The Service Employees International Union Local 521, which represents more than half of Palo Alto's workforce, is scheduled to continue its negotiations with the city this spring. Last year, the two sides failed to reach a consensus on a new contract, prompting the City Council to unilaterally impose conditions on about 600 workers.
Dozens of union members met before this week's City Council meeting to discuss the status of negotiations. Many wore stickers urging the council to take a "new direction" in their negotiations this year. The council includes four newly elected members, including two — Gail Price and Nancy Shepherd — who earned the union's endorsement before the November election.
The City Council spent several hours in a closed-door session Monday night discussing labor negotiations,
Lynn Krug, chair of the SEIU chapter, said Monday night that the union would like to see the city conduct an "organizational survey" that examines the city's services, its manager-to-employee ratio and the personnel required to provide these services. Without such a survey, both sides would have to rely on "conjecture and politics" during the negotiations, Krug said.
The new study would give the city and the union an objective baseline that could be used during the upcoming negotiations, she said.
"Employee morale has suffered greatly," Krug told the council. "We have been in disarray because of all the ambiguity."
City Manager James Keene said some of the questions the SEIU had raised about employee ratios are worth considering. But he cautioned that discussions of employee numbers should be tied to the larger question of making the city government efficient — a question that would not be answered with numbers alone.
Keene said the city should also think about new policy and procedures that would make the operation more efficient, as well as programs and services that could be eliminated.
"The bigger question is, 'What are the process improvements that can make the organization more nimble, more effective and more responsible?'" Keene said. "I think this requires a broader scope of work than is being talked about."
Keene said the city has held informal discussions with the SEIU to learn more about the type of study the union is seeking. The city budgets for 617 full-time SEIU positions, though 66 of these positions are now vacant, according to the city's Human Resources Department.
SEIU Local 521 is one of several worker groups with whom Palo Alto will be trying to reach an agreement this year. The city is also planning to renew its negotiations with the firefighters' union; the new Palo Alto Police Managers' Association, which represents high-ranking police officers; and the Management and Professionals Group, which is not represented by a union.
The city is also awaiting the results of a new study that assesses the current staffing levels and staffing needs in the Fire Department. The study is scheduled to be completed by early April, about the time Palo Alto is scheduled to negotiate with the International Association of Firefighters on a new contract. The firefighters union's contract is scheduled to expire on June 30.
Meanwhile, the city's negotiations with its largest police union will now wait until 2011. On Monday, the City Council finalized its agreement with the Palo Alto Peace Officers' Association to defer salary raises for 80 of the union's 83 members until fiscal year 2011, which begins July 1. The agreement also extends the police union's contract until June 30, 2011.
Keene said the city's negotiations with the various unions are expected to begin this spring. Though he said it's too early to tell what sort of concessions the city will seek from the various labor groups, he expects the city to seek similar savings from each group.
"It's really important that all of the various employee groups make similar contributions to help solve the city's financial problems," Keene said. "It's not fair to balance concessions of cost savings on just one subset of our city workers."