When you work in a job for an extended period of time, you usually expect to be recognized for your hard work with periodic pay raises, a promotion, or even a bonus now or then. Now pretend that you are a firefighter and you've risked your life in burning buildings, some of which weren't even occupied, you've seen comrades die -- and yet the city has not recognized your work.
Philadelphia firefighters say they have gone through exactly that. In 2009, the city's contract with the firefighter's union expired and the two parties have failed to reach an agreement ever since, according to the Philadelphia Tribune.
Earlier in July an arbitration panel awarded a new contract to the firefighters that would provide a 9% pay raise and force changes in pension and health care plans. However, the city has not started to perform under the new contract, so the firefighters have filed suit to force the city’s hand.
Why don’t they just strike like other unions?
Generally, unions exist to give employees a better bargaining position when negotiating with powerful employers. Unions are governed by the National Labor Relations Act, which allows groups of employees to organize if they follow certain guidelines.
One of the main purposes of unionizing is to collectively bargain as a single unit. This “collective bargaining” allows for a company to outline all employees’ rights and responsibilities in one enormous contract. One example is the NFL’s contract with all players that covers everything from meal allowances to neuro-cognitive disability benefits.
Most collective bargaining agreements also govern whether a union can strike or not. However, the firefighter and police unions in Pennsylvania are governed by a law that forbids them from striking for any reason. Instead of striking, the contract dispute is handed over to a neutral third party that will make a decision binding on both parties, in a process called arbitration.
Here, the firefighters’ contract has been sent to arbitration twice now. The first contract out of arbitration was appealed by the city and now it looks like the current award will also be appealed. The firefighters are trying to avoid that appeal and force the city to perform by filing their lawsuit.
When you are a party to a contract, and the other side doesn’t hold up their end of the bargain, then you can go to court to have the contract upheld. This seems to be exactly what the firefighter’s union is doing. We’ll see if they can put this fire out with the court’s help.
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