Philadelphia's unions yesterday filed suit against Mayor Edward G. Rendell, hoping to block his attempts to unilaterally impose the city's latest contract offer without workers' consent.

The suit, filed in Pennsylvania Common Pleas Court, asks, for a preliminary injunction against the plan, which Mayor Rendell announced Wednesday night after the unions failed to meet a 5 p.m. dead-line he had set for an agreement.

The court set a Sept. 30 hearing date for the injunction request, which was filed by district councils 33 and 47 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Union leaders, who represent 15,000 blue and white collar workers, are so far measuring their steps carefully, avoiding talk of an immediate strike and leaving open the possibility of further negotiations to reach a settlement. They have made clear, however, that what the mayor called his "last, best" contract offer is unacceptable, and they said his attempt to implement it without their consent illegal.

"There is no legal basis for the Mayor's untlateral action, because we are not at impasse," said James Sutton, president of district council 33, and Thomas Paine Cronin, president of district council 47, in a joint statement.

"The John Wayne theatrics by Rendell have failed to scare and intimidate city employees." the statement says." Instead of cameo appearances on television, the mayor should be learning the a-b-c's of labor law. "

The two labor leaders said they would retain all their options between now and, next week's hearing, and a spokesman said that includes the option of calling a strike that the rank-and-file has already authorized.

Administration officials were not available for comment yesterday, but Mayor Rendell said Wednesday he rejected a counterproposal from the unions because it would have created a $300 million deficit by the end of fiscal 1996. The city's oversight board sold $475 million of bonds in June, mostly to erase accumulated deficits from 1991 and 1992.

Whether Philadelphia can begin to rebuild its shattered credit standing hinges directly on a successful outcome in the developing labor crisis.

Under the terms of his five-year fiscal recovery plan, Mayor Rendell is counting on $550 million in labor concessions to balance the budget. A prolonged strike or the approval of new contracts that do not meet that goal put recovery at risk, according to outside analysts and city officials.

Moody's Investors Service said in a statement this week that Philadelphia "has now reached a critical point in the determination of the fiscal recovery plan's long-term viability."

The agency noted that delays in reaching a settlement with the unions, whose contracts expired July 1. have already erased $20 million in potential savings for the city, or about $2 million a week based on administration estimates.

Even the mayor's dramatic action Wednesday will not immediately stop the bleeding. Many of the proposals for savings, such as switching city workers to new health insurance plans, will take months to fully implement, further eroding the goals of the five-year plan.

Other proposals require approval by the City Council and could develop into drawn-out legislative battles as unions lobby council members for support. One bill that has already been drafted would eliminate from pension laws the requirement that the city offer all workers early retirement packages before implementing targeted layoffs.

The legality of imposing contract terms on a union that has rejected them is also at issue. The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania is expected to decide the question in November, in a case involving a similar action by officials at the Philadelphia Housing Authority. But whatever the outcome in the lower courts, city sources say the case is likely to be appealed to the state Supreme Court, further delaying a final resolution.

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