Pa. Supreme Court denies Phila.'s bid to immediately hear AFSCME dispute; Chief Justice issues strong dissent

By Jon Campisi | Jun 11, 2013

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has denied a bid by the City of Philadelphia to step in

and hear a case arising from a labor dispute between the municipality and its blue collar workers’ union, although the near-unanimous decision was accompanied by a strong dissent penned by the high court’s chief justice.

In a brief, one-paragraph order issued on June 7, the Supreme Court denied the city’s application for extraordinary relief in which it sought to have the justices use their “king’s bench powers” to hear a case city lawyers initiated back in February at the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.

Attorneys for 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 in their labor dispute.

Union leaders deny that contract negotiations with the city have reached an impasse, arguing that AFSCME District Council 33, which has about 7,000, non-uniformed civil service employees, remained willing to talk with the city’s leadership.

The litigation arose out of four years of contract negotiations between the city and the union, which represents blue collar municipal workers.

One day after city lawyers filed their suit concerning the labor dispute at Common Pleas Court, they filed a petition with the Supreme Court asking it to use its extraordinary powers to take immediate jurisdiction over the case, which was expected to eventually make its way back to the Supreme Court

While the high court’s per curiam order did not contain a memorandum outlining its reasons for denying the city’s request, Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille filed a five-page dissenting opinion in which he asserted his belief that his fellow justices were wrong for not exercising extraordinary jurisdiction over this “important, purely legal issue.”

“I would grant this Application,” Castille wrote in his dissent. “An effective four-year stalemate in contract negotiations between a major employees’ union and a municipality, turning in crucial part upon a plurality decision establishing a rule this Court has never passed upon, presents a legal issue of obvious importance.”

In its complaint, the city asserted that effective negotiations were stymied by the Commonwealth Court decision in Philadelphia Housing Authority v. Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, referring to that decision as a “holding” in the present case.

Castille points out that PHA was a plurality decision decided by a seven-judge panel, stating that it did not establish binding precedent for the Commonwealth Court or lower courts.

Still, the city had been asserting that per the PHA decision, when public-sector employment negotiation covered under the Public Employee Relations Act is at an impasse, the public employer may not unilaterally impose contract terms unless the public employees first strike.

The PHA decision, the city asserts, essentially allows the union to hold the city to the terms of the expired agreement in perpetuity, with city leadership claiming that the standstill has had a “deleterious effect on its finances and ability to plan for the future,” according to the chief justice’s dissent.

In its petition to have the high court take immediate jurisdiction over the case, city lawyers asserted that the PHA decision is flawed in that it improperly shifted the balance of power sharply in favor of unions, allowing them to decide unilaterally whether to freeze the parties’ duties and rights in time, Castille’s dissent states.

“The City reasons that if a union believes that a previous collective bargaining agreement is more advantageous than anything the union could achieve through present-day good faith bargaining, PHA improperly allows the union to retain those advantages, even if the financial landscape of the municipality has radically shifted,” Castille wrote.

The union takes the position that because, as it claims, there is no impasse, the PHA decision is a non-issue.

District Council 33 further contends that continued adherence to the PHA rule encourages the parties to resolve their differences through peaceful collective bargaining.

Castille wrote that the city makes a “colorable claim” that its interpretation of the PHA decision fosters a state of stalemate, “which is ultimately disadvantageous to both sides in municipal labor negotiations.”

The chief justice wrote that this “predictable difficulty” was anticipated by Commonwealth Court Judge James G. Colins in Colins’ own dissent in the PHA decision.

“Judge Colins presciently stated that the plurality’s decision ‘threaten[ed] the delicate balance of bargaining power between employer and employee in the public sector,’” Castille wrote.

Castille noted that the state Supreme Court with a different judicial makeup two decades ago opted not to review the Commonwealth Court’s plurality decision in the PHA case.

“Although the issue could have been reviewed by the Court at that time, it should not be ignored now,” Castille wrote. “The issue of the propriety of the PHA plurality is an important one, not simply to this particular dispute in Philadelphia, but also to public sector labor matters across our Commonwealth. This is particularly so in the current economic circumstances.”

Castille said while it’s true that the case should make its way through the state court system, it’s clear that the Supreme Court would ultimately have to weigh in on the matter.

“In my view, it is prudent to do so now rather than forestall review, as if this were just another case,” Castille wrote. “Neither a public employer nor its employees should have to negotiate under the existing uncertainty regarding this Court’s ultimate resolution of the purely legal PHA issue.”

As for this particular case, the Pennsylvania Record previously reported that Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter stated his goal is to achieve a contract that is both fair for hardworking city employees and city taxpayers.

The city’s proposed contract with the workers 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.

But it also provides for pension reform and new work rules on furloughs and overtime.

In a statement issued back in February, Nutter conceded that the case, while filed at Common Pleas Court, would likely end up in the Supreme Court at some point in time.

“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 mayor had stated after the city filed for the special review.

The city’s suit claims the blue collar workers’ 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 had to cut short his budget address to City Council earlier this spring, local media previously reported, after he was drowned out by union members who filed into council chambers to voice their disgust with the negotiations process.

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