I knew that the local Democratic party had close ties with organized labor, but in my naiveté I thought they remained separate and distinct entities.
Two events in recent weeks proved me wrong. The city’s elected officials and labor bosses aren’t just close. They are Siamese twins, and they’re joined at the hip.
Event No. 1 was the news conference held by Councilman Jim Kenney last week to announce plans to introduce a bill to change the City Charter so that all future administrations will need Council’s approval before they can appeal arbitration rulings on contracts for police and firefighters.
The backstory is this: The Nutter administration has appealed to the courts an arbitration decision on a new contract for the firefighters handed down in 2009. The administration says the arbitrator did not follow the law and take into account the financial condition of the city in awarding firefighters three years of 3 percent raises. It also was unhappy that the arbitrator turned aside money-saving items sought in the new contract, such as the right to furlough.
The courts agreed and sent the issue back to the arbitrator, who made only slight changes that did not satisfy the city. Again, the Nutter administration took the issue to the courts, which sent the issue back again. Unhappy with the third arbitration ruling, the city is back in court again.
Kenney, whose father was a firefighter, is outraged. Actually, Kenney is always outraged, but in this case his anger is directed at Nutter. His bill would preclude Nutter and all future mayors from appealing arbitrations unless the appeal was approved by a two-thirds vote of Council.
When he announced his plan, Kenney was joined on the podium by other pols and area labor leaders who excoriated Nutter as a dolt and a fraud.
This proposed intervention in the bargaining process is not just a cynical attempt to pander to labor; it is a bona fide bad idea. Imagine the reaction if someone in Council introduced a bill to forbid unions from appealing an arbitrator’s decision? There would be weeping and gnashing of teeth over the unfairness of it all. Taking away the basic rights of working men and women and etc. and so forth.
Shouldn’t that equally be true of the taxpayer’s rights? It is, after all, the taxpayers who foot the bill for contracts for city employees. The average fire fighter makes $58,000 a year and gets $44,000 in benefits. This is not chump change, especially in a city where the average household income is $37,000 a year. It’s incumbent on city managers to keep those costs under control.
Our elected officials aren’t in office to protect the rights and power of city unions; they are supposed to be there to protect the taxpayers.
Why do I even need to say that? Because our elected officials apparently are so busy pandering to unions they forgot.
Event No. 2
First, the backstory. The Convention Center is in trouble. The $1.5-billion taxpayer funded facility underwent a major expansion that was completed in 2011. The selling point was that a large center could accommodate larger conventions and spin off hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy. The people selling the expansion said that once completed the new center should host between 20 and 30 big conventions — called city wides in the trade — each year.
That hasn’t happened. There are 21 conventions in town this year, but after that the numbers tank. Only six are booked for 2016.
According to people in the business — and the center’s own consultants — Philadelphia is losing in the competition for business because the people who book and manage conventions don’t like the labor-induced hassles and costs at the center. Since they can go anywhere in the U.S. to hold a convention, it is easy to avoid Philly. So they do.
This is not a new problem. Labor troubles have plagued the center for years. There are six unions that work at the center. Most of the complaints are about workers with the Carpenters Union, whom bookers find rude, hard to work with and prone to submitting too much overtime. The union business agent, Ed Coryell Jr., also comes under a lot of criticism.
Aware that it is facing trouble ahead, the board of the center recently opened talks on new agreements with the unions. It also brought in an outside firm to run the center in the hope it can push for labor peace.
Recently, the center’s board got a new member who is something of an expert on labor matters. It is Ed Coryell Sr., president of the Carpenters Union and father of Ed Jr.
Just to make this clear: Coryell Sr. will have a hand in the new contract both as a member of management and as chief negotiator for his union. It’s enough to make your head spin.
Under the convention center law, various state and local political entities get to pick a member of the 15-member board. Coryell’s name was advanced by two Philadelphia Democratic senators, Anthony Hardy Williams and Vincent Hughes.
Hughes and Williams, African-Americans who represent majority black districts, do not have many constituents who are members of the Carpenters Union. The union is majority white and most of its members live outside the city.
But, many of their constituents do hold jobs in the hotels and restaurants that cater to the convention trade. When the number of conventions tank, they are the ones who will lose their jobs.
Again, we didn’t elect Williams and Hughes to protect the rights and power of the Carpenters Union. They are supposed to protect the interests of their constituents.
To quote Lily Tomlin, no matter how cynical you get, it is impossible to keep up.