Unions deserve praise

Altoona’s distressed status under state Act 47 set limits on what city employees could hope to receive under new contracts negotiated this year.

The positive attitude that the police and non-uniformed employees’ unions exhibited, in response to those limitations, cannot go unnoticed.

Unfortunately, the city firefighters’ union has been resistant to the city’s Act 47 provisions; that union’s contract goes to arbitration this month.

In some cities, the newly approved contracts would have evoked slim margins of worker approval accompanied by grumbling, complaints about unfairness and other expressed forms of unhappiness because the contracts will essentially decrease employee income over the next three years.

Not the two Altoona unions. The police approval was unanimous; 96 percent of the non-uniformed employees voted yes.

Entering their negotiations with the city, the police and non-uniformed employees accepted that the talks needed to encompass low expectations, and that is what played out.

What has emerged from that bargaining will allow the city to move forward in its quest to exit Act 47 – a goal many other Act 47 cities have failed to achieve, despite living under distressed status much longer than Altoona.

The two unions properly acknowledged that it’s better to bite the proverbial bullet now, with hopes for a better contract three years hence, than to fight the financial realities hovering over the city at this time.

It would be better for the firefighters to rethink their stance. However, those employees have the right to pursue under collective bargaining whatever contract they and their union feel is in their best interests.

Still, as reported in a Mirror article Tuesday, Act 47 recovery plan restrictions on the firefighters’ compensation go into effect after the current contract expires at the end of the year, regardless whether there’s a new contract and despite any arbitration award.

For that reason, the firefighters’ stance is puzzling.

The recovery plan states: “The city cannot survive without restructuring its compensation packages so that employee compensation and workforce cost growth more closely track the achievable level of revenue for the city.”

That’s one important component of financial stability for any municipality, but Altoona’s current employee compensation costs – 81 percent of the city’s budget – demonstrate why the recovery plan has had to be so insistent on that issue.

“I compliment [the unions] for really sucking it up and being a big part of the solution,” said Councilman Bruce Kelley.

The two unions deserve more of such compliments.

Scott Campanaro, president of the union representing the non-uniformed workers, expressed the reality of the situation when he said, “It was the most equitable deal we could get under Act 47. We’re working for a municipality that’s broke.”

Commendably, neither he nor police union officials expressed sour grapes over the pacts that have resulted.

When Altoona gets out of the financial woods, city leaders should remember the two unions’ cooperation this time – a time when biting the bullet was a necessity, not an option – but when there could have been major resistance nonetheless.