Unions join in push for charter change

Opposition to Mayor Nutter has unified the unions.
Opposition to Mayor Nutter has unified the unions. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff)
Posted: July 24, 2013

Some of Philadelphia's biggest unions and their political allies came together Monday in an unusual show of solidarity against a common enemy: Mayor Nutter.

Ostensibly, the all-star roster of labor and political heavyweights gathered to announce an effort to amend the City Charter. The change, which would have to be put to voters, would bar the mayor from challenging an arbitration award without permission from Council.

Many of the speakers used the event to castigate Nutter and trumpet a newfound bond between unions that have not always worked in concert.

John J. Dougherty, head of Local 98 of the electricians' union, was the final speaker at the news conference, held at the firefighters' union headquarters.

"The mayor's a fraud. The people who elected him in the high-rises overestimated his intelligence," he said. "The thing we underestimated was his arrogance."

Dougherty began hosting a coalition of labor leaders this year at Local 98's headquarters on Spring Garden Street.

Labor leaders said the meetings were an attempt to build momentum generated by the Workers Stand for America rally in the heat of the presidential election last year.

Patrick J. Eiding, president of the Philadelphia Council of the AFL-CIO, said the ballot initiative would show "the labor movement is alive here."

"The mayor will be gone soon," he said.

The impetus for the charter change is two arbitration awards given to Philadelphia firefighters and appealed by the Nutter administration as unaffordable. Only police, firefighters, and other public- safety employees barred from striking have their contract disputes settled in binding arbitration.

The city and the firefighters have been meeting over the union's next four-year contract without ever solving the previous one. Non-uniformed municipal workers, represented by AFSCME District Councils 33 and 47, also have not had a new contract for four years.

Joe Schulle, the newly elected president of Local 22 of the firefighters' union, said the idea of seeking a charter change grew out of a conversation with Controller Alan Butkovitz.

The unions intend to gather "way more" than the necessary 20,000 signatures to petition for the charter amendment, Schulle said.

A charter change can be introduced without the signatures, but the effort will allow the unions to collect thousands of names and addresses of sympathetic residents.

Council would have to pass a bill in the fall to put the charter change on the ballot. The amendment would require the mayor to get approval from two-thirds of Council before challenging future arbitration awards.

Asked if Council could pass the measure with a veto-proof margin of 12 votes, Councilman Mark Squilla predicted it would pass unanimously.

Councilman James F. Kenney, the son of a firefighter, said he would introduce the charter change.

"I just want all our employees to be treated with respect, and that has not been the case for the past five years," he said. "When your labor force hates you . . . it's not a good thing."

Mark McDonald, a spokesman for Nutter, said the administration opposes the charter change and added that he believed the firefighters' contract could be solved outside the courts.

"We think a better way forward is . . . to work out a contract that addresses the need for reform coupled with the rank-and-file desire for pay increases," he said.

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, who serves as the city's Democratic Party chairman, promised that the party machine would ensure the amendment's passage. He said it was unacceptable how long city workers have gone without a raise.

"It's absolutely, positively embarrassing," he said. "These are the people who run our city."

Contact Troy Graham at 215-854-2730 or tgraham@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @troyjgraham.

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