Philly contract dispute boils into the open

After more than two years of simmering antagonism, the contract dispute between Mayor Michael Nutter and Philadelphia’s largest municipal union burst into public view Thursday. Several hundred members rallied at Love Park and scores heckled Nutter during his budget address.

One reason for this display may be that a union election is approaching, and restive members want raises.

“It hurts,” said Carlos Heath, a heavy-equipment operator for the city streets department who was at the rally. “Because (the price of) everything is going up, but our raises aren’t. It’s stressful for all of us.”

The chant among union members was “keep your word,” a reference to what they say is Nutter’s promise during the city’s financial crisis to reward union workers once the city’s fiscal situation stabilized.

As of June, AFSCME District Council 33 members will have gone three years without a new contract, and four years without a raise.

Nutter says he’s ready to give raises, if the union agrees to changes in health care, pensions and productivity. Under Pennsylvania labor law, the mayor cannot impose new terms as long as employees are willing to keep working under the old contract. Because they haven’t gone out on strike, Nutter’s only path to a deal is through District Council 33 President Pete Matthews.

At the moment, they aren’t exactly the best of friends.

“You got to understand what this mayor is trying to do,” Matthews shouted to members at the rally. “He’s trying to break this union!”

Matthews regards the changes Nutter wants as givebacks, and says he won’t even discuss them.

“I’ve vowed no concessions,” Matthews said at the rally. “You know me. I’ve been in this job, been president for 16 years. I’m not giving up nothing! Only way you going to get something, you got to force me out of this job, because I’m not giving it up!”

Behind-the-scenes issues now center stage

For three years, the contract dispute has been waged largely out of public view.

But the union has become more aggressive lately, running TV ads denouncing Nutter, and staging the Love Park rally. One reason might be that as Matthews faces re-election as president in May, an old nemesis, union official Evon Sutton, is running against him.

Sutton attended the rally, and said the time is right for change in the union.

“Four years without a contract is absurd. I’ve been a member of this union for a lot of years, and we’ve never waited this long for a contract,” Sutton said. “You’ve got to have change. You can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results.”

Sutton has run and lost before, and union activists interviewed at the rally were mostly loyal to Matthews.

But it’s not clear whether the thousands of workers who weren’t there might be getting impatient, and take it out on their president.

Members’ discontent and an election challenge could put pressure on Matthews, as well as strengthening Nutter’s hand. Matthews says his recent moves have nothing to do with the election.

“Let me tell you something. I think I’ve won about 15 elections since I’ve been here. I never worried about an election, ever,” Matthews said.

The longer the contract dispute lasts, the more the city saves by not boosting union wages and health-care contributions.

Nutter says he’s determined to make changes that will benefit generations of city taxpayers. Union members are betting he won’t get them.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.