The earsplitting shrill of referees’ whistles and derogatory chants echoed from City Council’s balcony, deafening council members and spectators alike on the floor of the venerable chamber and rendering Mayor Michael Nutter’s ceremonial budget address secondary to the spectacle.
Leaders of the city’s three contract-less municipal labor unions orchestrated Thursday’s cacophony in protest of what they claim has been Nutter’s unwillingness to negotiate with District Councils 33 and 47 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represent the city’s non-uniformed work force, as well as Local 22 of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), representing the city’s firefighters and paramedics.
Ultimately, they succeeded, forcing Nutter to abandon his budget address and thereby breaking a tradition older than the memories of even longtime council observers.
“Today, we accomplished what we wanted to accomplish,” said Bill Gault, president of Local 22. “We wanted [Nutter] to know the anger in the city, especially the firefighters. You can’t keep treating workers this bad and not expect them to react.”
Nutter later downplayed the scope of the demonstration.
“It was pretty loud, [but] I’ve heard louder,” the mayor told reporters that afternoon in his office’s reception room. “The whistles must’ve been a new addition.
“Everybody involved knew it was going to be a loud day.”
Municipal union leaders made no secret of their plans to disrupt the address one day earlier when they conducted a public rally in front of City Hall. Among the city’s four municipal labor unions, only the Fraternal Order of Police is working under a current contract.
Firefighters have been battling the city in arbitration and through the courts since 2009. In 2010, arbitrators awarded them a four-year contract, but Nutter has appealed the award repeatedly and has not implemented its terms, which are due to expire on June 30. Local 22 already has filed for arbitration on its next contract, claiming that negotiations with the administration are at a stalemate.
Local 22 represents about 4,000 active and retired firefighters.
D.C. 33 and 47 also have been without contracts since 2009. Last month, the administration sued to ask the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to impose the city’s terms on the union workers. Together, the AFSCME councils represent more than 10,000 blue- and white-collar workers.
In a show of labor solidarity, many of the city’s building trades union leaders joined hundreds of municipal employees at last Wednesday’s rally. Gault and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 President John Dougherty energized the throng with fire-and-brimstone attacks on Nutter.
“His arrogance, his defiance of the law once again requires me to take him to task publicly,” said Gault, claiming that Nutter is in violation of a court order by not implementing the firefighters’ arbitration award.
“Our members have not had a raise in four years, yet we continue to do our duty and put our lives at risk every day.”
Dougherty, who is recognized as one of the city’s most politically powerful union leaders, called on local elected officials to start taking sides on the contract issues.
“[Labor is] together now,” he said. “If you cross us, on Election Day, you’re going to end up in the unemployment line.”
Former Local 98 Political Director Bob Henon is in his first term on council and was singled out by the union leaders as a labor advocate.
“[Workers] feel that their livelihood and the service that they’ve been giving to the city has been disrespected for many years,” Henon said. “I think labor is going to play a big role in the budget [process].”
Some veteran firefighters compared their current contract standoff to one in 1979 and another 13 years later. In the earlier case, firefighters marched from their Spring Garden Street union hall to City Hall, but still ended up with 200 layoffs, said Local 22 Vice President Timothy McShea.
Back then, however, they fought alone.
“I’ve never seen all the unions get together like this,” McShea said. “I’m glad to see everybody coming to our aid because this affects everybody.”
The main event was still to come and it did not sit well with some Council members, even Bill Green, who has been among Nutter’s most ardent critics and says he “disagrees with the mayor’s policies on contracts.”
“No matter what you feel about the man, you have to respect his office,” Green said after witnessing Thursday’s chaos in Council.
That morning, hundreds of union members packed the chamber on City Hall’s fourth floor hours before the start of the 10 a.m. legislative session. The army warmed up by heckling and chanting during testimony on Councilman Bill Greenlee’s bill to require the city’s private-sector employers to offer workers accrued sick time.
After lengthy debate, Greenlee’s measure passed Council 11-6 much to the delight of the partisan pro-labor audience.
Then real bedlam erupted when Nutter set foot in the chamber, escorted by a phalanx of police and council staff. Union members waved signs depicting Nutter as a clown and chanted, “Bozo, Bozo, Bozo,” above a chorus of whistles. In time, the chants evolved into, “Loser, loser, loser,” then, “No contract, no speech …,” ad infinitum.
Earlier that day, Nutter had formally submitted his proposed fiscal 2014 operating budget to council in writing, fulfilling his legal obligation as the city’s chief executive. The annual address is ceremonial, an opportunity for the mayor to stand before and plead his case to the body that ultimately will have final say on the spending plan’s adoption.
In defiance of the protests, Nutter tried to deliver his speech anyway. He visibly shouted the first few sentences into a podium microphone, but his words never reached those on the council floor. In retrospect, Nutter speculated that those listening elsewhere on closed-circuit feeds might have heard him better.
Minutes into the exercise and with the clamor growing by the second, Nutter paused and turned to consult with Council President Darrell Clarke. The mayor resumed his speech briefly, but then halted for good as other members of the legislative body trickled out of the room. Clarke had recessed the proceedings. Nutter soon departed, too, surrounded by his security team, with chants of, “Na na, hey hey, goodbye,” chasing him out the door.
A half-hour later, the mayor resurfaced in his own reception room on City Hall’s second floor to deliver his address in its entirety before a much more-appreciative collection of administration staff and news reporters. The staffers greeted him with a standing ovation. ••
On the Web:
To view a video of Mayor Michael Nutter’s budget address to City Council, visit the Northeast Times YouTube page at www.youtube.com/user/NortheastTimes.