Inquirer Editorial: Unions want to call the shots

John Dougherty DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff
John Dougherty DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff
Posted: July 29, 2013

If the political drama being played out in Philadelphia today seems familiar, that's because it should. Some are trying to bring back the days when mayors who were in bed with union bosses signed expensive employee contracts that almost put this town in bankruptcy.

That stopped 21 years ago, when Mayor Ed Rendell used his powers effectively to get contracts that froze salaries and cut benefits to a level the city could afford. There is not the same fear of bankruptcy now, but Mayor Nutter continues the fight over union contracts.

Among those Nutter is fighting, ironically, are fellow politicians with mayoral ambitions. But if their willingness to appease unions at any cost is an indication of the way they would run the city, they are the last people Philadelphians should elect chief executive.

Rather than preserve the powers that helped Rendell, City Councilman Jim Kenney and City Controller Alan Butkovitz are proposing to emasculate the mayor's office. They want to take away a mayor's ability to challenge a contract arbitration decision in court unless he gets City Council approval.

It's a terrible idea. Involving Council would only inject more politics into the process. It would return Philadelphia to the Rizzo era, when arbitration rulings were rarely challenged and unions got the sweetheart deals that put the city in the poorhouse. Anyone who backs this lame notion is unqualified to be mayor.

That the proposal is a result of political calculation is evident in its being pushed by electricians union boss John Dougherty. His Local 98 represents not a single municipal employee, but it does have buckets of campaign cash to entice mayoral aspirants looking for a sugar daddy.

Kenney, the son of a fireman, says he wants to help firefighters, who haven't had a contract for four years. Butkovitz says Nutter has made a "mockery of the concept of binding arbitration" by challenging rulings. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.) said of union members, "It's these people who run this city."

Workers who haven't had a raise in years should be frustrated. But public officials are elected to put taxpayers first, not the employees who work for taxpayers. Elected officials can't forget that and let their political desires return this city to an era of irresponsible spending.

It would have been better if Nutter had settled the dispute without multiple court challenges. Now, with that contract still unsettled, negotiations on a new one have begun. Meanwhile, the mayor's inability to effectively explain to the public why he is fighting the arbitration award has allowed foes to depict him as uncaring toward poor public servants who just want to be treated fairly.

The prevailing impression is that pay raises are at the heart of Nutter's beef with firefighters, but health insurance is the bigger problem. In 2009, the police union agreed to a less expensive self-insurance fund. But the firefighters want to keep their Cadillac plan, under which they pay no premiums and co-pays of only $5 for doctor visits and $2 for generic drugs.

The firefighters' plan costs taxpayers $1,270 a month for each of the department's 2,000 union members. Under the arbitrator's ruling, that tab would grow to $1,620 per month per member. For the police union's self-insurance plan, meanwhile, the city pays about $1,150 per month per member. That's because instead of a lump sum, the city pays only on actual claims.

Arbitrators may be persuaded by arguments that the city can afford to give employees what they want. But a mayor must look beyond what a city can afford now to what's best for taxpayers in the long term, including an ability to redirect revenue from employee health insurance to other needs, such as schools.

Kenney's proposal would hamper a mayor's ability to act in the best interests of taxpayers. Council President Darrell Clarke, who some fear has let his mayoral dreams tie him too closely to Dougherty's political apparatus, can prove otherwise by letting proponents of this bad idea know he will fight it.

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