Ramping up the public pressure on Mayor Michael Nutter, several thousand firefighters descended on city hall Thursday, screaming for the mayor to honor a recent contract award with the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 22.
“Honor our contract. Implement the award,” chanted Bill Gault, president of Local 22, leading as many as 3,500 firefighters from the Pennsylvania Convention Center to city hall. “This is about a mayor who has no respect for the people who save lives for a living.”
Nutter was clearly the target for the group’s anger. His face was plastered on signs — some with the word “liar” printed across his forehead and others with “binding?” emblazoned across his face.
The mayor was out of town Thursday and could not be reached for comment.
Firefighters and the administration have been sparring for several years over a contract. Earlier this week, Local 22 filed suit to compel the administration to act.
Local 22 was awarded a contract on July 2 by a panel of three arbitrators. It granted union members a 9 percent pay raise and protected them from furlough days while at the same time forcing changes in members’ pension and health care plans.
Under the terms of the agreement, back dated to July 1, 2009, and very similar to a previous agreement, the city would contribute more to members’ health care and benefits, but new hires would be forced into a 401(k) type retirement plan.
The ruling was the most recent skirmish in the contract fight, which dates to 2010 when arbitrators awarded a contract that was also appealed by the city, and ultimately set aside.
That was worrisome for union officials far beyond Philadelphia, who were concerned that the Nutter administration had appealed a previous award, and now appears to be ignoring another, could set a nationwide precedent.
Gault, noting that Nutter is the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, accused him of plotting with other mayors in a coordinated attack on firefighters.
“He’s with a bunch of other mayors plotting on how he can take your benefits away,” Gault said to a chorus of boos. “And, he’s supposed to be a Democrat.”
Union officials seemed genuinely concerned that the administration’s actions may set the tone for negotiations in the U.S. and Canada.
“Our members expect the fair treatment of a process,” said Harold Schaitberger, president of IAFF. “A process that says if two parties can’t agree, a neutral third party is going to come in and arbitrate a decision. If he doesn’t implement this award, he is going to deal with the full force of this international.”
Schaitberger added that the IAFF was gearing up for elections later this year, and planned on backing only candidates that supported their cause.
“We follow one principle: Those willing to stand with us, we’re willing to stand with,” he said. “The flip side of that is, you screw our members, you do the wrong thing … and we are going to use every political ability, every political dollar that we have to get you. I don’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican.”
One mayor, Tony Spitaleri, mayor of Sunnyvale, Calif., who is also a retired firefighter, said honoring the contract was a mayor’s duty. He compared Nutter’s tactics to those of a terrorist.
“The domestic enemies that you have across the country are mayors and we’re going to fight back,” said Spitaleri. “So I say from this mayor to you — do the right thing and give these guys what they deserve.”