Fighting for Fire Department furloughs

Employees of the Philadelphia Fire Department got a contract award from an arbitration panel on Friday. Mayor Nutter has announced that he'll appeal the decision. We're still processing the details, but there was one part of Nutter's statement on why he's appealing the award that jumped out at us:

Unlike the contract for members of the Fraternal Order of Police, this award does not give the city the right to furlough, which can be used to help fund the added cost of a contract.

The city did get the right to furlough police (which basically means it can require them to take days of unpaid vacation). But the city hasn't actually furloughed anyone in the police department yet. So why is the administration making furloughs such a priority in the firefighter contract?

We see a few possible explanations. One is that the administration may still want to use furloughs on police -- Nutter has said the decision to do so will be the police commissioner's -- and is trying to acquire the same flexibility with respect to all departments. After all, things with the budget could get worse yet.

Another is that the administration sees the fire department as a better target for furloughs than the police. Nutter has clashed with firefighters before, imposing rolling closures on fire houses. He may think the department is a reasonable place to look for cost savings.

The maneuver could also be political. Nutter was criticized by some for not appealing the police award because it had high short-term costs. By appealing this one as the 2011 primary approaches, Nutter can argue he is fighting hard to find cost-cutting tools for the city.

Finally, Nutter may want furloughs in this contract to set a precedent for his negotiations with the other municipal unions. The city still has two contracts to settle, with its blue and white collars workers. It probably wants the furlough option included in those. The police and fire contracts are often viewed as a blueprint for the municipal union deals; if both include furloughs, it seems more reasonable for the other unions to have furloughs, too.

Do you see other possible explanations? And how important do you think it is that the city be able to furlough firefighters? Let us know.

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