Thousands of union members from the International Association of Firefighters conference marched down Broad Street and converged on City Hall this afternoon, calling on Mayor Michael Nutter to honor the contract an arbitrator awarded to Philadelphia's Local 22 in early July.
"Right now, we we're feeling we're not getting the respect we deserve," Local 22 President Bill Gault said. "…The message is: honor the contract. Binding is binding."
The union filed a lawsuit against the city July 17 for failing to implement the agreement and alleging that it is breaking the law for not having done so. The suit is the latest in a series of disputes that have eroded the relationship between the Nutter administration and Local 22.
"I've been to this city – which I love – too many times. I've stood on these steps too many times because a mayor wants to shut down a company, because a mayor wants to not honor a binding arbitration award," IAFF President Harold Schaitberger said, noting that in the past, when an arbitrator came back with an agreement that wasn't favorable to Local 22, they lived with it. "I'm going to say to you, Mayor Nutter, it was good enough then and it's good enough now."
The administration already appealed Local 22's award two years ago. A judge sent the award back to arbitration in 2011 and virtually the same terms were returned July 2 of this year. The union, which can't legally strike, has now gone four years without a contract.
"We made a lot of decisions this week about how we're going to be spending millions and millions of dollars in the political arena," Schaitberger said. He said that, though many IAFF members would soon leave Philadelphia as the conference ends, they will continue to stand behind Local 22 and firefighters in other cities who are facing similar issues – and against the politicians who are contributing to those issues. "We're going to come back with dollars and marbles and chalk and everything it takes to play this game and to win."
Earlier this month, Nutter's spokesman Mark McDonald said the city
does plan to respond by the August 2 deadline, though that window is
quickly narrowing. While the union claims the city has exhausted its
right to appeal, McDonald said today that is not the case.
The union's dispute with the administration has become increasingly personal, as leaders say Nutter has rebuffed their attempts at making nice. Union officials today also said that the city sent them a written threat stating members will be punished if they don't drop the lawsuit.
"This is a mayor who has no respect for the people who save lives," Gault said when addressing the crowd. "This is a mayor who's not even in the city right now. He's with a bunch of other mayors plotting how to take your benefits away."
Gault said before the rally that Nutter has neither responded to a conciliatory letter Gault sent the day the contract was awarded, nor replied to his calls or text messages.
"What I find so incredible is the president of our Local, Bill Gault, sent the mayor what I thought was a wonderful letter in which he discussed moving into the future, leaving the past behind us and starting a new relationship the day the award arrived," Schaitberger said. "The mayor doesn't have the courtesy to respond."
Mayor Anthony Spitaleri of Sunnyvale, California said at the rally that he understands how to balance a budget, but knows how do so while maintaining safe and fair working conditions for police and firefighters. "I took an oath, I'm sure as [Nutter] took an oath, to protect citizens from all enemies, foreign and domestic. He's declared firefighters the enemies."
Schaitberger said it's the residents of Philadelphia that the union is now trying to reach. "I've been at this a long time," he said. "I find every single time we are able to take the message to the people – the faith community, the elderly community, those less fortunate who are experiencing difficult economic times – when we really let them know what it means in real terms, they back our plan. The citizens need to say, 'Mayor, honor the award.' That's who should be running this city, anyway."
July 1, 2009. Local 22's contract with the city expired.
Sept. 17, 2010 – Oct. 15, 2010. The city and Local 22 went to arbitration and a four-year contract was awarded.
Nov. 12, 2010. The city appealed, saying the agreement was too costly.
Nov. 16, 2011. A Common Pleas Court judge sent the contract back to arbitration.
July 2, 2012. An arbitrator awarded virtually the same terms. The city has until Aug. 2, 2012 to respond.
July 17, 2012. Local 22 filed a lawsuit against the city compelling them to implement the contract and claiming they have exhausted their right to appeal. The city allegedly responded with a written threat to punish the union if they continue with the suit.
July 1, 2013. Local 22's contract will expire again, prompting another round of negotiations.