With Mayor Michael Nutter’s wise decision to end its court appeals against the binding award of a contract to the City’s firefighters and paramedics – after three years without one – Philadelphia has now settled two of its four main public-employee labor disputes. Police and fire having been taken care of, now the City’s white-collar and blue-collar staff need contracts that are both fair and viable for workers, management and taxpayers alike.
Negotiations with AFSCME District Council 47, which represents 6,000 white-collar workers, and District Council 33, which represents 10,000 blue-collar workers, have been in gridlock for years as well. As a temporary measure, working without a contract can be one unfortunate scenario in labor-management negotiations in tough times – and times have been tough for the City ever since the 2008 recession.
But this is unprofessional and unacceptable as an ongoing policy. Regardless of your sympathies for either side of a labor dispute, it is no way to run a city. Our private sector depends for its success on the smooth and reliable provision of effective public services; no one can live or grow in a city where crime and fire aren’t fought, trash and telephones aren’t picked up. Businesslike public-administration planning requires settled, predictable labor costs.
Perhaps it’s time for a reset in the negotiating process between the Administration and DC 33 and 47. Perhaps new faces and forces should be brought to bear.
Such a reset requires setting aside some of the intransigence and bitterness that have piled up during the gridlock years. It is best for all to acknowledge that both labor and management have valid, serious concerns behind their positions. Their two most-painful decisions are the same faced by most Americans today: runaway medical costs and underfunded pensions.
Health-care mismanagement is a national problem we are just beginning to face up to. The USA’s health-care industry is grotesquely more costly and less productive than any other system in the world. No one has found the answers yet.
But since our local economy is one of the big beneficiaries of this health-care spending boom, maybe some of its resident expertise can be tapped to come up with worthy solutions for public employees’ health-care benefits.
Pension obligations are a different question, but also difficult to fix. It is irresponsible to put off fixing them any longer, though. In this case, it may be both legally and fiscally impractical to try suddenly to “shift the burden” onto employees. Management mistakes were made by previous administrations, not by Nutter’s; to him is left the unenviable task of paying for those mistakes.
Quietly, experts in City Council and the General Assembly have been exploring with the Administration the idea of selling city assets to fund previous pension commitments. These are many and varied – the gas company, for one, and a rack of city real estate. If the City gears up its Land Bank and starts seizing and selling abandoned land, this too can help.
Both these problems have resisted the best efforts of the traditional two-sided labor-management dispute model. It is time to look for more partners and more tools – and a patient, constructive, problem-solving approach.