By Shealyn Kilroy
The City of Philadelphia announced on August 15th that arbitrators awarded a new $245 million contract covering the next three years to the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, which represents Philadelphia police officers.
The contract’s terms sprang into public view like a jack-in-the-box. There was anticipation about the announcement of an award, but hush-hush hearings held behind closed doors at a hotel made it difficult to follow the arbitration process and the issues being discussed.
However, a bill introduced last August in the state House of Representatives may change how arbitration is conducted between municipalities and police unions across the state.
Among its other provisions, House Bill 1749 aims to address the cost of arbitration proceedings and require these hearings to be open to the public.
The current law, Pennsylvania’s Policemen and Firemen Collective Bargaining Act of 1968, also known as Act 111, gives police and fire employees the right to collectively bargain about labor conditions with their government employers.
The law requires both sides to “exert every reasonable effort to settle all disputes by engaging in collective bargaining in good faith and by entering into settlements by way of written agreements and maintaining the same.”
The Act does not exempt police and firemen from older state law banning public employee strikes, and as a consolation prize, unions received the right to mandatory arbitration of their disputes.
Should a stalemate occur after thirty days of the initial collective bargaining proceedings, the law requires that a three person arbitration board impose a contract.
Employers and employees both appoint an arbitrator for the board, and the third arbitrator must be agreed upon or chosen from a three-person list provided by the American Arbitration Association.
Thus, the City’s new contract with the police was awarded in arbitration. With the exception of requiring reinstated officers to pass fitness exams and hold a Pennsylvania driver’s license, the contract did not make any significant reforms in police disciplinary measures
With only thirty days before arbitration may be demanded by either side, there is little time for actual bargaining to occur before the arbitrators are appointed to make a decision for the parties.
The deadline is so strict that City officials appear to discount even attempting to negotiate. A spokesperson for Mayor Kenney told The Declaration that “state law mandates the contract for both fire and police go through the arbitration process.”
When pushed, the spokesperson admitted that while state law does allow the parties to negotiate directly, “the City and a union comprised of thousands of members would have to resolve numerous, contentious issues and have the members ratify that contract within 30 days to avoid any chance of an arbitration panel.”
According to the spokesperson, that sequence of events “is practically impossible.”
This tight schedule is one of the problems HB 1749 seeks to address. If enacted, the bill would require that negotiations start earlier and give the parties 60 days to bargain before arbitration could be demanded.
According to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Russ Diamond (R-Lebanon), Act 111 is skewed in favor of employees and against their government employers and taxpayers.
Diamond points to a provision of the law allowing unions to make the final decision on appointing the third, supposedly neutral arbitrator. And the employer, funded by taxpayers, foots the bill for almost all of the arbitration expenses.
Diamond wants to reform Act 111 because, he claims, it is “heavily slanted towards labor at the cost of the taxpayer.”
Under his proposal, the government entity and the union would split the bill for arbitration equally, and, in the event of a dispute over whom to appoint as the neutral mediator, the union would no longer automatically receive the final say.
“We’re just trying to balance the scales here,” Diamond said.
HB 1749 would also require all arbitration hearings to be open to the public. Currently, police officers are permitted to attend Philadelphia’s arbitration hearings, but the press and public are not.
When The Declaration requested to be admitted to the most recent round of hearings, a City spokesperson informed us that the proceedings were private, despite the union’s public efforts to get its membership to attend in order to “send the message to the neutral arbitrator.”
As for the City of Philadelphia, Diamond hopes the bill will help “at least fiscally.”
“There are a lot of other issues dealing with police in Philadelphia that are not covered by this bill and that’s a separate area that needs to be handled in a separate way,” Diamond said, but the bill could “keep their budget a little more in control, and we hope that for every municipality in Pennsylvania.”