After nearly a year of talks, Palo Alto's management and its firefighters are preparing to take their heated labor dispute to binding arbitration.
The city and Palo Alto Professional Firefighters, Local 1319, have been mired in contract negotiations since late May but have failed to reach an agreement. Though both sides said this week that they have made some progress in recent weeks, they are also preparing for a three-member panel to settle the dispute.
City Manager James Keene said the two sides made virtually no progress between May and February, when he declared the negotiations to be at an "impasse." The conversations have since improved, though an agreement has yet to be reached.
Tony Spitaleri, president of the firefighters' union, said the sides are still negotiating and reviewing new proposals and he said he remains optimistic that they could reach an agreement without the need for arbitration. He said the union has made several proposals to reduce labor costs.
"We're looking for better ways to deploy our resources, be more flexible with our units and reduce our overtime costs," Spitaleri said. "We've been working on that pretty diligently for the last few months."
But with many issues still unresolved -- including the controversial "minimum staffing" provision in the union's contract -- the prospect of binding arbitration now seems more likely than ever. Keene said the city is now in the "beginning stages" of setting up the binding arbitration process.
The city and the union have already selected the three-member panel that would determine the new contract conditions -- a panel that includes one member from each side and a third member chosen by the other two panelists. Spitaleri will be representing the union on the panel, while attorney Richard Whitmore was selected by the city. Labor Attorney Katherine J. Thomson will be the third panelist.
Keene said the arbitration process could take between four months and a year. In the meantime, the city's and the union's negotiators will continue to meet in hopes of resolving their disagreements. He said the "minimum staffing" provision, which requires the city to have at least 29 firefighters on duty at all times, remains an important subject for the city.
A recent independent study commissioned by the council also recommended abolishing the minimum-staffing provision -- a recommendation the union has consistently resisted. The report by the firms TriData and International City/ County Management Association (ICMA) stated that the minimum-staffing provision should not be in the contract and that the city "should never agree to a minimum staffing requirement that establishes the total force as this equates to establishing the level of service provided."
Keene said the city's conversations with the union have revolved around issues such as staffing levels, health care costs and pensions. Other labor groups have already made concessions over the past two years to reduce these costs, he said, but the firefighters haven't had to because they were still covered by an earlier contract.
"I think it's absolutely clear, as we've said to all the labor groups, that we need structural changes," Keene said. "Fire has yet to make any contributions since the economic downturn."