The simmering tension between the city's firefighter and paramedic union and Mayor Michael Nutter's administration threatened to boil over today as Local 22 leaders announced they have filed a lawsuit against the city in an attempt to force it to uphold contract terms recently awarded to the union by an arbitrator.
"Throughout the past four years, the firefighters and paramedics have accepted increased risks resulting from staffing cuts, station closings and brownouts, as well as a declining standard of living due to four years without a raise," union president Bill Gault said.
"Regardless, we will continue to go to work every day and willingly lay our lives on the line in defense of this city's residents. In return, all we ask for is a fair shake. We're still waiting. We're not wiling to wait anymore."
As city firefighters and police officers can't strike due to public safety reasons, they turn contract disputes over to a neutral third-party arbitrator, who makes a binding legal decision.
The union claims Nutter is skirting this process by continuing to appeal the arbitrator's findings. His administration last appealed the contract – slated to go into effect in July 2009 – two years ago, claiming it could not afford the nine percent pay increase it awarded to firefighters. A judge sent the contract back to arbitration, which two weeks ago again upheld its terms.
"It seems to me patently unfair that the city go into this process, a legal binding 42-year-old law, and simply say, 'We don't like the outcome so we're going to appeal,'" said International Association of Firefighters President Harold Schaitberger.
"We just want a fair shake," Gault concurred. "We went through binding arbitration – we live with it, they live with
it. They changed the rules. Who are they to change the rules? It's
bizarro world where the only people making money are lawyers."
Gault claims the contract terms are fair and the failure to reach an agreement is a reflection of Nutter's antipathy toward the union. "I believe he has a personal vendetta against the fire department," he said. "I don't know why. You'd have to ask him. We're citizens, too. He keeps preaching, 'Well, I got to take care of the citizens.' What are we? We live here, we spend here, we give our lives. It's just getting old. It's completely disrespectful."
Nutter's spokesman Mark McDonald stressed that the administration still has two weeks to respond to the arbitration terms. "The city of Philadelphia has until early August to come to a decision regarding this arbitration," he said. "We are looking at what's contained in the arbitration and reviewing our options and we will respond within the time frame."
"Regarding the suit itself, really, the beauty of the American legal system is that anybody can file suit and that is their right and that's all I've got to say about that."