Palo Alto voters are finally being given the opportunity in Measure D to decide whether a single outside arbitrator should continue to have final say on police and fire compensation, benefits and work rules when the city and unions reach an impasse.
The binding-arbitration provision for fire and police contract disputes was enacted by voters more than 30 years ago in exchange for an agreement by our public-safety unions not to strike, before the courts ruled that such strikes are illegal.
Instead of repealing the provision at that time and bringing fire and police negotiations on par with the city's other employee unions, Palo Alto became one of only a few California cities that relinquished its final authority over the costs of public-safety employees to an arbitrator.
In practice, disputes have rarely gone to outside arbitration because city officials have not wanted to risk the unpredictable outcome from an arbitrator who has no responsibility for city finances or accountability to the public. This fear has given unions an unfair advantage in negotiations and has contributed to contract provisions being enacted that weren't in the community's best interest, such as the minimum-staffing requirement in the fire department.
Opponents of Measure D, led by the firefighters union, argue that without the right to strike, fire and police employees have too little negotiating leverage, so binding arbitration becomes the ultimate threat that forces fair negotiations.
Unfortunately for the unions, there is absolutely no evidence to support that position. With 95 percent of California cities operating without any binding-arbitration provision with their public-safety unions, it is ridiculous to argue that arbitration is needed to ensure fair labor contracts. Police and fire union contracts throughout the state provide outstanding pay and benefits to public safety employees, and any city that imposes unreasonable or unjustified reductions in either will find those employees leaving for other job opportunities.
Measure D simply allows Palo Alto to negotiate with its fire and police unions the same way as virtually every one of our neighboring communities.
These are tough times for all levels of government, and Palo Alto's police and fire unions demonstrate two contrasting ways of approaching contract negotiations. The police union has openly recognized that in these economic times it needs to work with the city and be realistic about the need to reduce pay and benefits. The firefighters union has fought to maintain or increase pay and benefits as if completely blind to the world in which they live and to the sacrifices their fellow city employees are making to ease the city's budget problems.
One union is gaining community respect while the other is losing it. The firefighters union insults the community's intelligence by comparing the possible loss of binding arbitration with the Wisconsin debate over doing away with collective bargaining.
Measure D does nothing to change the collective bargaining process, but it does eliminate the power of a single, unelected arbitrator to negotiate in secret and then make unilateral decisions with great financial ramifications for the city. It also puts in place a more neutral, mandatory mediation between city and union negotiators in the event of an impasse.
It is ironic but not surprising that on the eve of this election the firefighters union has just agreed to a new contract after a bitter 16-month standoff. The impasse was headed for binding arbitration and the union apparently calculated that its best strategy was to get a contract signed now and hope it might change public perceptions on Measure D.
The union has agreed to remove the minimum-staffing requirement, a key goal of the city, and accepted lower pension benefits for new hires and new employee contributions for health care and to the pension plan.
But the new contract, assuming it is approved by the City Council on Monday, would save the city about $1.1 million, well short of the $2.3 million the council had targeted for savings from the fire department in the adopted budget.
While we are pleased that the firefighters union and city negotiators have reached an agreement, it does not erase the petulant and ineffective union behavior of the last two years. That behavior included last year's Measure R, a proposal by the union to freeze staffing levels in the department, save for a vote of the electorate. Nor does the new contract change the need for Measure D.
Palo Altans have always been strong supporters of its police and firefighters, and Measure D should not be twisted to suggest it is a vote against these public servants or against collective bargaining rights.
Measure D will at long last simply get Palo Alto back into the mainstream of public employee labor negotiation practices.