North Philadelphia Councilman Darrell Clarke planned to talk about bills that would regulate firearms and ammunition sales, making the areas around Temple University safer.
The America Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) had a different topic in mind as Philadelphia City Council met for the first time Thursday since July. Hundreds of angry city workers shook City Hall as they made their case for a fair contract and shouted, “No contract, no peace!” The disruption forced Mayor John Street to begin negotiations within 24 hours for a fair contract.
Irene Snyder, president of AFSCME Local 1310, said the services she and fellow workers provide affect everyone – students, parents, children and retirees.
“If we would have gone out on strike, there would have been total chaos in this city,” she said. “There would be no sanitation, no water, no crossing guards for children, and no one making airport runways safe.
“But our workers cannot live and support families off of $20 or $25 thousand dollars a year.”
Council members retreated into the council caucus after the city workers demanded a promise for a fair contract.
Members in local chapters of the AFSCME said they are fed up with years of low wages and poor healthcare benefits. One chapter also distributed literature showing the disparities between uniform and non-uniform city workers. Police and firefighting unions receive $996 a month for healthcare, while AFSCME receives $620.
AFSCME had a lot of other help, too. Members from other Philadelphia unions began streaming into City Hall when they heard City Council would not address the workers. Cheri Honkala, representative of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, joined the protest because she condemns the low pay and demands “livable wages” for all city workers.
“We represent the unemployed in Philadelphia and they represent the working force,” she said. “We think it’s a crime that not all council members are in here trying to settle this.”
City Council did not touch the issue, but Street emerged and addressed the workers nearly four hours after they demanded a statement that would promise a fair contract. Street emphasized that patience is a virtue and said the negotiations beginning in 24 hours would “repair some but not all inequity” between the uniform and non-uniform workers in Philadelphia. He explained the only way to produce a fair contract was to spend money that the city does not have.
“We are also investing in tax reductions, but we should not reduce past the point where we can’t give you a fair contract,” he said.
Snyder was skeptical of his speech because Street never defined his meaning of “fair,” but said she will see what next week’s contract will bring before taking other steps.
The protest, which labor leader Thomas Cronin said was the biggest of its kind in City Hall history, held up planned City Council business for more than four hours.
Clarke’s safety amendments for North Philadelphia were not decided as of press time.
Leah Zerbe can be reached at email@example.com.