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PA Cities and Unions at Odds over Arbitration Law

Municipalities are calling for changes to the state’s law on collective bargaining arbitration.

The 1968 statute sets the rules for how contract awards for police and firefighters must be decided if they come to an impasse with the city, since such public safety workers aren't allowed to go on strike.

Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlawski said the modifications being suggested are minor, but important - like requiring the arbitrator to consider what kind of award a city would be able to pay.

"You should look at the financial capacity of a municipality to pay for benefits," Pawlawski said. "They should be taken into consideration as you're going through the binding arbitration process. That is not the case now."

Instead, Sen. John Eichelberger (R-Blair), who's introducing legislation to overhaul the collective bargaining law, said "these arbitrators sometimes arbitrarily - no pun intended - they just put in whatever they feel like putting in at the end."

Eichelberger is shopping for co-sponsors at the moment for his proposal, which would, among other things, make pension and post-retirement benefits off-limits during the arbitration process, and require that the public have access to some of the hearings in the later stages of the arbitration process.

"We'd like to think that most of our folks have made reasonable approaches to collective bargaining, have put forth offers that make sense," said Rick Schuettler, with the Pennsylvania Municipal League, which has deemed the collective bargaining law overhaul its number one priority for the legislative session. "We're not convinced that the other side has done that. We think it makes sense for the public to know that and for the taxpayer to know that."

The League also wants to see the costs of arbitration be split evenly between the municipality and the workers whose contract is at issue. Right now, cities pay roughly two-thirds of the costs.

Of all the proposed changes, this is the one that spurs the clearest rebuttal from Les Neri, head of the Fraternal Order of Police Pennsylvania State Lodge - one of "the three unions" Eichelberger said is dead-set against his proposal. Neri sees arbitration as a function of government.

"It's just like if you were to go into court to sue somebody, or if there was a criminal case, the government pays for the judiciary to conduct the hearing and render an appropriate result," he said. "There is no change that we're considering."