Thomas Fitzgerald: For a Democrat, Nutter facing tough fight with local unions

Posted: March 20, 2013

The big public-employee unions and the modern Democratic Party are woven together like the strands of a sweater.

At many points during last year's Democratic National Convention, the arena floor in Charlotte was a kaleidoscope of AFSCME green, SEIU purple, and NEA blue. Those unions provide loyal election troops for Democrats up and down the ballot.

So it was jarring when hundreds of union members, carrying posters depicting Mayor Nutter as Bozo the Clown, jammed the galleries in Philadelphia's City Council chambers last week and shut down his budget address. Suffice it to say that the relationship between labor and Nutter, a standard-issue Democrat on most national issues who was a leading surrogate for President Obama in 2012, has come unraveled.

They think Nutter's a rat - or worse.

"He's gone full Scott Walker on public-sector workers," said Pete Matthews, president of District 33 of AFSCME, which represents city government's blue-collar workers. "This is the Scott Walker of the East."

Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin, became a hero of the right in 2011 when he pushed through legislation eliminating most collective-bargaining rights for state and municipal workers and teachers. Not only would the state save money, supporters said, but the unions would lose the right to deduct dues from employee paychecks, potentially weakening Wisconsin Democrats.

After four years without a contract, and having talks at an impasse, Nutter asked the state Supreme Court to intervene and impose terms on D.C. 33, the city's largest employees union. A previous state court ruling says governments cannot do that unless union members are on strike.

To the unions, that's an existential threat. If successful, they say, Nutter's gambit would lead to the destruction of collective-bargaining rights for public workers in the state.

Nutter says the city cannot afford its burgeoning labor costs and wants the union to accept cuts in pension benefits, limits on overtime, and furloughs.

The fight has united unions across the labor movement in Philadelphia, including the building trades. John Dougherty, business manager of electricians Local 98, has emerged as the anti-Nutter.

"He's the fraud on the second floor," Dougherty thundered last Wednesday at a union rally outside City Hall. "I'm not joking, OK?" He called Nutter "a punk."

Dougherty, in an epic stream of consciousness, said Nutter was jeopardizing a way of life. He invoked his father, a unionized city courts employee.

"Our life [revolved] around fish sticks on Friday during Lent, pizza on other nights - for your birthday, you and your brother and your friends got ice cream off the truck," Dougherty said. "Turkey on the holidays, hopefully a week down the Shore - based on a city salary."

There is no guarantee Nutter will prevail in court, and it may be a heap of hyperbole to say that a win for the city would destroy collective bargaining. It's uncertain how that would play out, and even if Nutter wins the case, government employers would still have strong incentives to reach amicable settlements with their workers.

But the lines are drawn. A variety of school districts, municipalities, and counties have filed briefs backing Nutter, while public-employee unions and the state AFL-CIO have filed in support of D.C. 33. National union leaders are now watching.

Analysts can't recall a time of worse relations between City Hall and its unionized workforce. Then-Mayor Ed Rendell was able to best the unions after taking office in 1992 because the city was going bankrupt, literally.

"Rendell benefited from the crisis; the public was behind him," said Randall Miller, a professor of history at St. Joseph's University.

"This is probably as bad as it's ever been," Miller said. "Some of it is circumstantial - let's face it, the economy is terrible - but a lot of it is personal and political. Nutter doesn't really build relationships. There's no Nutter posse on Council. He's more the 'manager' type."

After he was hooted out of Council and gave his budget address to aides and reporters in another room, Nutter said, "I don't consider myself as having enemies. I'm about peace and love."

Perhaps, but the unions are in a fighting mood. Amid these cold March winds, a sweater could come in handy.

Contact Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or, or follow on Twitter @tomfitzgerald. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at

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