Mayor Michael Nutter's effort to impose contract terms on the city's largest union has hit a snag in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The court has rejected the city's request to bypass lower courts and have the high court consider its petition to impose new terms directly.

It's a significant blow to Nutter's labor strategy and financial plans.

The city's contract with AFSCME District Council 33 expired more than three years ago, and employees are working under the terms of the old agreement. Nutter is willing to give wage increases, but, in return, wants pension and benefit changes the union rejects as givebacks.

Under Pennsylvania case law, the city can't impose new terms as long as workers stay on the job (more on that in my January piece here). Nutter had asked the state Supreme Court to hear the city's petition to change that. Union attorney Sam Spear said granting the city's request would tip the scales of collective bargaining too far in the city's favor.

"Once the city has its way and is able to impose its terms, it has no incentive left to continue to bargain with the union," Spear said.

City attorney Shannon Farmer said the dispute will likely end up before state Supreme Court anyway, and it would have been more efficient for the court to consider the matter directly.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille dissented from the court's ruling, saying in an opinion that taking a fresh look at the case law in imposing contracts is important "not simply to this particular dispute in Philadelphia, but also to public sector labor matters across our commonwealth."

The court majority did not issue an opinion, just a one-paragraph order denying the city's motion.