Michael Nutter "stuck his hands in the pockets of firefighters ... he has stolen money from them," one speaker said. "He's a fraud," said another. "A disgrace," said just about everybody.


A gaggle of union leaders and Philadelphia elected officials of both political parties took turns heaping scorn on Philadelphia's mayor yesterday, pledging to effectively strip him of the authority to challenge police and fire labor arbitration awards.

I have to say, their plan is clever. It could work. Whether it's good for the city's taxpayers, and even its union members over the long run, is another question.

How it used to be

Police and firefighters aren't permitted to strike in Pennsylvania, so state law provides that if they can't negotiate an agreement, a three-member arbitration panel hears from both sides and lays out the terms of a new contract. It's called binding arbitration.

But when Philadelphia went broke in 1991 and the city needed state legislation to dig itself out of a gaping financial hole, a provision was inserted in the arbitration law requiring arbitration panels to take into account the city's financial condition and ability to fund the deal.

Seems like common sense, doesn't it? The belief among government labor lawyers for years was that the "neutral" arbitrators who held the balance on the panels always tilted toward labor to get future work.

I don't know enough about it to know whether they're right, but the reason we're in a big fight now is that to make the requirement that panels consider the city's fiscal condition meaningful, the Legislature gave the city the right to appeal an award to the courts.

In other words, binding arbitration wasn't exactly binding anymore -- at least not until the courts said so.

The fire this time

For years now, the Nutter administration has challenged a contract award for city firefighters, saying it's simply too expensive. The courts have ruled in favor of the union so far, but the city has continued to appeal.

Firefighters have been without a raise now since 2009. The Nutter administration says it's ready to give raises and would sign a deal comparable to the one police officers got, which includes benefits changes and furlough options the city says it needs.

The firefighters deal, they say, will cost taxpayers a fortune. So they appeal.

The police and fire unions have long hated the provision in state law that allows the city to appeal, but weren't able to get it repealed in a Republican-dominated Legislature. So now they've come up with another way to skin the cat.

They propose to amend the city charter so that a two-thirds vote of City Council would be required to appeal a police or fire arbitration award. They figure Council will never alienate organized labor by voting for such a thing, so there will be no appeals.

This could happen. All the unions need is a veto-proof majority of Council, 12 of 17 members, to put the charter change on a citywide referendum. Voters tend to approve charter referendums. And with the effort unions would put into a "Vote Yes" campaign, it's a lock.

But is it a good thing?

Covering city government for decades now, I've come to truly appreciate the value of the collective bargaining process. You really need the balance of city managers who want to improve services and protect the public purse on one side and unions leaders determined to make sure members get fair treatment and compensation on the other.

If either side is allowed to run roughshod over the other, bad things happen. I've seen it.

If the unions' charter change is approved, it will significantly erode the authority of this and every future mayor to manage labor relations. Council will be taking on something it hasn't in the past, and may some day come to regret it. After all, it will have to fund every labor contract the city signs, and raising taxes isn't exactly fun either.

The best outcome of this initiative may be to prompt the city and the firefighters union to settle their differences at the bargaining table. It's not against the law.