Several thousand firefighters in town for their union's national convention surrounded City Hall on Thursday, with the group's head urging the mayor to end a contract standoff with the city's firefighters or “deal with the full force” of the union.
More than 3,000 members of the International Association of Fire Fighters are holding their annual conference just down the street from City Hall. On Thursday, in solidarity with members from Local 22 in Philadelphia, they poured out of the building and marched several blocks to City Hall while waving signs and chanting, “They say cutbacks, we say fight back!”
IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger said Mayor Michael Nutter needs to sign the arbitration award for the city's firefighters.
“If he doesn't implement this award, he is going to deal with the full force of this international,” Schaitberger said, while several thousand members from across the country flooded a plaza outside City Hall. “We are going to use every political ability, every political dollar.”
Early this month, an arbitration panel awarded three years of 3 percent raises to city firefighters. That decision is also retroactive to 2009, so firefighters would get back pay. The ruling came after about 20 months of legal battles, and officials estimated it could cost the city about $66 million over the four years of the contract. The ruling also denied the city the right to furlough 2,100 firefighters and medics.
Nutter has until next week to appeal in court or accept the terms of the award; he has not said what he plans to do.
“Mayor Nutter is a strong supporter of the selfless dedication and hard work of the city's uniformed civil servants, firefighters, police and correction officers,” Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald said in a statement Thursday. “Firefighters visiting from around the country have every right to exercise their right to assemble.”
Vice President Joe Biden spoke to the firefighters' convention on Wednesday and called on cities and states to fund their fire departments. He did not weigh in on the local firefighters' contract dispute with Nutter, a Democrat who supports President Barack Obama and is president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Schaitberger said it's particularly unusual to be battling with a Democratic mayor like Nutter. He said he worries about the effect it may have on other cities if the firefighters lose this contract fight.
As the crowd booed at the mention of Nutter's name, local union president Bill Gault said he's getting impatient.
“This is getting old. This award is fair,” he said. “We're tired of it.”
Nick Lazar, 36, who has been a Philadelphia firefighter for nine years, said it seems like Nutter has a “vendetta” against the firefighters, who by law cannot go on strike.
“Public safety should be of utmost importance,” said Lazar, who lost a colleague earlier this year in a warehouse fire that also left his cousin injured. “I'd give my life any day.”