Palo Alto's heated standoff with the city's firefighters union spilled over from the negotiating table to the court system this week, with the city firing back against the union's effort to keep labor reform off the November ballot.
The firefighters union, International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 1319, last week filed an "unfair practice charge" with the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB), claiming that the City Council acted illegally by not consulting the union before placing a repeal of the binding-arbitration provision in the City Charter on the November ballot. The city fired back Tuesday by asking the court to toss out the firefighters' request and accused the union of attempting "to rush through an order blocking the Council's Constitutional prerogative and stripping franchise rights from 60,000 Palo Alto citizens."
At stake in this dispute is a ballot measure that, if passed by the voters, would repeal a provision in the City Charter that empowers a three-member panel to settle labor disputes between city management and public-safety unions. The council voted 5-4 on July 18 to place the repeal measure on the Nov. 8 ballot after more than a year of discussion and analysis. The council's previous effort to put the repeal measure on the ballot failed 4-5 in August 2010.
The firefighters filed a complaint with the labor-relations board on July 28 accusing the city of failing and refusing to provide unions with "reasonable time and opportunity to meet and discuss the aforesaid ballot measure" and considering alternative proposals from the unions. The complaint from the firefighters union seeks an injunction that would keep the repeal of binding arbitration off the ballot.
In her opposition brief, City Attorney Molly Stump cited several cases in which the courts found that cities are not required to meet and confer with unions on issues of binding arbitration. She also pointed out that the union had ample opportunity over the past year to weigh in on the issue, which was the subject of numerous public hearings before the council voted on it last month.
"The City was under no obligation to meet and confer over a Charter amendment on interest arbitration," Stump wrote. "And even if there was an obligation, the Union waived its rights by sitting on the sidelines in the face of repeated notice that the Charter amendment to repeal interest arbitration was under active consideration."
She asks the board to decline the union's request "because there is no cause to believe an unfair labor practice has been committed and the injunctive relief that Local 1319 seeks is neither just nor proper."
The union, in its complaint, also seeks an order from the labor-relations board requiring the city to reimburse the union for "all monetary losses and/or financial expenses borne or incurred by" the union that it would not have borne or incurred but for the city's "unlawful conduct." Stump countered that the union had no problem spending election money last year, when it spearheaded a measure to freeze staffing levels in the Fire Department and require the city to hold an election before it could reduce staff or close fire stations. Measure R lost by a roughly 3-1 margin.
"Now, just one year later, Local 1319 complains that an election campaign is an overwhelming burden," Stump wrote. "PERB, the Superior Court and the voters of Palo Alto could be forgiven for concluding that Local 1319's views on the value and burdens of election campaigns appear to shift depending on whether the ballot measure in question advances their interests."
Palo Alto voters adopted the binding-arbitration ordinance in 1978 in recognition of the fact that public-safety unions, unlike other workers, can't legally strike. Palo Alto is one of 22 charter cities in California that has such a provision. Vallejo and Stockton voters recently repealed their cities' respective binding-arbitration provision and San Luis Obispo voters are scheduled to consider doing the same on Aug. 30.
In Palo Alto, the City Council majority has consistently maintained that the binding-arbitration requirement is undemocratic because it empowers an unelected panel to make decisions that could significantly impact the city budget.
Councilwoman Karen Holman and councilmen Greg Scharff, Pat Burt, Greg Schmid and Larry Klein have all criticized the requirement over the past year, though Klein supported modifying the provision rather than scrapping it altogether. At the July 18 meeting, Vice Mayor Yiaway Yeh provided the crucial swing vote to bring the repeal to the voters.
This week, the council voted to direct Mayor Sid Espinosa to appoint a committee of four council members to write and undersign a ballot argument in favor of the repeal. But the council also delayed passage of a companion ordinance that would have required the city and all of its unions to seek mediation during labor disputes. The mediation requirement could only be waived if both sides choose to do so.
The council on Monday decided not to pass the ordinance in order to give labor groups more time to review the proposal.
Stump wrote in a memo to the council that although the union's request is belated, the city "welcomes labor's input on the proposed mediation program.
"The ordinance is not scheduled (to) go into effect until December 2011, at the earliest, so there is sufficient time to accommodate a meaningful exchange with IAFF as well as any other labor group that is interested in exploring the matter further," Stump wrote.
The council is scheduled to consider the mediation ordinance in September.