Philly’s labor boss avoids a fight

    In Wisconsin, New Jersey and elsewhere, public employee unions are under attack as governors demand contract concessions or even the elimination of bargaining rights.

    In Philadelphia, though, we have the curious circumstance of two city unions working now more than a year and a half without a contract, and you don’t hear peep about it.

    What gives?

    Mayor Nutter wants deals from the city’s two AFSCME unions that produce meaningful savings on pensions and health care costs. But the way labor law works in Pennsylvania, if the unions don’t want to give in, he can’t make them.

    Court rulings have interpreted state law to mean that as long as public employees keep working under the terms of their old contract, their employer can’t impose new conditions. This could go on presumably forever.

    What do the unions want?

    I grabbed Pete Matthews, the president of the largest city union, AFSCME District Council 33 last Thursday at Nutter’s budget address, and talked about what he expects.

    It struck me that this guy plays a far more sophisticated game than his mentor, the legendary Earl Stout. Stout was the tough-as-nails leader of District Council 33 who won great contracts for his members in the 70’s and early 80’s, then led them into a disastrous strike in 1986 and ultimately went to jail for stealing from the union.

    Matthews told me he wants a contract when the city is ready to talk, and that he isn’t giving anything back. He wants wage increases and more money for health care, and he makes a case that he and his people have earned it.

    He said he helped Nutter in 2009 when the mayor needed action from the state legislature to raise the city’s sales tax and defer some pension payments. Matthews said he went to Harrisburg and made a critical difference in what was a tough lobbying effort for Nutter.

    “The fact is, he would not have a sales tax increase if it wasn’t for District Council 33, more specifically me,” Matthews told me. “He (Nutter) called me because the representatives told him, ‘the only way you’re going to get this through is, you have to talk to Pete Matthews.'”

    Matthews said if you add the money the city got from the sales tax to the savings from the deferred pension payments, and throw in the savings from not giving raises to thousands of AFSCME employees for three years, you get a big number.

    “We had a hand either directly or indirectly in the past three and a half years, a half a billion dollars that we saved the city,” Matthews said.

    I have to note that it was in his members’ interest, not just Nutter’s, to get those bills through Harrisburg. And I’m not so sure that Matthews’ efforts were decisive, given that Republicans controlled the state senate.

    Nutter’s spokesman Mark McDonald said the mayor appreciated the union’s help with legislators, and he declined to apportion credit among many who helped with its passage.

    The other point Matthews made was that he hasn’t gone out of his way to provoke conflict or embarrass Nutter as he coped with a terrible fiscal mess.

    “We have not threatened a work stoppage,” Matthews said. “In those snow emergencies, our members were out there doing their jobs.”

    So while I don’t exactly buy Matthews’ case that his union saved Nutter a half a billion dollars, I appreciate the argument. And I think he’s been smart to keep a low profile and not make his members a target in this age of hostility to government unions.

    As we finished our conversation, I told him he was handling this a lot different than Earl would have.

    He smiled and said, “that was a different time.”

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