Philadelphia Corrections Officers Entitled To Binding Arbitration

Under Pennsylvania law, “where representatives of units of guards at prisons or mental hospitals have reached an impasse in collective bargaining,” the final stage of the negotiations process is binding arbitration. District Council 33 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) represents Philadelphia’s prison guards and other City correctional employees. When AFSCME demanded interest arbitration over its contract, the City refused to proceed.

The City contended that the state law did not grant its guards the right to interest arbitration because City guards “do not belong to a homogenous unit” created under the state collective bargaining law; instead, City guards are part of a diverse bargaining unit established originally under a city ordinance.

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania rejected the City’s arguments. The Court observed that “in reviewing an administrative agency’s decision making, courts are required to extend great deference to the administrative agency’s expertise in interpreting the legislative enactments. This Court will defer to the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board’s expertise where its conclusions are reasonable and not arbitrary or capricious.

“We agree with the PLRB that the law’s creation of two types of ‘units of guards,’ one a homogenous unit composed exclusively of guards and the other a diverse unit composed of guards and other City employees, makes the phrase ‘unit of guards’ ambiguous, i.e., capable of more than one reasonable interpretation. Because of this ambiguity, the PLRB properly considered the objective of state law in order to ascertain the intention of the Legislature. Our Supreme Court has stated that state law provides mandatory binding interest arbitration for guards as the quid pro quo for denying guards the right to strike. Thus, the PLRB interpreted the state law in a manner that fulfills its objective and, because such an interpretation is reasonable, we defer to it.”

City of Philadelphia v. Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, 982 A.2d 136 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2009).

This article appears in the January 2010 issue