Union's battle against ballot measure reignites

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

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 on the ballot. The ballot measure, which the council approved in July by a 5-4 vote, seeks to repeal a 33-year-old law that enables 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 the measure from the ballot.

Days after filing the complaint and requesting an injunction, union leaders agreed to shelve both in hopes that the council will reopen negotiations with the unions and consider less drastic reforms to the binding-arbitration process. On 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 which he declined to discuss in detail but which 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. PERB 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 Superior Court to 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 will consider postponing the ballot measure. When the council took no action after its Tuesday night closed session, the union reopened its challenge to the ballot measure and asked that the "County of Santa Clare 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 scheduled meeting with Public Employment Relations Board mediators -- a meeting that was scheduled to take place on Sept. 13. 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.

"It's really a desperate attempt by Tony to take this off the ballot," Scharff said. "It's Tony just trying more tactics to not let the people of Palo Alto make a decision."

We can't do it without you.
Support local journalism.


Like this comment
Posted by George
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 8, 2011 at 10:44 am

Another desperate fire union tactic to avoid an inevitable YES on Measure D by Palo Alto voters.

Repealing binding arbitration will mean that Palo Alto can more reasonably manage exploding public safety labor and benefit costs.

The more the fire union struggles to avoid repealing binding arbitration, the deeper the negative hole they dig in the minds of Palo Alto voters. Fire union leadership simply appears self-serving and greedy with every move they make.

YES on D is the answer.

Like this comment
Posted by Arbitration-Must-Go
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 8, 2011 at 10:53 am

Enough has been said about this already. Nothing to do but let the process play out, and see what happens. If the City were to lose, then it should move the matter to the next ballot, and correct any problems that the process finds during this "mini-trial".

Like this comment
Posted by danos
a resident of another community
on Sep 8, 2011 at 11:01 am

There is no need for a city the size of Palo Alto to pay to maintain its own fire department. The city should do the fiscally responsible thing and contract with Santa Clara County Fire.

Enough of this nonsense.

Like this comment
Posted by Taxpayer
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 8, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Growing up I used to respect ff's. Had some in the family. Used to think of them as hard working guys with a unique life style. Didn't make a lot of $'s but were paid fairly for a job that had a ton of time off and down time. Most of them barely finished high school and that was the end of their education. Wasn't necessary for more education because the job wass mostly about driving a truck and holding a hose. Not it is more about being an EMT.

Times have changed. The job has become much easier and safer. Only 2% of the calls are fire related. Most of the time is spent hanging around the station, shopping, and sleeping. And the stations have become hot houses for union militants (probably cuz they have nothing else to do). The politicians, lawyers, and union bosses saw a chance to gorge at the public trough and the ff's were happy to jump on the pork barrel.

I am so disgusted that we as taxpayers have allowed this to happen. We need to correct this problem NOW. Step #1 is to make sure Measure D passes. Step #2 is to remove from elected office union backed politicians like Price.

Yes on D!!

Like this comment
Posted by Kathy
a resident of Stanford
on Sep 8, 2011 at 2:05 pm

To Taxpayer--
Your comments about the "life of a firefighter" are completely unfair and just plain "mean". Please base your "opinions" on fact and not superficial, prejudiced observations.

Like this comment
Posted by icu
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 8, 2011 at 2:07 pm

watch this video on what else your palo alto firemen do with all that free time.
actually very relaxing video??

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 8, 2011 at 2:39 pm

To Kathy - Sometimes the truth is painful. Bu to be open, blunt and honest is not mean. What is mean is over compensating one class of employee and punish the youth by reducing the funding for libraries, parks, and roads. What is mean is to let folks retire at 50 with out funding their pension, and passing on the debt to future generations. The ff union has turned their backs on PA taxpayers and the painful truth needs to brought out in to the open, discussed, and corrected.

Like this comment
Posted by Kathy
a resident of Stanford
on Sep 8, 2011 at 7:58 pm

Thank you, Resident..........
I appreciate your perspective. What you say makes a lot of sense. I'm just so tired of all the "mudslinging", accusations, and "almost hatred" against the firefighters of the City of Palo Alto.
What "Taxpayer" writes sounds very, very "elitist" to me. Sometimes I am almost ashamed to live in this town (since 1974), so probably time to "Get out of Dodge".
Again--I appreciate your comments--they are clear, thoughtful and w/o rancor. "Truth" is good (I agree). Therefore, "truth is" that the ffs aren't a bunch of "uneducated" folks "hanging around--shopping and sleeping most of the time". Where did that idea come from?? I wonder...........

Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Meadow Park
on Sep 8, 2011 at 8:30 pm

Public sector salaries and pensions are not only out of control in Palo Alto. To quote a newspaper from England:

RADICAL action is being urged to overhaul public sector pensions and slash the cost to taxpayers

“The economic implications of the negotiations over public sector pensions are perhaps as great as any other negotiations between government and unions in history,’’ he said in a paper for the Centre for Policy Studies think tank. “Despite the importance of these negotiations, the coalition would appear, so far, to have been out-manoeuvred by the unions.’’

They delay, delay, delay. And notice how Tony keeps putting in the police?

Nothing against punlic sector employeees but your taxes are way over the top!
c'mon c'mon

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 8, 2011 at 8:48 pm

Kathy - Thanks goes to you. Your logic and focus on the facts (vs the emotions) are appreciated.

Like this comment
Posted by Ernesto USMC
a resident of Ventura
on Sep 9, 2011 at 12:00 am

A firefighter who works 2 24 hour shifts (marked by lots of paid "on call" time) should not be of greater cost to the taxpaying public than m a soldier, sailor, airman, or marine who works, on equal terms (some direct action with a continuous "on call" factor) 7 24 hour shifts per week for 9-12 months on end in a typical combat tour.

Unemployment is high and looks likely to stay that way. Countless in the private sector would count themselves blessed to work as a PA firefighter at 60K per year with a 401K.

It is time to stop subsidizing a privileged class of worker at the expense of the private sector taxpayer. I'm convinced that the relationship with the fire union is so broken (they have taken such a hawkish, uncompromising stance at every turn and refuse to recognize the market reality and their over-privileged position within it) that the only solution is to outsource the entire department. If the union stands in the way of efficiency, call their bluff and let them kill the golden goose.

Like this comment
Posted by sph
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 9, 2011 at 8:49 am

I find it funny we discuss how this effects FF but what about the Police? They are effected by our vote too. I have police friends and I can honestly say retiring at 60 or 65 is not an option. The toll it takes on their body. And how many 60 year olds do you know that can carry 30lbs worth of equipment, run and/or fight a 20 year old suspect? In fact, how many 60 year olds do you know that can do the physical aspects of a FF job? In regards to discussing retirement, take the down time out of the equation for a minute and think about the physical aspects of the job!

Like this comment
Posted by SPH
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 9, 2011 at 9:28 am

Also, the FF and PD recently offered to take a pay cut. The combined total of the cuts exceeded the $4.10 million the city was asking in cuts.

What about City manager James Keen? He gets $240,000 a year, receives a $600 monthly transportation allowance, a housing package, lifetime medical benefits, and a pension. According to the 2012 budget it equates to $1.9 million. Shouldn't he also be under fire? Why are we not outraged at politicians getting comfy benefits on our dime when they are the ones wasting the money and causing the mess?

The PD and FD account for 25% of the city's budget. Where is the other 75% spent or wasted?

Like this comment
Posted by Robin
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 9, 2011 at 4:51 pm

The real or perceived demands of the job, amount of paid downtime, etc. are all irrelevant. What is relevant is: what is the pricepoint to taxpayers at which supply meets demand and you're paying just enough to hire and retain a workforce.

I suspect for police, the market rate compensation is relatively close to what they are making now. If anything they are likely somewhat overpaid due to the fact that private sector wages have stagnated for a decade while public sector wages have not.

For fire, however, the current compensation is grossly out of balance with what the market commands. We are probably getting stuck for over 2X what we should be paying, and receiving no value for our overpayment.

Lumping police and fire together, as Tony Spitaleri and the Fire Union backers like to do, is an attempt to secure undeserved credit for the fire department, often to the detriment of the police.

Like this comment
Posted by SPH
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 9, 2011 at 5:22 pm

Robin you are right about the lumping. However, the lumping was not by the fire union but by the city. City made a public safety fund that combined police and fire. So whatever happens to fire is going to happen to police. Everyone seems very upset with Fire and are screaming to get rid of arbitration because of fire. What about the police? By the fire pushing for measure R and gaining a bad rep with the city, they have effected the police.

Like this comment
Posted by danos
a resident of another community
on Sep 9, 2011 at 5:31 pm

Great comment on lumping police and firefighters together. The jobs of police officer and firefighter - the skills required, hours worked, and quite frankly importance to the community - are not at all comparable.

A community with underqualified, underpaid cops is a breeding ground for corruption and serious crime (New Orleans being an extreme example.)

The vast majority of firefighters in the US, on the other hand, are volunteers, summoned when needed.

The jobs are simply not of equal value to the community.

Like this comment
Posted by Two cents
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 10, 2011 at 12:16 am

Palo Alto cops defered their raises which saved the city $800,000. They tried to defer it again and extend their contract but the city made them take it so they could get the cops back on the bargaining table. Now thanks to the firemen, the cops are going to loose binding arbitraiton too which means the city can literally impose whatever contract they want.I for one like the PA cops I have met and you get whay you pay for. Dont vote to abolish binding arbitration if it affects the cops. We dont want them to leave for another city who pays more. Face it folks they dont work here because they get to enjoy living here or something, they work here because its a good job.

Like this comment
Posted by George
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 10, 2011 at 7:07 am

Repealing binding arbitration does NOT mean the city can impose whatever it wants on employees represented by public safety unions. State labor laws assure fair means for negotiating agreements.

Moreover, the Council may adopt an ordinance to establish non-binding mediation as an alternative impasse resolution procedure for ALL employee groups. This would create a fair environment for ALL employee groups for the first time in over 30 years.

The ordinance would require the City and employee organizations begin mediation upon a declaration of impasse or 45 days prior to expiration of an agreement, whichever occurs earlier. If the parties are unable to reach agreement within 14 days of beginning mediation, there is no further obligation to mediate. The parties may also mutually agree to forego or discontinue mediation at any time. In order to ensure that dates can be timely scheduled with a mediator, the ordinance requires selection of a mediator 120 days prior to expiration of a contract.

These specific time parameters provide two benefits.

First, by requiring mediation prior to expiration of a contract, the ordinance sets parameters for timeframes that will more closely align contract negotiations with the City budget, allowing for more accurate planning.

Second, they allow for mediation as an additional step in the impasse resolution process but place reasonable time limits on the process, providing some incentive to reach mutual agreement within the timeframe.

When repeal is approved by Palo Alto voters and the Council adopts the mediation ordinance, the combination of provisions would mean that the City and public safety organizations would be required to engage in mediation on declaration of an impasse, but if issues were not resolved in mediation, the parties would not be required to go to arbitration and the City could instead choose to unilaterally implement terms and conditions of employment.

In addition, the City and NON-safety unions would also be required to engage in mediation on declaration of any impasse. The ordinance would not alter the City’s existing authority to choose to unilaterally implement terms and conditions of employment for these groups, except that mediation would be required prior to implementation.

Like this comment
Posted by SPH
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 10, 2011 at 2:34 pm

George I do not mean to be rude but you are wrong. The city can give a last best final offer...take it or leave it. That is the whole point of removing binding arbitration. Palo Alto has not acted in good faith negotiations. The city says it does not have money but then they come out and say we do have money. Stanford gave the city $40 million and Stanford publicly said they considered the Public Service sector as part of the intended use of the money. The fact is the city council wants to find scapegoats for their wasteful spending. As I said earlier the city said it needed $4.10 million in cuts, which the police and fire offers exceeded, yet the city refused the offers. What are they not telling us? Are we going to keep buying into their lies? Times for us to demand the truth...what is it James Keen and the city council really wants? I want answers where is the other 75% going?

Like this comment
Posted by Ernesto USMC
a resident of Ventura
on Sep 10, 2011 at 5:32 pm

George is not wrong. His factual description of the procedures is correct. And yes, after numerous steps, the city can make a last, best offer, but the final decision is the decision that every American makes every day of their working lives: am I better off staying or going, and if its the latter, I'm free to quit and find greener pastures. The final decision always lies with the worker. The city, which represents its boss the public, is entitled to make the best possible choices for its stakeholders (the public).

Asking firefighters to work for minimum wage with no benefits would result in turnover, hiring delays, and an ineffective department, so it would not be in the cities interest to do so and it wouldn't be done. On the flip-side, paying a firefighter 6-figures with 100K+ annual pensions for life starting as early as age 50 is blatantly irresponsible when the same work output can be happily produced by workers making 60K-100K with 401K plans (I made an earlier post about the scores of vets who would readily jump at the opportunity to secure the lifestyle of a PA firefighter at that compensation). The pendulum has swung far out of balance, and the fire union has shown it will do anything it can (measure R, trying to silence the public on Measure D) to hinder any attempt by the city to govern responsibly and create value for the public by addressing this inefficiency.

And as clarification, propping up unsustainable public sector compensation is not among the purposes that Stanford agreed to as terms of its $40M shakedown payment to PA for the right to expand its hospital and cancer center. See link below. Even if this were not true, on a very general level, it's irresponsible leadership to make lasting promises such as wage increases and defined benefit pensions, based on one time windfalls.

This is from a previous PA Online article: Web Link

"The committee, which will also include two Stanford officials, is charged with determining how to spend $4 million allocated for community health programs. In addition to this $4 million, Stanford is also slated to provide $23.2 million for "infrastructure, sustainable neighborhood and affordable housing" and $12 million for initiatives relating to climate change."

Like this comment
Posted by Tired of lies
a resident of another community
on Sep 10, 2011 at 9:20 pm

Ernesto the base pay for FF is 68k to 98k. Those making six figures work overtime, experience and/or leadership roles. Fire and Police both offered to take pay cuts and as mentioned earlier exceeded the cities request!

George is wrong. Just like companies do not have to negotiate pay, neither will the city once binding arbitration is gone. They can say this is our offer. The city is not acting in good faith now, what makes you think that they will later.

I find it funny no one complained of pay raises when the economy was great but now we are all upset? Are elected official screwed up and we are seeing this throughout the country. The Police and Fire only account for 23% off the budget so where else can cuts be made? The FF and PD are not to blame for the cities woes.

Like this comment
Posted by Ernesto USMC
a resident of Ventura
on Sep 10, 2011 at 11:36 pm

Base pay is an irrelevant number: the number that matters is the total compensation cost to the public to procure fire services. Inefficient overtime due to minimum staffing levels, plus defined benefit pensions kicking in in the 50s funded entirely by taxpayers takes FF compensation well into six figures.

If Measure D passes, the city is not going to try to force them to work for free; any firefighter who feels the city has acted in bad faith is free to leave and find greener pastures elsewhere, as they are free to do so today. This is the ultimate market check, and the only one available to most private sector employees. It also results in an efficient market -- if ten equally qualified people are willing to do my job for half the total cost, I either need to double my productivity or take a pay cut.

The % of the fire budget of the entire city budget is irrelevant. Any opportunity to address waste and effect responsible, efficient government needs to be seized. Getting fire department pay in line with what the market commands will save millions, which can be used for other services or returned to the taxpayers.

Like this comment
Posted by Reality bites.
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 11, 2011 at 6:42 am

Dear Tired who said "I find it funny no one complained of pay raises when the economy was great but now we are all upset?"

Of course. That is the problem. There is no money to "keep the promises", but most unions fail to see that. They want the up side when things are good, but can't adjust downward with the rest of us when things are not good.

If a private union is that blind, it collapses the company and all our unemployed. Happens all the time. If a public union does that, it collapses US. We can't let that happen.
It is called reality, and it is biting all of us.

Like this comment
Posted by Tired of lies
a resident of another community
on Sep 11, 2011 at 3:45 pm

Reality bites: "but can't adjust downward with the rest of us when things are not good." Did you miss the part where they offered pay cuts and to pay into benefits? How is that not accepting the reality and moving downwards? FF offered over "$3.1 million of concessions. Roughly $1.7 million of that was from structural changes and another $1.4 million from wage decreases." Web Link
Proof they are willing to take some cuts and they offered more than the city asked in cuts.

Like this comment
Posted by Kathy
a resident of Stanford
on Sep 12, 2011 at 9:33 pm

@Tired of lies. Me too!!
Thank you for the Web Link. It reminded me of "what I had almost forgotten" in all the latest hysteria and "blame game". Sure hope rational and considered conversation will end this craziness..............

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

Don't be the last to know

Get the latest headlines sent straight to your inbox every day.

First Sunnyvale, then Australia: Mountain View's Le Plonc plots expansion
By Elena Kadvany | 1 comment | 2,477 views

Juggling Renewables
By Sherry Listgarten | 35 comments | 1,981 views

Premarital and Couples: Living as Roommates?
By Chandrama Anderson | 2 comments | 1,430 views

Homestead Faire at Hidden Villa 4/27
By Laura Stec | 2 comments | 788 views

A trial run
By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 541 views


Vote now!

It's time once again to cast your vote for the best places to eat, drink, shop and spend time in Palo Alto. Voting is open now through May 27. Watch for the results of our 2019 Best Of contest on Friday, July 19.