Palo Alto's firefighters union has filed a complaint with a state labor-relations board claiming that the city broke the law by placing a repeal of binding arbitration on the November ballot without first consulting the union.
The complaint by International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 1319, seeks an injunction that would keep the repeal of the binding-arbitration provision off the November ballot. The 1978 provision empowers a three-member panel to settle labor disputes between city management and its public-safety unions.
The City Council voted 5-4 on July 18 to draft a resolution placing the repeal on the ballot. The council is scheduled to adopt this resolution Monday night.
In its "unfair practice charge" complaint with the Public Employees Relation Board (PERB), the firefighters union claims city officials broke the law by not conferring with union officials before deciding to place the repeal-measure on the ballot. In their argument, the firefighters cite Section 3507 of the California Government Code, which claims that public agencies must consult "in good faith with representatives of a recognized employee organization of organizations for the administration of employer-employee relations under this chapter."
The union argues in the complaint that it has asked city officials on numerous occasions to "meet and confer" or "meet and consult" about the possible modification or repeal of the binding-arbitration ordinance. The council, the complaint states, "indicated that its action on the motion was final and that it would not engage in the 'meet and consult' process over its decision."
Though city officials have consistently notified the union before the council or its committees were scheduled to discuss the topic, the union claims that these notifications fall short of the "meet and confer" requirement.
The union is asking the Public Employees Relation Board to issue a determination that the city "has failed and refused and continues to fail and refuse to provide charging party (the union) with reasonable time and opportunity to meet and discuss the aforesaid ballot measure and companion ordinance and has further failed and refused and continues to fail and refuse to listen to and consider any proposals which charging party may have to make respondent regarding these matters."
The "companion ordinance," which the council also adopted on July 18, would require the city and all of its unions to seek non-binding mediation to resolve labor disputes.
The complaint also requests reimbursement from the city for legal fees and an injunction that would bar the city from taking the necessary actions to place the repeal on the ballot.
The firefighters' complaint is the latest salvo in a nearly two-year feud between the city and the union. The two sides have been in a standoff over a new contract since May 2010 and saw their negotiations stall in February 2011. The dispute is scheduled to go to binding arbitration in the fall.
Last year, the firefighters spearheaded their own ballot initiative seeking to freeze staffing levels in the Fire Department and to require the city to hold an election any time it wanted to reduce staff or close fire stations. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the firefighters' Measure R.
This year, it's the council that's looking to the voters for help. The council has been mulling a repeal of the 1978 provision for more than a year, with council members Karen Holman and Greg Scharff leading the charge and arguing that the provision makes it impossible for elected officials to perform their budget-balancing duties. The council also considered an alternate measure that would have modified, rather than repealed, the provision by narrowing the arbitrators' scope and requiring them to consider the city's financial condition before making a ruling.
The council voted for the repeal -- and not the modification -- with Scharff, Holman, Pat Burt, Greg Schmid and Vice Mayor Yiaway Yeh in favor and Mayor Sid Espinosa, Larry Klein, Gail Price and Nancy Shepherd opposed.
The union immediately lashed out, equating the council's repeal proposal to Wisconsin's recent effort to strip its state employees of their collective-bargaining rights.
City Attorney Molly Stump disputed the firefighters' arguments and cited recent decisions in which courts determined that binding arbitration falls outside the scope of mandatory bargaining with unions. She pointed to two cases -- DiQuisto v. County of Santa Clara and Santa Clara County Correctional Peace Officers v. County of Santa Clara -- in which the state Court of Appeals and the Public Employees Relation Board, respectively, sided against the unions on this very issue.
She also said the firefighters had plenty of time to weigh in on the issue before the council decided to place it on the November ballot.
"It's interesting because the firefighters have been aware that the City Council has been considering a repeal of binding-interest arbitration since 2010," Stump told the Weekly. "Over the past few months, there have been many, many discussion and they (the union) did not come over and provide input.
"It's a little late for them to say the voters should not have a say on the repeal."