For the last four years, the Philadelphia firefighters and paramedics union has ridden a carousel of contract arbitration and court appeals, courtesy of the administration of Mayor Michael Nutter. On Monday, the union made a legislative grab for the brass ring.
With a phalanx of the city’s political and labor leaders backing him, recently installed International Association of Fire Fighters Local 22 President Joe Schulle announced plans to seek a city charter change that would reduce Nutter’s power to launch court appeals of arbitration contract awards for firefighters, police and other essential public safety city employees.
The change would require a two-thirds affirmative vote of City Council before the mayor would be able to file a binding arbitration appeal.
Schulle and Local 22’s supporters hope to collect at least 20,000 signatures from registered city voters by September, when City Council would have to pass a resolution to pose the charter change question as a referendum on the November general election ballot. Then city voters would have the final say.
“The charter change amendment will not change the past, but as we begin to arbitrate a new award, it will bring fairness back to the process and help restore the intent of binding arbitration,” Schulle said during an hourlong news conference at the Local 22 headquarters.
Firefighters have been working without a contract since 2009 and have been mired in wage and benefits freezes since then, despite twice being granted a contract through arbitration and seeing that contract upheld by an appeals court. The mayor has not implemented the contract, claiming that the city can’t afford it, and has appealed the award to Commonwealth Court.
Although the contract’s terms expired on June 30, Local 22 continues to fight for the wages and benefits that were withheld by the city. Meanwhile, the city and firefighters have begun arbitration for a new contract.
Many of the city’s most powerful political and labor leaders joined Schulle on Monday in calling for the charter change and in criticizing Nutter’s tactics.
Nutter’s press office did not respond to messages from the Times seeking comment. In court filings, the administration has argued that the latest arbitration award would cost the city $238 million over five years. Local 22 contends that the cost would be $70 million to $80 million over the four fiscal years covered by the award.
Monday’s speakers included U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (the chairman of the city’s Democratic Committee); state Sen. Mike Stack; state Reps. Brendan Boyle, Mark Cohen, Ed Neilson and Mike O’Brien; City Controller Alan Butkovitz; and City Councilmen Bobby Henon, Dennis O’Brien, Brian O’Neill and Mark Squilla.
The labor leaders included FOP Lodge 5 President John McNesby (whose members also would be directly affected by the proposed charter change); Pat Eiding, president of the AFL-CIO Philadelphia Council; Pat Gillespie, president of the Philadelphia Building Trades Council; Pete Matthews, president of AFSCME District Council 33; Cathy Scott, president of AFSCME District Council 47; Joe Ashdale, business manager of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 21; and John Dougherty, business manager of Electricians Local 98.
“I’m embarrassed to be here. This is our city. This is my city. … The men and women in [Local 22] are protecting me. They’re protecting you and your families. And we’re giving them a hard time, not giving them a living wage. It’s totally embarrassing,” Brady said.
“It’s outrageous. It’s a disgrace and it’s a usurpation of the will of the people of Philadelphia,” Stack said.
Schulle and Butkovitz hatched the idea for the charter change over lunch recently. Firefighters, like police, prison guards and parole officers, are prevented by state law — Act 111 of 1968 — from striking. But the same law grants them the right to binding arbitration. Until 1991, neither the city, nor the affected unions, had the right to appeal an arbitration decision.
But that year, the state legislature passed the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (PICA) Act to help Philadelphia dig itself out of a fiscal crisis. The PICA Act created a five-person state board to oversee the city’s finances. It also amended Act 111 to grant the city and the unions arbitration appeal rights under certain conditions.
Local 22 and its supporters contend that the Nutter Administration has used the appeals process to intentionally delay implementation of the firefighters’ arbitration awards.
“We now have the spectacle of being in the middle of a new arbitration while the old one is under appeal, in what this administration seems determined to make an infinite number of appeals,” Butkovitz said. “They’ve made a mockery of the concept of binding arbitration.”
“Act 111 is quite clear. The arbitration award is not to be appealed and yet that is exactly what the city has done repeatedly,” Boyle said. “They keep losing and keep appealing, knowing they have no chance to win, mind you, but just attempting to run out the clock and delay the inevitable.”
Rep. Mike O’Brien argued that the administration has withheld the arbitration award to balance the city budget without giving Local 22 members raises or better benefits. Like several of the speakers, O’Brien noted that the city’s largest two nonuniformed employees unions, D.C. 33 and 47, also have been working without contracts.
“Mike Nutter has stuck his hand in the pockets of firefighters and the rest of city employees. He has stolen money from them and he has used it to cook the books to give the city a balanced budget,” O’Brien said.
“It is absolutely wrong to balance the budget, or attempt to balance the budget, on the backs of the working people of this city,” Cohen said.
Neilson said that numerous state representatives will collect signatures on the charter change petition at their district offices throughout the city. Henon and Squilla predicted that the resolution would easily pass council.
“It’s going to be unanimous,” Squilla said.
Timing could pose a problem, however. Any charter change resolution must be passed by City Council at least 45 days before Election Day to get on the ballot. Council is scheduled to reconvene on Sept. 12, which would leave a window of about two weeks to pass the needed resolution. If the question doesn’t make the November ballot, it could be placed on the May 20, 2014, primary ballot. ••
For video of Monday’s announcement, visit the Northeast Times channel on YouTube at youtube.com/user/NortheastTimes.