Council treads cautiously on labor reforms

City looks to negotiate with unions about adding transparency to labor negotiations

Palo Alto City Hall. Palo Alto Weekly file photo.

Seeking to add transparency to the normally secretive process of labor negotiations, the Palo Alto City Council is moving ahead with a plan to publicize every offer and counteroffer exchanged between management and labor groups during contract talks.

But before the plan becomes a reality, city officials are preparing to meet with every labor union to gauge their interest and solicit their concerns about the proposed reforms. The cautious approach, which would be followed by formal meet-and-confer sessions with each union, was adopted on Tuesday by the council's Finance Committee, whose members strongly support the proposed changes.

Three members of the committee --- Vice Mayor Eric Filseth and council members Greg Scharff and Greg Tanaka --- had signed a February memo that advocated for the reforms. Councilman Tom DuBois also co-signed the memo, which the full council unanimously endorsed in February. In the memo, the council members criticized the existing process, in which the city's contracts with its labor unions don't become public until they have already been negotiated and are heading to the council for approval.

By that time, the memo notes, "Public review and comment are essentially irrelevant to the outcome of the process."

"These outcomes, such as those affecting the city's unfunded liabilities (pension and retiree medical), are public concerns which will be borne by the community for decades and merit meaningful public review," the memo states.

Under the memo's proposal, which loosely follows the city of San Jose's existing policy, every formal offer and counter offer would be posted on the city's website. Each would be accompanied by a fiscal summary prepared by staff, showing the costs and liabilities associated with each bargaining unit.

Yet in pushing for the reforms, council members are also taking care not to shake things up too much. Filseth, the lead author of the memo, emphasized Tuesday that the intent is "not to fundamentally change the bargaining process."

"The intent here is to inject an increase in visibility at certain checkpoints during the process," Filseth said. "In the current circumstance, the first time the public has any idea of what's going on is when it goes to the council for an up or down vote."

The council is also taking care not to let too much sunshine in too fast. Scharff, the committee's chair, proposed on Tuesday that, before the reforms are adopted, management would first hold talks with each group, returning to the committee to share the employees' concerns, and only then go into meet-and-confer negotiations to discuss the potential reforms.

Scharff made the case on Tuesday for getting early feedback from the unions.

"I want to get some early indications," Scharff said. "If there are big concerns, we'll know about it before we develop a plan for meet and confer about it."

The committee voted 3-0, with Councilwoman Lydia Kou joining Scharff and Filseth, to approve Scharff's plan (Tanaka was absent).


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7 people like this
Posted by miguel
a resident of Woodland Ave. area (East Palo Alto)
on Sep 5, 2018 at 6:32 pm

unions are the only agencies by federal law that protects working class individuals. propoganda is at its all time high. palo alto will not go broke because of unions. letting the general public weigh in on contract negotiations will deter the minds of people who make above average salaries who work in areas where they can be philantrohic and not need unions. Unions protect working class thats the only voice teachers, firefighters, city officials have.

1 person likes this
Posted by Yes to sunshine!
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 6, 2018 at 5:42 pm

This is a great proposal. The unfunded pension liabilities alone are sucking up a huge percentage of the budget, outcompeting resident serving needs like park space and improved infrastructure. This one liability has now increased to over 750 MILLION dollars and growing. If the city doesn't get negotiated contracts with our union members that start to address this issue our great-grandchildren will still be paying off the retirees of today.

It is easy to give away huge amounts of tax payer money when no one can see you doing it.

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