At budget address, labor sent the message

by pkerkstra on March 14, 2012

This column appeared on March 13, 2012.

After the choreographed shouting was over, and the balconies packed with union rowdies had emptied out, municipal labor boss Pete Matthews smiled broadly, crossed his legs, and leaned back in his chair, content as a cat in a sunny window.

District Council 33, the union representing nearly 10,000 blue-collar city workers, had accomplished what it had set out to do. The hundreds of workers who attended Mayor Nutter’s budget address last week booed him with vigor. They drowned out sections of his speech, and more or less took over one of the biggest annual political events of the year.

To the casual observer, they looked like bullies. Nutter hung in there and kept his cool, but he’s not as nimble as Chris Christie when heckled, and he failed to turn the moment to his advantage. Really, nobody emerged from the budget address looking all that good. Indeed, only the long, disreputable (and occasionally violent) history of City Council kept the spectacle out of the chamber’s top 10 most cringe-worthy moments.

But the union’s performance wasn’t intended to sway public opinion to labor’s side. Its showing was designed to remind the city’s political class, particularly City Council, that the blue- and white-collar municipal unions are a) seething after working four years without a contract and b) still powerful. At that, they succeeded magnificently.

“It’s old pressure, turned way up,” said Council’s majority leader, Curtis Jones Jr., when asked if Council was feeling additional heat from the unions.

Earlier, before Nutter faced his hostile audience, Councilman Wilson Goode Jr. introduced a resolution urging the mayor to “negotiate a Fair Contract” with the blue- and white-collar unions. The union members, relegated to Council’s version of the cheap seats, clapped like crazy.

Once the mayor arrived and the booing began, Council President Darrell L. Clarke – who was charged at the budget address with the thankless task of maintaining order – pleaded with the union members to pipe down and “respect the house.” But even as he did so, he assured the union members that he was an ally.

Until now, the lack of union contracts for the city’s blue- and white-collar unions hasn’t captured much political attention. The lack of a new deal arguably made sense for both sides. The Nutter administration was able to unilaterally freeze cost-of-living and other pay hikes, and thus save some money on salaries, while the unions were able to avoid the long-term contract concessions that can accompany bad economic times.

That uneasy truce looks to be over. Perhaps because the union’s members have finally had enough. Perhaps because Matthews faces a reelection fight of his own this May, and needs to look as though he’s doing something for his members.

Whatever led to the union muscle-flexing, it appeared to harden Nutter’s position. He still wants concessions on pensions, furloughs, overtime rules, and health care. And he sharpened his tone, if not his language, after the catcalls.

“The citizens have given. Businesses have given. Other public employees have given. And all the public employees have to give something in an environment that is still the aftermath of the worst recession since the Great Depression,” Nutter said.

The mayor’s negotiating position is reasonably strong. The budget numbers are still bad enough that he can credibly claim the city simply can’t afford what the unions are asking for. He’s in good shape politically, with a 60 percent approval rating in a recent Pew Poll. Nutter doesn’t have to worry about reelection, and given the antilabor political climate, being tough with public employee unions would probably only serve to enhance his national profile.

But for Council, the political calculus is entirely different. There are at least five and maybe more sitting Council members who have mayoral aspirations. For them, the political support of municipal workers could make the difference between winning and early retirement. Even those Council members content with their jobs have to worry about reelection. Not to mention that many members strongly believe city workers deserve to see their pay increased, if only to keep up with the increased cost of living.

Officially, Council doesn’t have a seat at the negotiating table. But there are back channels, and Clarke said Council has been working those “for quite some time,” and plans to propose some new ideas “in a couple of weeks.”

I’m sure Mayor Nutter is delighted to have Council’s help.

Previous post:

Next post: