Patrick Kerkstra: Behind city's union wars

Posted: March 23, 2013

City Council long ago made it clear that it does not have Mayor Nutter's back in his continuing four-year fight with the city's municipal unions. Even so, it was surreal to watch Council leaders literally walk out on the man behind his back last week, filing off the dais and out of their chambers while the mayor - oblivious to their departure - stubbornly tried (but failed) to make last week's budget address heard over a deafening din unleashed by union members.

The mayor, alone against an army of livid municipal workers, with Council members scurrying for the exits: That's a pretty good metaphor for the last four years.

But while Nutter was their official target, the unions have precious little leverage against him. He's never been one to kowtow to municipal unions, and now, in his second term, he is as well insulated as anyone in city government from the political pressure they can bring to bear.

Indeed, in the aftermath of last week's display, administration officials seemed more determined than ever to grind the unions down. There is virtually no chance Nutter will buckle just because a few hundred city workers blew whistles at him.

Union leaders realize this. But the bullying wasn't intended to change Nutter's mind. The real audience was the other political actors - in the room and watching from afar - who just might need union support in the future. That includes prospective mayoral candidates, state legislators, and, most critically, City Council members.

Nutter built his political base with little union support. But that's just not the case for a large number of Council members. The municipal unions have enlisted other big labor organizations in their fight - most notably John Dougherty's electricians - and the collective political clout they wield on Council is tremendous. There was a not-so-subtle threat implicit in the union takeover of Council's chambers last week: Be with us on this, or else.

And, sure enough, that same day, Council President Darrell Clarke announced that he would get personally involved in negotiations (though the particulars of his role remain unclear).

Relations between Nutter and Clarke were strained, to put it mildly, even before last week's fiasco. They have not improved. Nutter aides say Clarke's handling of the mess was deeply insulting and disrespectful.

That's an understandable reaction. Clarke could have done more to try to restore order from the podium. He did just that last year, when union members packed the chambers (but didn't bring whistles) for Nutter's 2012 budget address. And Clarke could have at least given Nutter a heads-up before gaveling the session to a close.

But I don't see how Clarke could have prevented the unions from taking over the session. Banning union members outright would have flown in the face of Council tradition and been roundly (and rightly) condemned. Clearing unruly members from the chamber? Clarke says union leaders made it clear that he would be forced to have workers hauled out in handcuffs. And who knows how unionized police officers would respond to such an order?

After the explosion, Council members seemed more rattled and uncertain than Nutter. Which was exactly the point of the exercise: to put Council on notice and get it to pressure Nutter to cut a deal the unions can accept.

In theory, it's a savvy strategy. But Nutter isn't trying to advance a grand agenda that depends on Council these days. His proposed budget is restrained: no tax increases, no major spending initiatives. About the only big item on Nutter's agenda that Council could crater is the Actual Value Initiative, but the citywide property reassessment looks to have more than enough political support. So how much leverage does Council really have over Nutter?

Not enough, I'd wager, to make him change directions on union negotiations. The budget he proposed last week helps explain why.

In a few ways, this is the city's first postrecession budget. It includes neither big spending cuts nor tax hikes. There's a proposed $99 million increase in spending - a healthy 2.7 percent increase over last year's total - to be generated by actual economic growth. But fully half of that will be consumed by higher pension payments, which would provide residents with no new services whatsoever. And another $32 million is being set aside for wage hikes for city workers. Nutter is proposing only $18 million in truly new spending.

And this is, increasingly, par for the course in urban America: limited growth, consumed almost entirely by legacy expenses and the costs of maintaining the existing workforce. Given pension obligations, meaningful new investment is just about impossible.

The deal Nutter hopes to strike with municipal unions won't change that reality overnight (or, indeed, even over a stretch of years). But it would, in time, offer a future mayor a modicum of flexibility. And it would, eventually, give the city a chance to invest modestly in new services.


Patrick Kerkstra is a freelance journalist. He can be reached at Patrick@PatrickKerkstra.com and followed on Twitter at @pkerkstra.

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