As it awaits new contracts with city police, firefighters, and white- and blue-collar workers, the Nutter administration yesterday also began preparing for a fifth set of municipal labor talks - with city prison guards.

The new talks will follow an administration decision not to appeal a court ruling that allows the city's 1,800 prison guards to reach new work contracts through arbitration.

In October, Commonwealth Court agreed with the guards, who are members of Local 159 of District Council 33, that they have a right to settle contracts in the same manner as police and firefighters. (Local 159 also includes 133 youth detention counselors.)

The court essentially affirmed a 2008 ruling by the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board.

Previously, the guards had no recourse except to negotiate contracts as part of the overall bargaining between the city and District Council 33, which represents blue-collar employees. But the guards argued successfully that they should have a right to arbitration since state law prohibits them - like police and firefighters - from striking.

In an arbitration process, new contract terms are determined by an impartial three-member panel that considers testimony from the city and the union. In contrast, contracts that are negotiated result from direct bargaining between both sides.

"It's always everyone's preference to go reach an agreement [through negotiating]," District Council 33 lawyer Sam Spear said. "But it can, and my guess will, result in some interest arbitration."

Union and local officials met yesterday with city representatives to "set the ground rules and make the arrangements for the negotiations, as well as the interest arbitration if we have to have it," Spear said.

The talks with the prison guards are intended to result in new contracts for 2008, when Local 159 first filed its challenge, and 2009. For now, the union continues to operate under the terms of its previous contract.

City Solicitor Shelley Smith did not directly explain yesterday why the city decided not to appeal the court ruling.

Contact staff writer Marcia Gelbart at 215-854-2338 or mgelbart@phillynews.com.