Palo Alto still on the fence about labor reforms

City Council considers tonight whether to change or repeal binding-arbitration provision from City Charter

Palo Alto's drawn-out debate over whether to change or scrap the binding-arbitration provision from the City Charter could finally get settled tonight, when the City Council considers giving the voters a say on the matter.

The council had considered putting the repeal of binding arbitration on the November 2010 ballot but balked after several members said they need more time to study the issue further. The proposal by Councilman Greg Scharff and Councilwoman Karen Holman to put the item on the ballot fizzled last August on a 4-5 vote.

The 33-year-old provision enables a three-member arbitration panel to resolve contract disputes between city management and Palo Alto's public-safety unions. The city and its firefighters union, Palo Alto Professional Firefighters, 1319, have been at an impasse over a new contract since February and are preparing for arbitration this fall.

Proponents of the repeal, including Scharff and Holman, have consistently argued that the provision is undemocratic because it takes major budget decisions away from elected officials and places them in the hands of a panel few in the city know anything about.

Others, including union leaders and Councilwoman Gail Price, maintained that the provision has been rarely used and should not be repealed.

The provision is relatively rare among California cities. According to a new report from the Human Resources department, 22 out of 120 charter cities in California currently have such provisions. Voters in Vallejo and Stockton repealed their cities' binding-arbitration provisions last year, while their counterparts in San Luis Obispo will vote on a repeal in August. San Jose modified its provision last year to give a retired judge the power to settle labor disputes.

In Palo Alto, policy makers have made little headway since last year in deciding whether to give the voters a say on binding arbitration. On June 7, the council's Policy and Services Committee deadlocked on the issue (with Holman and Pat Burt supporting a ballot measure to repeal the provision and Price and Larry Klein dissenting).

At that meeting, Holman called the binding-arbitration process "expensive and time intensive" while Burt argued that it's time to let the voters have their say.

"I frankly think we need to present something to the voters and allow them to decide," Burt said.

Price said it would be "inappropriate" for the council to place a repeal on the ballot, but said she could support some modifications to the existing provision. This includes creating a new timeline for labor negotiations that would link them to the city's budget schedule.

Klein said he opposes the provision but said he remained "torn" about repealing it. The issue, he said, is one of fairness to employees. Unlike most city workers, firefighters and police officers are barred by law from striking. He said the city should consider ways to protect these employees' interests before it decides to remove the binding-arbitration provision.

"I think we should take the time to do it right," Klein said.

The council meeting will begin at 6 p.m. in the Council Chambers at City Hall.

What is democracy worth to you?
Support local journalism.


Like this comment
Posted by A Police Employee
a resident of University South
on Jun 20, 2011 at 10:13 am

Too bad the police department will get dragged down by the fire department on this one.

It's also kind of bad that the City hasn't met with the unions to propose modifications that might make sense for everyone.

Like this comment
Posted by Repeal-Gail-Price
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 20, 2011 at 10:22 am

> Others, including union leaders and Councilwoman Gail Price,
> maintained that the provision has been rarely used and should
> not be repealed.

What kind of logic is this? Why should it remain in place? Gail Price never seems to have any rationale behind her "pronouncements". Of course, if it means that her labor union constituents won't be able to strong-arm the taxpayers in the future, as they have in the past--then why doesn't Price have the integrity to at least say so.

If there were a recall today, it's hard to believe that Price would not be "repealed".

Like this comment
Posted by Alphonso
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Jun 20, 2011 at 10:46 am

From what I heard, the City has made no effort to sit down and negotiate with the unions - sort of a basic ingrediant of any negotiation Therefore the City is NOT DISPLAYING INTEREST IN BEING REASONABLE or even responsible. Accordingly, the arbitration process continues to be needed.

Like this comment
Posted by member
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 20, 2011 at 11:15 am

Year after year he City Council has given in to union demands and we can no longer afford to do so. Arbitration usually means compromise. We have reached a point where the city can't afford this and there can't be compromise. Our City Council needs a big dose of backbone.

Like this comment
Posted by Paul
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 20, 2011 at 11:57 am

I must be ignorant or naive. When there is so much indecision, including a year's consideration of whether to even put this issue to a vote (seemingly without any progress), it seems logical to me that an independent, objective arbitrator would get this sort of negotiation settled more quickly than a typical political process.

What is being proposed to replace binding arbitration, and what evidence do we have that it would be a) more effective and b) more timely. I am SOOO sick of our elected officials, whether in Sacramento or Washington, talking and doing nothing for months while we continue to pay taxes and see cuts to basic services.

Anything which promises moving the process forward more quickly with less of a politically expedient agenda seems like a good thing to me.

Like this comment
Posted by Alphonso
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Jun 20, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Prior commentator said-
"Year after year he City Council has given in to union demands and we can no longer afford to do so. Arbitration usually means compromise. We have reached a point where the city can't afford this and there can't be compromise. Our City Council needs a big dose of backbone."

It is important to be honest - I read that "demands" have only gone to arbitration 6 times - the City won three times and the unions won three time. Does not sound like your statement has any truth in it!

Like this comment
Posted by No Paul
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 20, 2011 at 12:44 pm

With a requirement for binding arbitration, there is no incentive for the unions to negotiate. They put their demands on the table and sit tight knowing they will get roughly half of them by the arbitrator. The city moves as far toward the union requests as possible and the arbitrator moves half of the distance. Without this club, the union will actually need to participate in the negotiations not just attend them. There are 22 cities in all of CA which chose to negotiate with their unions with one hand tied behind their back. Time for a change. Ms Price already shows that the unions can have their needs heard at the ballot box. Time to let the voters decide.

Like this comment
Posted by Ryan S.
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 20, 2011 at 6:12 pm

I agree it has to go. There shouldn't even be public sector unions; it's a conflict of interest for taxpayers.

I think that police would have little to fear in a post-union world; they do a hard job and add a lot of value and are paid well for it, and I don't see any of that changing.

Our firefighters, however, are an inefficient, overstaffed bureaucracy that can easily be farmed out to a private firm that would do the same job for half the cost (no spiked pensions at age 55), or even to a volunteer force. They're a giant waste of taxpayer money. Let's use it for schools, roads, and police instead.

Like this comment
Posted by DDee
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 20, 2011 at 6:37 pm

I agree with Paul.

As for No-Paul, my question is this... If the city has not negotiated with anyone yet - in good faith or otherwise - what exactly are the choices being offered to the city's employees that you seem to assume that they are twisting our arm over, and, what, consequently, would be on the supposed ballot for our citizen's to weigh and decide?

Cities and states that have removed arbitration have - by in large - gone over to either stalemate or an out and out dictatorial stance of take-it-or-we'll privatize-all-your jobs (what we used to call scab labor... essentially adopting a union-busting position which I suspect is the main goal to begin with).

The economies of those places have not rebounded with great gusto in our country nor in others in Europe and elsewhere.

The best rersults are being seen in countries and cities where every effort has been made to guarantee that workers not only keep their jobs, but actually get raises, and the unemployed have safe, unlimited incomes also, which in turn, has been the main source of government fiscal injection into the local and broader economies.

We really don't have to invent to wheel if there are proven methods out there that actually work... and in our own past as well... that is, unless the goal of the game is to take us away from the more fair, ethical and socially mobile society where our rhetoric resides and our dreams are built, into some throw back of the feudal society where there is a tiny middle class that does very well, an even tinier class of those who are above it all and the vast majority of the rest compete to scrape out what they can. That seems to be the mnorality of the current set of leaders in the House... and the current way we generally, as a country, approach the vast majority of people who work for us, keep us safe and teach our children.

Local decisions and approaches have gloabl consequences, and viceversa. What kind of world do we want to live in. Palo Alto is a piece of that world and our local decisions should reflect that.

Like this comment
Posted by Sherry
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 20, 2011 at 7:16 pm

Public unions should be outlawed, period. They have monopoly control over public services, by law. Their work rules, either direct or indirect (work slowdowns) are extortionist. Also, public unions workers do NOT work very hard, they take every effort to slack off.

Ban them!

Like this comment
Posted by DeAngelo
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 20, 2011 at 7:25 pm

DDee, the only reason governments threaten to privatize jobs is that they can secure the same, and in many cases, much better, level of performance for what is often millions of dollars cheaper. The private sector has this notion of accountability which forces workers to be competitive. This is the reason the American private sector worker is the most productive (in GDP contributed per capita) in the world. Meanwhile the Firefighters in Alameda who stood on Crown beach and watched that man drown for an hour are still hiding behind their union and collecting bloated salaries, and are unlikely to ever be disciplined or terminated.

Paying too many firefighters too much money to overstaff stations and respond to primarily medical calls which can be handled much more efficiently by other services helps nobody except the few bureaucrats dining at the public trough. Paying said firefighters ridiculous, often-spiked pensions starting at age 55, for a career that is statistically safer than farm labor, destroys value for society. A middle class consisting of underproducing public workers riding the backs of working class taxpayers is harmful to the country.

Let the public sector start earning their keep. Blow out the unions and give them first priority in the newly created market rate positions. If they're as valuable as they think, their pay may even go up in the free market. I doubt it, though.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Jun 20, 2011 at 7:27 pm

We have elected officials to represent our interests. Giving unknown third parties the right to make binding decisions on behalf of the City is simply wrong - and stupid.

Like this comment
Posted by some guy
a resident of another community
on Jun 20, 2011 at 8:01 pm

I agree with Sherry 100%. Well put.

Like this comment
Posted by DDee
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 20, 2011 at 8:43 pm

Economic downturns certainly shape our ethics don't they!

Yes, the rules laid out by elected and selected top managers and state and city officials created the crack through which a bunch of otherwise brave rescuers had to stand and watch as a suicidal citizen made good on his desire to drown. Privatizing their jobs would not have changed that one iota if you do not also go back and look at all the rules that govern and take out the crazy ones...


The house that was allowed to burn down in the midwest while the PRIVATE fire dept just stood by and watched because the unemployed owner had not been able to pay his fee of $7 to the PRIVATIZED city service.

Which, if the two are weighed, is the more immoral and weighty on the souls of the rest of us?

Both are terrible and we all are to blame... in one case for not being vigilanrt and voiceful to make sure crazy ruiles are not ennacted or if they create cracks, the cracks are fixed... in the other, because we collectivekley prioritized money and profit over the general welfare of our citizens.

Jesus said little to condemn those who make mistakes.... he had a whole lot to say about people who choose money over their fellow human beings.

Like this comment
Posted by Bill
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 20, 2011 at 8:45 pm

The City Council is responsible for hiring and paying its employees through its oversight of all the departments. I did not elect a third party (arbitrator) to negotiate the pay scales of any of them.

Mr. Klein talks about "fairness" to employees. Why should two groups be permitted to use arbitration and not the large number of other employees? And Ms. Price, how do you modify binding arbitration? You either have it or you don't.

Like this comment
Posted by Melanie
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 20, 2011 at 9:22 pm

Definitely can binding arbitration.

Put privitazation and/or consolidation up for a vote too.

I'd also like to see a vote on public collective bargaining in general, but that might have to come at the state level.

And DDee, I don't see how anyone can defend 200K per year "heroes" (still employed as pointed out above) who stood on the beach with their hands in their pockets in front of that poor woman who's mentally ill son was slowly drowning in plain sight. They should all be fired and have their spiked pensions sent to the 110 pound woman who swam out to fetch the guy.

Like this comment
Posted by cleangenepool
a resident of Greater Miranda
on Jun 20, 2011 at 9:50 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

All your news. All in one place. Every day.

Su Hong Palo Alto's last day of business will be Sept. 29
By Elena Kadvany | 12 comments | 4,298 views

Electric Buses: Challenges and Opportunities
By Sherry Listgarten | 22 comments | 2,670 views

Troubling safety issues in our fair city
By Diana Diamond | 16 comments | 1,313 views

Natural Wines?
By Laura Stec | 1 comment | 863 views

Premarital, Women Over 50 Do Get Married
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 819 views


Register now!

On Friday, October 11, join us at the Palo Alto Baylands for a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon! All proceeds benefit local nonprofits serving children and families.

More Info