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. [click to continue…]