Northeast Times

City drops appeal of firefighters’ arbitration

“This dis­pute was al­ways and only about af­ford­ab­il­ity. And we as a city are now in a place to provide pay in­creases as set out in that award.” — May­or Mi­chael Nut­ter  

A pleas­ant sur­prise: Loc­al 22 uni­on pres­id­ent Joe Schulle said the may­or’s an­nounce­ment was a sur­prise. A pan­el of judges from Pennsylvania’s Com­mon­wealth Court was sched­uled to hear the city’s latest ap­peal of the ar­bit­ra­tion award in Har­ris­burg on Sept. 11. MARIA POUCH­NIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

In a 10-minute speech last Fri­day af­ter­noon, May­or Mi­chael Nut­ter ended an un­pre­ced­en­ted four-year labor con­tract stale­mate between the city and its fire­fight­ers.

Dur­ing a hast­ily ar­ranged City Hall news con­fer­ence, Nut­ter an­nounced that his ad­min­is­tra­tion had with­drawn its court ap­peal of ret­ro­act­ive wage in­creases and be­ne­fits awar­ded last year through ar­bit­ra­tion to mem­bers of the In­ter­na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Fire Fight­ers Loc­al 22. The may­or cited the city’s im­prov­ing fin­an­cial con­di­tion for the ap­par­ent re­versal of policy.

“This dis­pute was al­ways and only about af­ford­ab­il­ity. And we as a city are now in a place to provide pay in­creases as set out in that award,” Nut­ter said.

The award covered the four-year peri­od from Ju­ly 1, 2009, through June 30 of this year. Loc­al 22 mem­bers, in­clud­ing fire­fight­ers and para­med­ics, will be paid ret­ro­act­ively. The award gran­ted them three sep­ar­ate raises of 3 per­cent each. On av­er­age, uni­on mem­bers each will get about $5,000 in back pay, Nut­ter said.

In ad­di­tion, the city will in­crease its monthly con­tri­bu­tions in­to the uni­on’s health care fund from $1,270 per mem­ber to $1,620 per mem­ber, in ac­cord­ance with the ar­bit­ra­tion award. There are about 1,900 act­ive mem­bers of Loc­al 22. The wage and be­ne­fits in­creases will cost city tax­pay­ers about $210 mil­lion over the next five years, Nut­ter said.

On Sept. 3, the Nut­ter ad­min­is­tra­tion sub­mit­ted its latest five-year fisc­al plan to the Pennsylvania In­ter­gov­ern­ment­al Co­oper­a­tion Au­thor­ity — a state-ap­poin­ted body that over­sees the city’s fin­ances. The plan re­flec­ted what the may­or termed “pos­it­ive bal­ances” in the city’s gen­er­al fund for each of the next five years. The plan in­cluded $182 mil­lion in fund­ing for the Loc­al 22 ar­bit­ra­tion award. Nut­ter said that the city can now af­ford the ad­di­tion­al $28 mil­lion.

“Re­gard­less of wheth­er it’s an ar­bit­ra­tion award or a ne­go­ti­ated con­tract with our oth­er [mu­ni­cip­al] uni­ons, our goal has been con­sist­ent over time. We seek a fair con­tract, fair to the em­ploy­ees who provide vi­tal pub­lic ser­vice, but also fair to the tax­pay­ers of this city who must pay the bill through their hard-earned tax dol­lars. It’s a bal­an­cing act based on our abil­ity to pay now and in the fu­ture,” Nut­ter said.

The may­or’s an­nounce­ment was a sur­prise to lead­ers of Loc­al 22, ac­cord­ing to the uni­on pres­id­ent, Joe Schulle. A pan­el of judges from Pennsylvania’s Com­mon­wealth Court was sched­uled to hear the city’s latest ap­peal of the ar­bit­ra­tion award in Har­ris­burg on Sept. 11.

Nut­ter, in his re­marks on Fri­day af­ter­noon, thanked the hand­ful of news re­port­ers in at­tend­ance for “re­spond­ing on short no­tice.” Loc­al 22 got no ad­vance no­tice, Schulle said.

“They didn’t say any­thing to us,” the uni­on lead­er said. “Our no­tice was when I got a call from [a news re­port­er]. We were ba­sic­ally watch­ing [the an­nounce­ment] on loc­al TV.”

Dur­ing the an­nu­al “Fire­fight­er Re­cog­ni­tion Day” ban­quet at the Loc­al 22 hall on Sunday, uni­on mem­ber re­ac­tions ranged from re­lief to cau­tious an­ti­cip­a­tion.

“Ba­sic­ally, it’s about time,” said Mike Robin­son, a former fire lieu­ten­ant who served 40 years in the de­part­ment be­fore his Janu­ary 2010 re­tire­ment. “I just felt the city was try­ing to bal­ance the budget on our backs. But we’re a very small loc­al com­pared to [oth­er mu­ni­cip­al uni­ons]. They wer­en’t go­ing to bal­ance it on us.”

“I’m proud of [Nut­ter] fi­nally see­ing the light,” said Bill Gault, who served as Loc­al 22 pres­id­ent from 2009 through June of this year. “It nev­er should have gone this far. I’m proud of the fire­fight­ers stick­ing to­geth­er and stick­ing this out.” 

The ad­min­is­tra­tion had yet to in­form the uni­on about how and when it plans to send out the checks for back wages.

“Every­body’s re­ac­tion is tempered be­cause we want to see [the con­tract] im­ple­men­ted be­fore we’re sure it’s go­ing to be done,” Schulle said. “[But] there’s def­in­itely more op­tim­ism. Guys are smil­ing.”

Mean­while, the city and uni­on are in the midst of ar­bit­ra­tion for a new con­tract that would also be ap­plied ret­ro­act­ively, af­fect­ing the peri­od start­ing Ju­ly 1 of this year. The length of the con­tract has not been de­term­ined. With that in mind, Loc­al 22 will con­tin­ue its ef­fort to af­fect a city Home Rule Charter change that would lim­it the may­or’s uni­lat­er­al power to ap­peal fu­ture con­tract ar­bit­ra­tion awards. The uni­on pro­poses to re­quire City Coun­cil ap­prov­al for any ar­bit­ra­tion ap­peals.

“It will be nice to have [the 2012] award honored, but it changes noth­ing as we try to make sure this nev­er hap­pens again,” Schulle said. ••

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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