DN Editorial: Dark victory: Unions drowned out the mayor. But we're all drowning here.

Mayor Nutter is escorted by police after he was unable to to deliver his budget address to City Council. He was unable to do so because of the disruption caused by protesters. ( CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer )
Mayor Nutter is escorted by police after he was unable to to deliver his budget address to City Council. He was unable to do so because of the disruption caused by protesters. ( CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer )
Posted: March 15, 2013

CITY Council chambers can seat 350, so we're assuming that's the number of union members who filled the chambers with shouting and whistling loud enough to have Council President Darrell Clarke recess the session about 10 minutes into Mayor Nutter's budget address. The mayor had begun yelling his speech over the din, but finally finished delivering it in the mayor's reception room.

So, here's the math: It took only 350 people to put a halt to city government Thursday. As union leaders declare victory in shutting down a budget address, we can't help wondering: Victory over what, really? They certainly struck a blow for the side of bad manners and outrageous behavior. And they sure enough won a victory over City Council and its president, who was unable to demand order in the chambers and had to end the session.

But we can't see that the unions' victory extends much beyond that. That only a few hundred shut down Council proves that there is power in numbers. But there is also peril in numbers, and that's what we can't help worrying about as this particular labor fight gets louder.

The peril in numbers is in the fact that the costs for 23,000 current city workers, as well as the more than 30,000 former workers and untold numbers of future workers, eats up a staggering amount of the city budget. We all know that pension and benefit costs are a big problem; a recent Pew report from the Philadelphia Research Initiative calculated that the city pays on average $36,000 per employee for pension and benefit costs.

In Philadelphia, the median household income is $37,000.

As a percentage of the total budget, 31 cents of every dollar of the city's $3.6 billion budget are spent on employee benefits. So, while we are certainly not without sympathy for the workers who keep the city running without contracts, from outside Council chambers here's another way to look at it: More and more money is going to cover the bill for pensions and benefits. As homeowners have opened their new property assessments and faced the possibility that they will be paying more in property taxes, many are no doubt thinking: "What am I getting for that?" As other city residents take salary cuts or health-care cuts, or have to look up the word "pension" in the dictionary, many are no doubt thinking: "More and more of my money is going to raises and benefits for others?"

There are 1.5 million people who call themselves Philadelphians. The 22,000 city workers - including 11,000 members of District Council 33 and 47 working without contracts - represent less than 2 percent of the population, but their benefits cost more than 30 percent of the city's budget.

Obviously, this is a simplistic way to look at a situation that has been decades in the making, including decades of city leaders' ignoring or shortchanging pension payments.

Right now, 11,000 workers are not getting the terms of the contracts they want. But the rest of us facing fewer library hours, fewer police, fewer wage-tax cuts and fewer schools and schoolteachers are not necessarily getting the city we want, either.

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