Palo Alto's longstanding practice of forcing disputes between the city and its public-safety workers to go to arbitration was repealed Tuesday night, as more than two-thirds of the voters cast their ballots in favor of Measure D.
The measure strips the "binding arbitration" provision from the City Charter. The provision, which voters adopted 37 years ago, enabled a three-member arbitration panel to settle contract disputes between management and the unions. It was placed on the ballot by a 5-4 City Council vote after about two years of public hearings and a long debate over whether the provision should be modified or eliminated altogether.
Measure D's passage deals another heavy blow to the city's firefighters union, which was recently engaged in an 18-month standoff with the city over a new labor agreement. The stalemate finally ended in September when the two sides reached an agreement that curtails the union's benefits, freezes salaries and, most importantly, scraps the "minimum staffing" provision that required at least 29 firefighters to be on duty at all times.
The firefighters union, International Association of Firefighters, Local 1319, vehemently opposed Measure D, arguing that it strips the city's police and firefighters of their collective-bargaining rights. Unlike most other city workers (with some exceptions in the Public Works and Utilities departments), public-safety workers are barred from striking by state law. The measure also drew criticism from the Democratic Party of Santa Clara County, Vice Mayor Yiaway Yeh and Councilwoman Gail Price, with many opponents comparing the labor-reform measure to the efforts of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker to take away the collective-bargaining rights of state workers.
Tony Spitaleri, president of the firefighters union, said Tuesday he was disappointed with the results of the election and attributed it to misinformation and mischaracterization of firefighter salaries and benefits from the media and from the "Yes on D" camp. Spitaleri said it's too early to tell what impact the repeal of binding arbitration would have on labor negotiations between the city and the union.
"We were hoping the information would get out correctly," Spitaleri said. "We were dealing with facts and hoping people in Palo Alto would have a fair system.
"Unfortunately, it's the mood of the country."
Yeh, who opposed the repeal effort but supported placing the item on the ballot, said he hopes other processes, including mandatory mediation, could help in future negotiations.
"I'm interested in seeing how the process would go forward because we just removed the only local process we had for public-safety employees," Yeh said.
"I think what's most important is that the entire council does value our police and firefighters," he added. "They are valued members of our community, and we're committed to make sure they'll still be treated fairly."
Supporters of Measure D gathered at the home of city resident Tony Glaves to celebrate the overwhelming victory. The measure achieved 7,997 "yes" votes to 3,889 "no" votes by the end of the evening.
Roughly 2,000 absentee and provisional ballots from Palo Alto are still left to be counted, according to Elaine Larson with the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters.
Councilman Greg Scharff, who led the repeal effort with Councilwoman Karen Holman, was among those attending the victory party. Scharff said he believes the repeal of binding arbitration will make labor negotiations much easier in the future because it would force the two sides to work through the collective-bargaining process. He said the repeal of the provision would make prolonged impasses like the one that halted the labor negotiations over the past two years increasingly unlikely.
Repealing binding arbitration, he said, would also help ensure that all of the city's labor groups are treated equally.
"We want to have the best public-safety departments in the country, and we will treat our employees fairly," Scharff said.
Holman had argued that binding arbitration is undemocratic because it takes decisions relating to the budget out of the council's hands and gives it to arbitrators. She said Tuesday that the repeal binding arbitration will give the city more control over its budget.
"This kind of a result is reassuring and reaffirming of the direction we were trying to take," Holman said.