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During a hastily arranged City Hall news conference, Nutter announced that his administration had withdrawn its court appeal of retroactive wage increases and benefits awarded last year through arbitration to members of the International Association of Fire Fighters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. ••