Police arbitration: The most important behind-closed-doors discussion in Philadelphia right now

Over at the Fraternal Order of Police's website, union chief John McNesby has posted a sometimes-sarcastic message to his members, listing the concessions Mayor Nutter is asking for in contract negotiations. McNesby writes that the mayor wants:

  • A four year contract, but he cannot afford any [wage] increases.
  • To adjust summer vacations, because that is when crime is the highest, after all he has an obligation to the 1,500,000 citizens of this city.
  • To take over the administration of your medical benefits.
  • To have officers work according to crime patterns. (Changing every week).
  • To virtually do away with the disability system and return to the good old days of sending cops back to work with broken limbs.
  • And to put new hires of the Department into a defined contribution (401K) pension plan, because he needs to “tackle the bear” and fix this pension problem (he failed in Harrisburg, and is going nowhere in City Council).

The letter is aggressive, but it's all talk: McNesby, like the mayor, is waiting for a three-member arbitration panel to decide what the new police contract will look like.

You see, state law prohibits police officers and firefighters from going on strike. Instead, their contracts are generally negotiated through a process called "binding arbitration" that resembles a court proceeding. The city and the unions present arguments before a panel with three members. After hearing testimony, the panel writes a contract that is supposed to take into account all of the testimony.

Of the three panel members, one is appointed by the union and one by the city. The third is a mutually agreed-upon "neutral" party. These people have a lot of power. Together, police and fire account for the majority of city workers. They're also among the highest-paid of city employees, which means their contract has big implications for the city budget.

And there are further implications. The decision of the panel  is supposed to take into account the city's ability to pay, and the labor costs of other unions. That means the other unions get a hint of what they can expect as a result of negotiations. Generally, police officers and firefighters get better contracts than non-uniformed workers. That means the police arbitration award will likely set the ceiling for all city employees. In concrete terms, if the Nutter Administration is successful in preventing police officers from getting wage increases, it will be very hard for the other unions to do better.

A decision is expected around late October.

Tell us about your experiences with the police department on our sister site, City Howl.