Inky gets it wrong on brinkmanship

Remember how bad things got this month when the Mayor was threatening to lay off 3,000 city workers? Remember how Plan C, which at first seemed unimaginable, almost became a reality? How it felt like the city was about to collapse?

Well, the Inquirer doesn’t.

The Inky is upset today because the mayor has indicated that widespread layoffs of city workers are now unlikely. Citing a recent Pew report (I wrote about it last week), the paper’s editorial page says that Nutter should keep the layoff option on the table in order to force concessions during labor negotiations:

Nutter - unlike some big-city peers - has unilaterally disarmed too soon.

According to the Pew Charitable Trusts' Philadelphia Research Initiative, mayors in New York, Chicago, Boston, and elsewhere have given municipal workers an unwelcome but necessary choice: accept across-the-board, often temporary concessions on pay and benefits, or face layoffs.

The city absolutely needs to control labor costs, particularly those associated with pensions and healthcare. But I can't imagine why the Inquirer thinks resorting to a high stakes game of chicken – again – is the way to get there. If anything, we ought to be encouraging our political leaders to move away from this kind of strategy.

For one thing, this style of politics – call it “brinkmanship” – corrupts the legislative process. Instead of trying to find thoughtful, long-term solutions to problems, elected officials who play these games spend their time bluffing until the last minute and then coming up with some desperate agreement to ward off a crisis (exhibit A: Harrisburg 2009).

Brinkmanship is also bad for public confidence. How much better do you feel about your decision to live in Philadelphia after a month of being told that the trash won’t be picked up and there will be no one to kill the rats?

Layoff threats in particular are unfair to city workers. For the past few months, municipal employees and their families have been living with the possibility that they could get canned any day. That has to be incredibly stressful (and probably makes people less productive). Do we really want them to go through that same thing again if they don’t absolutely have to?

There are plenty of ways, besides layoffs, for the mayor to gain leverage in the upcoming contract negotiations. For example, he could push for the unions to consolidate their health plans in exchange for keeping benefit levels relatively unchanged. Or, he could offer to keep the defined pension benefit in place if workers agree to contribute more to the fund. If Nutter is seriously considering laying people off, he should say so. But if not, he should stick to these lesser threats. The last thing we need around here is more panic.