City unions disgrace themselves

by pkerkstra on April 13, 2011

Union bashing is cheap and, most of the time, unwarranted and unfair. But not today. Two of Philadelphia’s four big municipal unions have utterly disgraced themselves with their endorsements of Milton Street, the former federal prisoner who—tragically—is Michael Nutter’s only opposition in this May’s primary election.

The city’s firefighters union went there first.

“In a perfect world, candidates would be perfect,” shrugged IAFF president BIlly Gault, as he tried yesterday afternoon to explain the inexplicable. “In elections, you can’t beat someone with no one. Milton Street offered himself as a candidate.”

In other words, he has a pulse. And that was enough for the firefighters.

District Council 33, the city’s biggest union, representing 9,900 blue-collar workers, such as garbage collectors and road workers, quickly followed the firefighters’ lead.

“Everybody deserves a second chance,” DC 33 chief Pete Matthews told the Inquirer, when asked why he would endorse Street.

Now this is progressive thinking. Ex-offenders not only deserve a chance in the job market. They deserve to be considered for mayor as well. Never mind that Street—who went to federal jail for tax evasion—still owes the City of Philadelphia $388,000.

Remind me: How, again, are firefighters and trash collectors paid? Are taxes somehow involved?

The charitable read is to look at this as a powerful statement of dissatisfaction with Nutter, and it’s true that city unions have plenty of legitimate reasons to be unhappy with the Mayor. DC 33 has been working under an expired contract for nearly two years, meaning their members’ pay has been effectively frozen.

The firefighters did get a new contract through the mandatory arbitration process, but Nutter has appealed the award, infuriating the firefighters. On top of that, the Nutter administration has closed seven fire companies, imposed rolling brownouts on fire stations, gone after the golden goose of firefighter overtime and successfully gotten city paramedics removed from the union.

It seems to me that the city’s budget crisis forced Nutter’s hand, but I get that his moves were sure to anger city workers. So why didn’t the unions line up a credible candidate of their own ahead of the election? Why not endorse one of the GOP candidates, John Featherman or Karen Brown? Why not, in DC 33’s case, go on strike?

Instead they endorsed Street. It was, at least, a revealing move. We have a better sense now of the pettiness and intransigence that the Nutter administration has been dealing with as it tries to bargain with its workers. Former Nutter spokesman Doug Oliver said it well on Twitter: “I hope its clearer now what the Mayor has had to deal with. It’s like trying to play checkers with someone who screams and eats the pieces.”

By definition, unions are supposed to be self-serving. Their job is to fight for the best wages, benefits and working conditions for their members, which usually is in the long-term best interests of the broader middle class. But I guess I figured that public-employee unions also had at least some obligation to the well-being of the city as a whole.

Now we know different.

As bad as this makes DC 33 and the firefighters look, it’s still terrible news for Nutter. Street was always going to be a problem for the incumbent Mayor. Now it looks like Nutter actually has a fight on his hands. Not for the nomination itself. Nutter should still win that comfortably. But it is looking more and more like Street has the potential to win an embarrassingly large number of votes, hobbling Nutter’s second term before it begins.

It would have been better for everyone, Nutter included, if he faced a serious challenge from a credible Democrat. Instead it’s sideshow time, and Milton Street is once again playing the role of ringmaster.

(This originally appeared on PhillyPost)

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