Police reform, occupational safety and city finances are at stake in Philadelphia’s first union negotiations since the pandemic
Most of the city’s employees have been working without collective agreements since early July, while Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration is negotiating new contracts with the four major municipal unions that will shape the city’s workforce after the pandemic.
Much more than money is at stake in the talks, which affect around 22,300 of the city’s 26,800 employees.
The government has tied much of its hopes for major police reform – including a less favorable disciplinary measure for officers accused of wrongdoing – to its contract with the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 police union, as sanitary workers respond to workers’ security needs revealed during the pandemic want to enter.
“This is a very big moment. What the pandemic taught us – not just the city, the world – is the importance of city workers, ”said Ernest Garrett, president of the 9,500-member Union of District Council 33 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “The picture should be a little clearer that we deserve to be treated fairly, that our families are important, that our jobs are important, that we are not just something to be scratched off your shoes.”
Neither union leaders nor a Kenney spokesman would discuss details of the ongoing talks. The spokeswoman, Deana Gamble, said that both sides “are actively working towards new deals” but that the government is not “negotiating our employment contracts in the press.”
Although the pacts expired on July 1, it is not uncommon for negotiations to stretch past the expiration date. A union, AFSCME District Council 47, which represents the city’s 3,700 employees, decided to extend their contract for 60 days while talks continued. There is little practical difference between working with and without a contract when all parties are negotiating by consensus, it seems.
Garrett and the chairman of the city’s white-collar union, which represents workers such as administrative assistants and first-level supervisors, said they had exchanged initial proposals with the city and hope to reach an agreement this summer. The other two unions, which currently have no contract and represent police and fire fighters, usually negotiate their contracts through a special procedure for public sector unions representing public security workers.
Traditionally, mayors negotiate multi-year contracts at the start of each of their four-year terms, and all four union contracts should expire in June 2020. When the pandemic broke out, however, the government orchestrated one-year contracts that largely matched the terms of the previous contracts and gave workers wage increases of around 2% to 2.5%.
Kenney then said the city needed more time to understand how the pandemic would affect the city’s budget, despite the decision having its critics.
The one-year deal with the 6,500-member FOP also came two months before the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and meant the government had to wait a year before negotiating police reform measures Kenney wanted to enact after the protests.
Administrative officials testified on the city council that one of the city’s priorities for the police contract is to give the police commissioner more flexibility in relocating officers, to reverse a previous change to the employee residency regime that allowed police veterans to move to the city abandoned, and most reform of disciplinary arbitration that has allowed numerous officials to stay with the police or reduce their sentences.
FOP Lodge 5 President John McNesby did not respond to a request for comment.
Kenney, son of a firefighter, is a work-friendly mayor who was elected with broad union support and awarded generous contracts with city workers, which helped the city budget soar during his tenure. When Kenney took office in 2016, the budget was $ 4.02 billion. This year’s budget, which went into effect July 1, is $ 5.27 billion.
It is likely that the city’s workers will get another boost in negotiated contracts. Garrett and District Council 47 President Cathy Scott said they were encouraged by the government’s initial proposals.
“I don’t feel like we’re dealing with stubborn problems,” said Scott. In addition to raising salaries, her union is seeking changes to the grievance process and performance reviews.
Kenney’s approach is in stark contrast to that of his predecessor Michael A. Nutter, who took office just before the global financial crisis in 2008 and was at war with all unions – except the FOP – for most of his eight-year tenure on wages, health care and pension benefits to win. In 2013, during Nutter’s annual budget speech, union members rushed the council chambers, drowned out the mayor’s speech and forced him to leave early.
State law treats uniformed and non-uniformed trade unions differently. While the AFSCME district councils negotiate directly with the city and have the right to strike, the FOP and the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 22 are excluded from the strike and their contracts are determined through “arbitration of interests,” a process used by the panel of persons hears suggestions from employees and management and tries to find a compromise.
Each side selects one panelist and both sides agree on a third. For the FOP contract, the city has chosen Ballard Spahr’s attorney Shannon D. Farmer, who previously represented the city in contract negotiations during Nutter’s tenure, and the FOP has selected Willig Williams & Davidson attorney Ralph J. Teti. The swing voice is veteran umpire Alan A. Symonette, who previously served as an attorney for the National Labor Relations Board and Philadelphia Gas Works.
The arbitration process means that the city has little control over the outcome of the FOP contract. The government hopes, however, that it can sensibly reform the agreement that has now been drawn up.
“We continue to hope to achieve significant reforms to the arbitration, disciplinary process and other key management priorities,” said Gamble.