City of Phila. petitions high court to take up labor dispute with AFSCME District Council 33

The City of Philadelphia is seeking to have the Pennsylvania Supreme Court intervene in a dispute between the municipality and its blue-collar workers’ union that culminated with the filing of a civil action in state court this week. Lawyers representing the city filed for declaratory judgment on Feb. 4 seeking to have a judge declare that the city and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 33, have reached an impasse, giving the city the ability to implement its final offer in the negotiations. The labor dispute, the filing said, arose out of four years of contract negotiations, and has finally reached a deadlock. The lawsuit was filed by lawyers with the firm Ballard Spahr. On Feb. 5, the day after the civil action was filed at the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, the city filed a petition with the state’s high court asking it to use its “King’s Bench” powers to take immediate jurisdiction over the lawsuit. “Days ago, the City filed an important action seeking a declaratory judgment in connection with our belief that after almost four years of collective bargaining we are at an impasse with AFSCME District Council 33 and should have the right to break that deadlock,” Mayor Michael Nutter said in a statement. “We filed this case in Common Pleas Court and I’m certain that any decision there will ultimately be appealed to the state Supreme Court. Since this matter is of such pressing public consequence to city employees and taxpayers locally, as well as public employers throughout the Commonwealth, we are asking the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in today’s filing to assume jurisdiction immediately over this matter.” The lawsuit claims that the union is “holding taxpayers and public employees of the City hostage despite the City’s offer of increased wages and the City’s need for the reforms that it seeks in the negotiations.” Nutter said his goal is to achieve a contract that is both fair to hardworking city employees and city taxpayers. The city’s proposed contract calls for a 2.5 percent raise 30 days after the contract takes effect, followed by a second raise of 2 percent on Jan. 1, 2014. The proposal also restores prospectively all step and longevity increases for union members. In exchange, it provides for pension reform and new work rules on furloughs and overtime. Meanwhile, the union’s president said this week that contract negotiations with the city have not reached an impasse. Herman “Pete” Matthews was quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer as saying that despite what Nutter and his administration contend, District Council 33 remained willing to talk with city leaders. Matthews leads a union that represents close to 7,000 non-professional, non-uniformed civil service employees. The newspaper went on to quote Matthews as describing the city’s decision to take its fight to the courts as disingenuous, and even calling Nutter a “dictator.” District Council 33 members have been working without a contract since 2009 and the workers have not had a raise in the past five years. The city’s suit says that despite the short and long-term savings opportunities the city’s final offer provides to Philadelphia, the combination of wage increases and restoration of step and longevity increments “more than outweighs the immediate impact on employees of these other changes.” “At the same time,” the suit continues, “the Final Offer provides the City with needed reforms in the areas of pensions, overtime and the right to furlough employees when the City’s economic circumstances dictate.” The complaint states that the city’s final offer would cost the city an additional $52 million out of the general fund over the five-year contractual period. “The fact that the City is prepared to make such a significant investment in order to achieve a contract demonstrates that the City’s Final Offer is balanced and fair to employees and taxpayers,” the suit states. “It also demonstrates how important the much-needed reforms that the City proposes in the areas of pension, furloughs and overtime are to the City’s long-term financial health.”

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