

Gilliam and Miller were old friends: they had grown up in the same west Philadelphia community and attended the Dimner Beeber Middle School and Overbrook High School together. During their senior year of high school, Miller had been student government president and Gilliam vice president. They had run on the same ticket, and the only reason Miller won the top spot instead of Gilliam was that as seventeen-year-old friends they had agreed that jump shots from the top of the key would determine which one of them would run for president and which would settle for vice president.

For a few minutes they made small talk, asking about each other’s parents, wives, and children and exchanging notes on a number of mutual acquaintances. They also had a laugh at the expense of several local corporate executives, and a union leader with a reported penchant for wearing women’s pantyhose, whose relationships with prostitutes had recently been chronicled in the Post.

Eventually, Gilliam brought the conversation around to the purpose of this meeting: the progress – or lack thereof – in his union’s contract negotiations with the city.

Strictly speaking, Miller was a major part of “the city:” the second-highest-ranking elected official in Philadelphia and the head of its legislative branch of government. In theory, his sympathies should be across the negotiating table from Gilliam and his union. After all, labor contract negotiations inevitably resulted in increased operating costs for the city, and when they did, Miller and his council colleagues either had to cut other costs to accommodate that increase or raise taxes to pay for them.

In Philadelphia politics, however, theory bore little relation to practice. True, council played no public, visible role in labor talks. It was neither represented at the negotiating table nor consulted on strategy or terms by the negotiators, and except for a weekly briefing from a member of the mayor’s staff, it knew little and cared even less about the details or progress of negotiations.

Unknown to most Philadelphians, though – especially to the constituents who elected them – Philadelphia’s city council traditionally worked diligently behind the scenes against the city’s negotiators and against its taxpayers and on behalf of its unionized workers. It did so for the only reason council members ever did anything: self-interest.

Philadelphia viewed itself as a union town, and for most of the past sixty years, fifteen of the seventeen members of its council were Democrats – the maximum permitted by law. All fifteen of those council Democrats believed they owed their electoral success in large part to the support of organized labor – a tribute to a long-time Philadelphia tradition of union members voting for whomever their leaders tell them to vote without even knowing (or asking) why. The Democrats on council earned this politically valuable support from union leaders in a manner virtually invisible to the general public – and to the unions’ rank-and-file members. Council members would follow contract negotiations casually, and when the parties finally got serious and it seemed as if a relatively small amount of money separated the two sides, union leaders would turn to council for help and then council leaders would go to the mayor, point out how close the parties were and how unproductive and acrimonious further talks would be, and coax enough additional money out of the mayor to bring a new contract agreement.

The process of bringing council into the negotiations typically began only during the last days of June, right before the latest contracts were about to expire. This year, though, Gilliam felt he needed help earlier than usual, and that is what brought him to this April meeting with his boyhood friend. Miller, for his part, had no idea of the agenda for this meeting – although he knew that with Gilliam, there was always an agenda.

“So, have you heard about the contract negotiations?” Gilliam asked.

“Very little,” Miller replied. “I know about your screw-up when the mayor released his budget and I heard on the radio that you stormed out of the first session before your fanny ever hit the chair, but other than that, it’s been pretty quiet on my end. We’ve been busy not working on the budget. It’s way too soon for us to worry about you guys.”

“Well, I think it’s time,” Gilliam said.

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“So early? Why?”

“Because they haven’t moved an inch – not an inch – since day one.”

“As I recall, it’s not a bad offer.”

“Come on, Harold,” Gilliam said.

“Two percent a year for three years and no givebacks is pretty damn good in a so-so economy, Fred. Council isn’t getting a dime, and every time we try to give someone on our staff a raise the Post raises holy hell and acts like it’s the end of the world because we’re trying to pay good people a living wage.”

“But two percent a year for three years was their starting point and they haven’t moved a dime. That’s not a negotiation; it’s an ultimatum.”

“That’s Norbert’s style, they tell me,” Miller explained.

“How do you figure?”

“Don’t you guys do your homework?” Miller asked.

“What’re you talking about?”

“Jesus, Fred, do you really go into your negotiations totally blind and unprepared? This is how Norbert operates; it’s why his people love and respect him. He puts all his cards on the table from day one and doesn’t keep any aces up his sleeve. If they’re telling you that the most they can afford is two percent a year for three years, that’s probably the most they can afford.”

“And you believe them?”

“As far as I can tell, his budget people have always been straight with us, and they keep giving us the same numbers and insist they don’t expect to spend any more on labor than what’s already in the budget because there’s no more money unless we either want to lay off police and firefighters or raise taxes – and you know we ain’t doing that, Fred.”

“But you and council always help us. We’re what keeps you in office.”

“And I’m not saying that absolutely, positively can’t happen this year, too, but right now, my council colleagues and I are feeling a little unmotivated.”

“How’s that?” Gilliam asked.

“As of right now, I believe you’ll find very little interest among my colleagues in helping you and your union negotiate a better contract.”

“And why not?”

“Come on, Fred, you know exactly why not.”

“What I know is that my people keep you and your colleagues in easy, high-paying jobs with great benefits, short work hours, summers off, and very little actual work, and all we ever ask of you is a well-placed word to the mayor every few years.”

As insulting as Gilliam’s statement might be, Miller found it impossible to dispute its accuracy and decided to ignore it and finish making his point.

“And we haven’t ruled out doing that again this year. It’s just that right now, we’re feeling a bit…underappreciated.”

“Because?”

“Because there’s only one thing we want from you, the only thing we’ve asked you for in years other than your votes, and you won’t give it to us.”

“What’s that?”

“We want Shaniqua Watson,” Miller declared.

“Again with Shaniqua Watson? You guys keep singing that same old song. What’s your beef with her?”

Miller rolled his eyes; he and Gilliam had already discussed this twice before.

“She’s an obstacle to council, an obstacle to ward leaders, and an obstacle to our delegation in Harrisburg. We want her out,” Miller said.

“So how is that my issue? You want her out, you go to the mayor.”

“So how’re your contract negotiations my issue? You want more money, you go to the mayor yourself.”

“Harold, my men love Shaniqua Watson. We’re making more money because of her.”

“Then maybe you’re just being greedy at the negotiating table if you’re already making more money without a better contract.”

“The people love Shaniqua Watson. She’s a hero in this town. Do you really think it makes political sense to try to bring her down?” Gilliam asked.

“And do you really think it makes political sense for us to let her steal our bread and butter, Fred?”

“She ain’t stealin’ nothin’ from you. She’s making you look good.”

“How do you figure that?”

“She’s making city government look good, look like an organization that gets things done.”

“Making city government look good is of absolutely no political value to council, Fred, and you know it,” Miller told him.

“Say what?”

“You heard me. We don’t benefit in any way, shape, or form when she fills her potholes, fixes traffic signals, and plows streets without council’s direct participation.”

“When people are happy with government they vote to keep officials in office, Harold.”

“No, Fred, when people can’t get what they want from government on their own and have to go to their ward leader or councilman for help and we deliver, that’s when they vote to keep us in office. They vote because we take care of business for them.”

“That’s absurd.”

“You’re being naïve, Fred. We track every constituent request for help and keep a record of every time we’re able to deliver that help, and I’m telling you that requests are down fifty percent since Watson took over the streets department. If it keeps up that way, come election time, people are going to forget why they voted for us in the first place. They may even demand that other city departments be as responsive to their needs as the streets department.”

“So what’s wrong with that?” Gilliam asked.

“Are you out of your mind? City government can’t go around being responsive to the needs of the public. The only way it can work is if government is inaccessible and ignores the needs of the public so that ward leaders and council members have to kick government in the butt to do its job.”

“You’re crazy, Harold.”

“Am I? What’s a responsive streets department gotten you at the negotiating table so far?”

“I, uh…”

“Two percent a year for three years, and you don’t think that’s enough.”

“It’s not,” Gilliam insisted.

“Then what good has it done you to be efficient and effective?”

“That’s where you come in, Harold. You and council need to give an extra push for us.”

“And I’m telling you that the only way we can do that is if you join us in calling for the termination of Shaniqua Watson,” Miller declared.

“She’s good at what she does, the people love her, the papers love her, and my men love her. We’d look like idiots asking the mayor to fire her,” Gilliam replied.

“Well, you have a choice: you can settle for two percent a year for three years or you can risk a little egg on your face and join us in demanding that she be fired.”

“You’re serious?”

“Deadly. We’ve had enough of Shaniqua Watson making this government responsive to the public’s needs. It has to stop, it has to stop right away, and you have to help us make it stop. The party can no longer afford to tolerate her kind of appalling competence. Either you’re with us in a very public way or you’re on your own at the negotiating table.”

(more next Sunday)

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