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Prison workers' strike is averted

The union will vote on whether to accept a deal brokered by Mayor Nutter.

AFTER threatening a strike, the leader of Philly's prison-healthcare-workers union has reached a tentative agreement with the company that manages treatment for the city's roughly 9,000 inmates, sources with knowledge of the negotiations said.

Henry Nicholas, president of the National Union of Hospital & Health Care Employees District 1199C, is expected to present to his 270 prison workers a compromise that will include wage increases and less-generous health-care plans. If approved, the agreement would avert a strike threatened in an op-ed by Nicholas in yesterday's Inquirer.

Nicholas and representatives of Corizon, a Tennessee company that the city pays $42 million per year to manage the city's prison health care, spent hours yesterday in the offices of Everett Gillison, Mayor Nutter's chief of staff. Nutter and Gillison engaged in shuttle diplomacy throughout the day to bring the parties closer together.

The unions' three contracts with Corizon expired Nov. 26, and the two sides had been at loggerheads on reaching a new agreement.

One issue was Corizon's desire to switch workers to a private health-care exchange, an increasingly prevalent benefit model in which employees receive defined subsidies from their employer and shop for plans in an online "exchange." Private exchanges function similarly to the public exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act, or "ObamaCare," intended to help the uninsured get covered.

It's unclear whether yesterday's agreement involves switching to the exchanges, but sources said it would amount to a benefit cut for 1199C workers - just not as deep a cut as Corizon had been seeking.

Nicholas wrote in his op-ed that the company's "best and final offer" to the union included major benefit cuts that were not offset by proposed wage increases promised under Corizon's contract with the city. He argued that cutting benefits to pay for wage increases for which the company already had planned was an act of bad faith.

"Unfortunately for the inmates, for the city, and for our members, a strike beginning on Dec. 13 now seems like a real possibility," Nicholas wrote. "If Corizon plans to spend the increases in its city contracts that are meant for workers on something else, or keep the money for itself, it's hard to see how a strike can be avoided."

Corizon, Gillison and Mayor Nutter's spokesman, Mark McDonald, all declined to comment.

Councilman Jim Kenney had planned a hearing on the issue, but said last night that he will cancel it if the agreement is approved.