Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 9, 2011

Fire union reignites battle against ballot measure

Firefighters reopen their 'unfair labor practice' charge against city; seek injunction to block November labor-reform measure

by Gennady Sheyner

After a brief respite, Palo Alto's firefighters union on Wednesday renewed its legal battle against the city and resurrected its quest to keep a labor-reform measure off the November ballot.

The union, International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 1319, last month filed an "unfair labor practices" charge against the city with the state Public Employment Relations Board (PERB), arguing that the council acted unlawfully in not conferring with the union before deciding to place a repeal of binding arbitration before city voters. Measure D, which the council approved in July by a 5-4 vote, seeks to repeal a 33-year-old law that empowers a panel of arbitrators to settle labor disputes between the city and its public-safety workers.

The union had also requested on Aug. 1 an injunction that would keep Measure D from the ballot.

Days after filing the complaint and requesting the injunction, union leaders agreed to shelve both in hopes that the council would reopen negotiations with the unions and consider less drastic reforms to the binding-arbitration process.

But this past Tuesday night, before the council retreated into a closed session to discuss the union's legal challenge, union President Tony Spitaleri urged the council to consider a settlement proposal from the labor board, a proposal that he declined to discuss in detail but that he said would postpone the election until June 2012 and give the city and the union a chance to draft an ordinance that would be acceptable to all.

On Wednesday, when it became clear that the council would not reschedule the election, the union resumed its legal challenge and asked the court once again to consider its request for an injunction. The labor board is expected to consider the request for injunction immediately and issue a response within a few days of the request, City Attorney Molly Stump said.

Spitaleri on Wednesday criticized the city's decision to place the binding-arbitration repeal on the November ballot, saying in a statement that the "City Council has thrown fairness out the window throughout this entire process." He called the November vote an "illegal election."

"In their haste to repeal binding arbitration and take away the rights of police officers and firefighters, the City Council violated state law," Spitaleri said in a statement. "We sat down with the city and a PERB mediator last month to try to reach a negotiated settlement. Unfortunately, the City Council rejected this settlement, just like they have rejected our offers in contract negotiation and a compromise on binding arbitration."

Though the labor-relations board doesn't have the power to remove the binding-arbitration repeal from Palo Alto's ballot, it could request the Santa Clara County Superior Court issue the injunction requested by the union, Stump said.

Duane Reno, an attorney for the union, wrote in a letter to the labor-relations board that city representatives had agreed during an August meeting with mediators that the City Council would consider postponing the ballot measure. When the council took no action after its Tuesday night closed session, the union reopened its challenge to Measure D and asked that the "County of Santa Clara be enjoined from placing the measure on the Nov. 2, 2011 ballot."

The union's attorneys also requested that the "unfair labor practice" charge be taken out of abeyance. On Wednesday, the labor-relations board filed the complaint on behalf of the union charging the city with violating state labor-relations laws. Specifically, the union claimed that the city failed to negotiate with the unions in "good faith"; deprived members of the firefighters union of their right to be represented by the union; and deprived the union of its right to represent its members.

With the legal challenge back on the table, the two parties on Wednesday cancelled their Sept. 13 meeting with Public Employment Relations Board mediators. Instead, they will now fight their legal battle in a formal hearing on Sept. 26 and 30, in the labor-relations board's Oakland office. The court will issue its ruling on the unfair labor practice charge no later than the date of the hearing, Chief Administrative Law Judge Shawn P. Cloughesy wrote in a notice of the hearing.

Councilman Greg Scharff, a leading proponent of the repeal measure, called the union's latest complaint a "frivolous" action by Spitaleri. He noted that the deadline for pulling the item off the ballot has long passed and the council had no authority to remove it even if it wanted to. Even if the deadline weren't an issue, Scharff said he would not support postponing the election until next year.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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