An effort by Pittsburgh’s police union to overturn a five-year-old arbitration decision that limited officer raises failed Tuesday when the state Supreme Court ruled in the city’s favor.
Union officials indicated that their efforts to address the issue are not over.
“The city is happy with the Supreme Court’s decision, which affirms what we’ve been saying for years – that the contract followed the state-mandated recovery plan, its salary terms were competitive, and the union president’s challenge was a waste of time and money,” said Timothy McNulty, spokesman for Mayor Bill Peduto.
“Although the FOP is disappointed, we respect the decision of the Supreme Court,” said Robert Swartzwelder, president of Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1, which represents city officers.
He added, though, that the union intends to reopen the contract, contending that over its four years, members received much less in total compensation than is allowed under the city’s financial plan.
“According to our economist, who we use in our arbitration, we were $26 million under the [total salary] caps [in the city’s financial plan], so in our reopener we will be seeking that amount, at a minimum.”
City union raises have been awarded since 2003 through negotiations or arbitration processes that were constrained by the city’s distressed status under Act 47. Under that law, a financial plan put together by the municipality and coordinator generally constrains union contracts.
The FOP had, since 2014, argued that the modest raises it got from 2015 through last year didn’t comply with state law.
Union members got no raise in 2015, a 1 percent boost in 2016, and 2 percent in each of the subsequent two years, according to the Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion, which came four months after Oct. 24 oral arguments.
Following the 2014 arbitration decision, the union appealed to the Commonwealth Court, arguing that the law required competitive salaries, and the award’s figures were not in line with other cities. The Commonwealth Court found that it did not have jurisdiction to overturn the award. The union appealed.
The Supreme Court, though, quoted documentation that some comparable cities paid officers more than Pittsburgh, but others paid less.
“[T]he Union’s financial expert had testified in a prior matter in 2014 that the city’s police pay was above the median of a comparison group,” the opinion indicated, “… and the union’s own financial expert believes city police officers are paid competitively.”
“We acknowledge that the union strenuously argues police officer compensation under the award is too low to be competitive with other police departments,” according to the opinion. But the court did not find that the award was arbitrary, capricious or in bad faith, and so did not overturn it.
At the end of last year, Pittsburgh police officers earned about $44,700 in their first year, and topped out at $66,700 after 15 years, plus overtime. Pittsburgh police commanders, who are not represented by the FOP and are just under the level of assistant chief, earned $98,900.
Officer Swartzwelder said that the appeal was worth taking anyway, because now unions throughout the state know what is, and is not, subject to appeal when arbitration awards are made in an Act 47 situation.
The city escaped from Act 47 oversight a year ago. Officer Swartzwelder said that change permits the reopening of the contract, and allows the union to make a new argument.
The city’s recovery plan included maximum dollar values available for each group of employees, including police, per year. Those caps — $90 million for police in 2018 — may be the basis of the union’s arguments in reopening the contract.
Officer Swartzwelder said union experts have found that the city significantly underspent compared to the caps. “You’re allowed to spend all the way up to those limits,” he said.
He said the police didn’t get a fair deal from the city.
“We believe that they didn’t apply the [Act] 47 plan equally across all bargaining units,” he said, declining to single out any other bargaining units that might have gotten better deals.