nState Senate bill that considers municipality's ability to pay in arbitration awards to public safety employees is a common-sense approach.
In 1968, a state law that protects the collective bargaining rights of public safety employees was adopted, effectively replacing the right to strike with binding arbitration of contract disputes.
But arbitration has put too many Pennsylvania municipalities in a bind. Forty-five years later, one state lawmaker is taking another stab at amending Act 111.
Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Blair County, is seeking co-sponsors for a bill that would limit salary awards by requiring arbitrators to take into account the ability of a town or city to pay for increases in salaries and benefits.
It seems like a no-brainer, but the legislation -- which hasn't even been introduced yet -- is already running into a buzz saw of opposition. A letter jointly signed by the presidents of the state Fraternal Order of Police and Pennsylvania Professional Firefighters Association calls the proposal "an unprecedented and unwarranted attack on Pennsylvania's heroes" by "a group of special interests" trying to "eviscerate Act 111."
With respect to the unions, that's hyperbolic. Sen. Eichelberger's proposal might need some tweaking, and it probably will get that in the legislative meat grinder. But the centerpiece -- requiring arbitrators to take into account a municipality's ability to pay -- is desperately needed.
Just ask Lancaster city officials. Mayor Rick Gray, a Democrat, says arbitration awards force taxpayers to shoulder the burden for "wage increases that outpace the rate of inflation; fully funded health insurance with low employee contribution to premiums; lifetime health insurance benefits; and defined benefit pensions." And the city has to pay the full costs of arbitration.
So municipalities like Lancaster either must raise taxes to pay arbitration awards or must lay off firefighters and police to balance the budget. The first option encourages homeowners to think about selling and moving somewhere where taxes aren't unbearable. The second option encourages homeowners to think about selling and moving somewhere safer.
Doesn't it make more sense to base raises and benefits on what the municipality can afford?
Now, that doesn't happen. The Coalition for Sustainable Communities, an association of chambers of commerce and other state organizations that supports Sen. Eichelberger's plan, points out that salary awards in financially distressed municipalities governed by another state law, Act 47, are significantly lower than in towns and cities where Act 111 controls bargaining.
That's because Act 47 forces arbitrators to award contracts that comply with the municipality's fiscal recovery plans. Raises, in other words, have to fit the budget.
Unless something is done to reform Act 111's arbitration provisions, more and more municipalities will end up in Act 47 territory.
Mayor Gray also backs part of the Eichelberger proposal that would open the arbitration process to the public. We agree: Bringing transparency to hidden proceedings can only help to make the outcomes fairer.
We would not support legislation that "eviscerates" binding arbitration. Because police and firefighters have given up strike rights in the interest of public safety -- imagine the criminal chaos that would ensue if cops were walking a picket line -- they need contract bargaining leverage, and binding arbitration provides that leverage.
Municipalities that are increasingly crunched by stagnant tax revenue and skyrocketing costs need leverage, too. Act 111 has tended to give the unions a longer lever than management has.
"We are not asking to end binding arbitration or to give our respected police and fire a raw deal," says Tom Baldrige, president of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce & Industry, which is a founding member of the Coalition for Sustainable Communities. "We're asking for a fair playing field, which offers opportunity for all and responsibility from all."
That means a playing field where neither union nor management ends up in a bind.