Firefighters arb award won't make city labor talks any easier

Herman "Pete" Matthews, president of AFSCME District Council 33, is shown in 2000. His members have been without a contract for three years, and he wants the city to pay up. INQUIRER FILE PHOTO
Herman "Pete" Matthews, president of AFSCME District Council 33, is shown in 2000. His members have been without a contract for three years, and he wants the city to pay up. INQUIRER FILE PHOTO
Posted: July 06, 2012

PETE MATTHEWS, the president of the union representing the city's blue-collar workers, has one thing to say to Mayor Nutter in the wake of an arbitration award for firefighters that provides raises and protects them from furloughs:

Pay up.

"I think it validates everything we've been saying to the city," said Matthews, whose members, like the city's white-collar workers, have been without a contract since July 2009. "It shows the city has the money to pay for this. The firefighters deserve this and so do we."

Negotiations seem to have stalled between Nutter and AFSCME District Councils 33 and 47, which represent the city's 12,500 blue- and white-collar workers, respectively. Nutter has been seeking changes to work rules and benefits on grounds that the city needs to cut costs, and concessions from firefighters would have helped make that case.

But on Monday an arbitration panel issued a new award for the city's firefighters that largely upheld terms from a 2010 award that the administration had appealed on grounds that it was too costly. The award included retroactive raises, protection from furloughs and more money for health care. And the head of the arbitration panel wrote that the city could afford it.

The administration, whose appointed arbitrator said the award would cost an unanticipated $74 million in the current fiscal year, has not said if it will appeal. Finance Director Rob Dubow declined to comment on how the fire award would affect negotiations with the nonuniformed workers.

Matthews said that no talks were scheduled. The nonuniformed workers negotiate their contracts, unlike the police and fire unions, which reach contracts through arbitration because they cannot strike. The police contract runs through 2014.

Nutter wants the ability to furlough nonuniformed workers, as well as to make benefit changes that include putting new hires on a less-expensive retirement-savings plan. But the unions have held out against those proposals, and Nutter can't impose terms if they stay on the job.

"They never have money for wages or pensions, but there's always money for a tax break for someone or a development," said attorney Ralph Teti, whose firm represents the firefighters and DC47.

The administration has argued that by continuing to cover workers under the expired contract terms, it's saving money by not paying out raises or benefit increases. But Sam Katz, board chairman for the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, said that because the fire contract basically was upheld despite the city's financial complaints, it may not be prudent for the city to assume in its financial plans that there won't be raises for other workers. n

Contact Catherine Lucey at 215-854-4172, luceyc@phillynews.com or follow @phillyclout on Twitter. Read her blog "PhillyClout" at www.phillyclout.com.

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