SCRANTON, Pa. - In one of the most extreme cases of worker bashing to balance a budget, the mayor here on July 5 unilaterally cut the wages of all 398 city workers to the $7.25 hourly federal minimum, retroactive to June 27.
That cut, which started with the city's first July paychecks, hurt hundreds of workers and forced the city's Fire Fighters Local 60, its Fraternal Order of Police lodge and the Machinists, who represent Scranton's 92 public works employees, to sue the city in mid-July to get their wages restored.
"It's incredible. Pick a law, and they broke it," said Thomas Jennings, attorney for the workers and the unions, after he filed the complaint in the Lackawanna County, Pa., Court of Common Pleas, after the first reduced paychecks went out.
The city claimed it's broke and had no choice. Mayor Thomas Doherty said Scranton had only $133,000 in the till, owed $3.4 million to various vendors, and that he couldn't get the city council to raise extra revenue to pay the city's 398 workers.
But Scranton's cuts are also part of a nationwide pattern, which sees cities and states claiming they can't afford the pay and benefits previously negotiated with their workers and the workers' unions.
Governments' responses have ranged from negotiated future pension cuts, as in New York State, to right wing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's destruction of collective bargaining rights for 200,000 public workers.
But unilaterally cutting everybody back to the minimum wage, in defiance of a recent arbitrator's decision instituting new contracts from 2009-13 and wage scales for all three unionized groups, is a new low.
It's so bad that Jennings, for the three unions, not only sought reinstatement of the wages via a court order, but a contempt citation against Doherty for defying the arbitrator and breaking state public employee law.
The arbitrator's agreement set wage scales ranging from $30.17 hourly for the district chief to $23.64 for a second-year Fire Fighter. The DPW workers earn between $18.88 and $19.78 hourly. It's a steep drop from those figures to the minimum wage.
"The city made no attempt to bargain with Local 60, the lodge" or the Machinists "concerning the implementation of the unilateral reductions," the unions' suit adds.
"As a result, the workers face "immediate inability feed their families...pay medical expenses" or child care or mortgages, the suit says.
And all this is on top of no raises for seven years, due to city appeals of prior arbitrators' awards, the unions' lawsuit points out.
No date has been set for a hearing on the unions' suit.
Photo: Scranton, Pa. resident Doug Miller voices his opinions to city council members regarding the city's financial debt. AP & The Scranton Times-Tribune/Butch Conegys