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City of Philadelphia Asks To Impose Contract Terms in Stalled Blue-Collar Talks

By Mike Dunn

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- In a case being watched by cities and unions across Pennsylvania, the Nutter administration today asked a judge to declare that it has the right to impose contract terms on the city's largest municipal workers' union, District Council 33.

The judge's decision is still weeks away.

DC 33 has been without a contract since 2009 (see related story), and lawyers for the mayor today asked Common Pleas Judge Idee Fox to declare that the city can go ahead and impose the terms of the mayor's last offer.  Arguing for the city was labor attorney Shannon Farmer:

"The city believes that breaking the impasse in these negotiations, which has gone on for more than five years, is necessary to promote the public interest, and in the best interest of taxpayers and the employees," she said.

But the union denies that the two sides are at an impasse, and union attorney Sam Spear argued that the matter should be before the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, not a city judge.

"The city is going to court to say, 'Please referee our relationship,' " Spear told Judge Fox.   "It would effectively put an end to bargaining."

Watching the hearing was the head of District Council 33, Pete Matthews.

"This is another attempt to circumvent the collective bargaining process by the mayor," Matthews said afterward.  "It's not up to the courts to resolve a collective bargaining agreement.  It's up to the mayor to sit down and work this out fairly."

The case has broad implications for other cities and towns in Pennsylvania because it hinges on a famous case that has, for two decades, limited municipalities from imposing terms.

The union contends that a 1993 state Commonwealth Court ruling -- involving employees and management at the Philadelphia Housing Authority -- set the precedent that public employers cannot unilaterally impose the terms of a contract.

Farmer, in her arguments before Judge Fox, contended that the PHA ruling is not applicable, as the DC 33 dispute has dragged on five years, versus five months in the PHA case.

The precedent of the PHA ruling, she says, will likely see this case end up before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

"Given the importance of this issue to both the parties and the statewide importance of this issue, it is ultimately to be decided by a higher court," Farmer said.

So, the dispute will wind its way through the legal system, and the mayor's top attorney, city solicitor Shelley Smith, hopes that whoever becomes mayor in 2016 continues the battle -- if it is not, by then, concluded.

"I would certainly hope that if the litigation hasn't concluded by then that the next administration would see it through," she said today.  "Because I think it's important to get some clearer resolution of what a municipality's rights are (to implement) in a very extreme situation like the one we're facing today."

District Council 33, representing approximately 8,000 blue-collar city workers, has been without a contract since July 1, 2009, and the two sides are mainly at odds over three matters:  the mayor wants a two-tier pension system for new hires, he wants the right to furlough workers, and he wants an overhaul of overtime rules.

Matthews, the union head, says more talks are scheduled for next week.  The smaller DC 47, representing the city's white-collar city workers, reached a contract agreement with the mayor last February (see related story).


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