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Police reform, worker safety, and city finances are at stake in Philly’s first union negotiations since the pandemic

There is more at stake this year than dollars and cents, as the city pursues police reform measures and the union for blue-collar employees seeks worker safety guarantees.

A city worker collects trash in North Philadelphia. The sanitation workers' union, AFSCME District Council 33, is hoping to include new worker safety guarantees in its next contract with the city.
A city worker collects trash in North Philadelphia. The sanitation workers' union, AFSCME District Council 33, is hoping to include new worker safety guarantees in its next contract with the city.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Most of Philadelphia’s city employees have been working without collective bargaining agreements since the beginning of July as Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration negotiates new contracts with the four large municipal unions that will shape the city’s post-pandemic workforce.

There’s much more at stake than money in the talks that will affect about 22,300 of the city’s 26,800 employees.

The administration has pinned much of its hopes for significant police reform — including making the discipline process less favorable to officers accused of wrongdoing — on its contract with the police union, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5. And the union for blue-collar employees such as sanitation workers wants to address worker safety needs that became evident during the pandemic.

“It’s a very big moment. What the pandemic has taught us — not only the city, but the world — is the importance of city workers,” said Ernest Garrett, president of the 9,500-member union, District Council 33 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “The picture should be a little bit clearer that we deserve to be treated fairly, that our families matter, that our jobs matter, that we’re not just something you scrape off the bottom of your shoe.”

Neither union leaders nor a spokesperson for Kenney would discuss details of the ongoing talks. The spokesperson, Deana Gamble, said that both sides were “actively working” toward new deals but that the administration doesn’t “negotiate our labor agreements in the press.”

Although the pacts expired July 1, it’s not uncommon for negotiations to stretch beyond the expiration date. One union, AFSCME’s District Council 47, representing the city’s 3,700 white-collar employees, opted to extend its contract for 60 days while talks continue. There’s little practical difference between working with or without a contract when all sides are negotiating amicably, as appears to be the case.

Garrett and the leader of the city’s white-collar union, which represents workers such as administrative assistants and first-level supervisors, said they have exchanged initial proposals with the city and hope to reach an agreement this summer. The other two unions currently without a contract, representing police and firefighters, typically negotiate their contracts through a special process for public sector unions representing public safety workers.

Traditionally, mayors negotiate multiyear contracts in the beginning of each of their four-year terms, and all four union contracts were set to expire in June 2020. But when the pandemic struck, the administration orchestrated one-year deals that largely continued the terms of the previous contracts and gave workers raises of around 2% to 2.5%.

Kenney said then that the city needed more time to understand how the pandemic would affect the city’s budget, although the decision had its detractors.

The one-year deal with the 6,500-member FOP also came two months before the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and meant the administration had to wait a year before it could negotiate for police reform measures Kenney said he wanted to enact following the protests.

Administration officials have testified in City Council that the city’s priorities for the police contract include: giving the police commissioner greater flexibility over officer transfers, reversing an earlier change to the employee residency rule that allowed veteran cops to move out of the city, and, most significant, reforming the disciplinary arbitration process that has allowed scores of officers accused of wrongdoing to stay on the force or have their punishments reduced.

FOP Lodge 5 president John McNesby did not respond to a request for comment.

The son of a firefighter, Kenney is a labor-friendly mayor who was elected with broad union support and has given generous contracts to city workers, helping fuel the enormous increase in the size of the city budget during his tenure. When Kenney took office in 2016, the budget was $4.02 billion. This year’s budget, which took effect July 1, is $5.27 billion.

It’s likely city workers will get another boost in the contracts being negotiated. Garrett and District Council 47 president Cathy Scott said they were encouraged by the administration’s initial proposals.

“I don’t have the sense that we’re dealing with intractable issues,” Scott said. In addition to raises, her union is pursuing changes to the employee grievance procedure and performance evaluations.

Kenney’s approach is in stark contrast to that of his predecessor Michael A. Nutter, who took office shortly before the 2008 global financial crisis and warred with all of the unions — except for the FOP — for most of his eight-year administration in a bid to win concessions on pay, health care, and pension benefits. In 2013, union members packed City Council chambers during Nutter’s annual budget address, drowning out the mayor’s speech and forcing him to leave early.

State law treats uniformed and non-uniformed unions differently. While the AFSCME district councils negotiate with the city directly and have the right to strike, the FOP and International Association of Fire Fighters Local 22 are barred from striking, and their contracts are established through “interest arbitration,” a process in which a three-person panel hears proposals from labor and management and attempts to forge a compromise.

Each side picks one panelist, and both sides agree on a third. For the FOP contract, the city’s pick is Ballard Spahr attorney Shannon D. Farmer, who previously represented the city in contract negotiations during Nutter’s tenure, and the FOP has chosen Willig Williams & Davidson attorney Ralph J. Teti. The swing vote is veteran arbitrator Alan A. Symonette, who has previously worked as an attorney for the National Labor Relations Board and Philadelphia Gas Works.

The arbitration process means the city has little leverage over the outcome of the FOP contract. The administration is nonetheless hopeful it can achieve meaningful reform in the agreement being hashed out now.

“We remain hopeful to achieve significant reforms to the arbitration and discipline process as well as other key management priorities,” Gamble said.