Editorial: Yes on D: Repeal binding arbitration | October 14, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - October 14, 2011

Editorial: Yes on D: Repeal binding arbitration

Palo Alto's unusual binding-arbitration requirement for fire and police contract disputes should have been repealed long ago

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.


Posted by JT, a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 16, 2011 at 2:17 am

What's the Weekly's position on Measure E?

Posted by George, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Oct 16, 2011 at 9:08 am

Clearly thought-out and well-reasoned Weekly opinion. Totally agree with every point.

YES on Measure D.

Posted by Gethin, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 17, 2011 at 11:07 am

Yes on D, no on arbitration

Posted by Ditto!, a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 17, 2011 at 11:24 am

Yes on D, no on arbitration!

Posted by Bill, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 17, 2011 at 12:18 pm

Keep our fire and police unions strong.

Vote NO on D

I am not associated in any way with the fire or police communities, however, I was the president of the union in my workplace before retirement and therefore I know something about what goes on during negotiations.

Posted by Sally, a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 17, 2011 at 12:37 pm

Guess we all picked the wrong career and should have become firemen so we could make $224,000 a year with great benefits.

It's time they stop pleading poverty.

While I support labor rights, that type of salary and benefits is absurd given the state of the economy for the rest of us.

Posted by Kim S., a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 17, 2011 at 1:06 pm

I agree with Sally, yes on D!

Posted by Karen, a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 17, 2011 at 3:40 pm

Well put Sally.

My family's ballots arrived in the mail today and they are filled out and will be mailed tomorrow. I'm glad that the fire union's attempt to keep D off of the ballot failed and I get to cast my vote.

Posted by Carlito Waysman, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 17, 2011 at 7:43 pm

Of course, YES on D. NO on E.

Posted by Alice Smith, a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 17, 2011 at 7:54 pm

The issues were well developed at the debate held by the LWV on Tuesday. I think No on D is fair, equitable and just. I also think the arguments for D are the beginning of ending collective bargaining and taking us back to the 19th century.

Public safety officers can not strike. The compulsary arbitration is the fair resolution to the opposite which is autocratic and undemocratic.

Posted by James, a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 17, 2011 at 7:58 pm

NO on D (and YES on E).
A yes on D will resemble the actions that Gov. Scott Walker launched against the teachers unions in Wisconsin. Hopefully Palo Alto voters know a bit better about employee rights. The $224,000/year mentioned above is indeed an absurd that must be corrected, but has nothing to do with this vote.

Posted by Milt, a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 17, 2011 at 9:59 pm

I got my ballot and voted Yes on D. The firefighters union has for decades shown nothing but contempt for the tax payers of this city. While I fully appreciate what they do for the community, it is abundantly clear that they, in return, see Palo Alto as suckers paying for ridiculous compensation packages. Naturally, they want the gilded gravy train to continue, and if I were in their shoes, I'd enjoy that sort of compensation too! Enough is enough. I expect the firefighters union to be once again slammed at the polls, their credibility and good will in the community in shambles.

Posted by Me Too, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 17, 2011 at 10:22 pm

@Alice, if the 19th century is where they have sensible compensation, staffing, and work rules, then let's all go. There is nothing equitable and just about the setup that we have today. Let's put the ideology aside and just set it up so we can get a reasonable contract and move on to other issues.

Posted by oldbasse, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 17, 2011 at 10:26 pm

I concur with the eloquent P.A.W. editorial and its well-reasoned and -stated points. VOTE 'YES' ON D.

Now, after D's prospective, resounding defeat, the proper and decent posture and action for our City's excessively spoiled fire and emergency response personnel are to give back some valuable services to the P.A. community.

Union members and supporters: Please acknowledge your debt to the generosity of the P.A. taxpayers -- and to the recklessness of our City's elected officials and their hired administrators -- by volunteering with one or more of the many civic and ethically compelling nonprofits serving this community. The obligation and burden is now on you.

May so it be!

Posted by mmmmMom, a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 18, 2011 at 12:14 am

NO on D!

One of the most mis-informed, mis-directed ideas in a long time. The blind & hysterical leading the blind & duped.

Posted by Solidarity, a resident of Greater Miranda
on Oct 18, 2011 at 12:34 am

In this season of attack on workers and unions, I am not in the mood to climb on board the band wagon. No on D.

Posted by Ernesto USMC, a resident of Ventura
on Oct 18, 2011 at 9:03 am

To insinuate, as the above posts do, that supporters of D are misinformed or part of a larger movement against workers is incorrect and a bit desperate. The real group that has been under attack is the taxpaying public, who has been forced for years to pay more and more to underwrite a lifestyle for public employees that far exceeds the market value of the services the public receives in return.

Rules that tilt the playing field further in favor of public unions are no longer affordable nor tolerable. The private sector simply can't afford to underwrite six figure lifetime pensions for a bloated fire department starting at age 50 when the same services could be procured for much less. There are hundreds of applicants for every opening. Remove the unlevel playing field tilted against the public interest and let the taxpayers have an equal seat at the table. Yes on D.

Posted by Yes on D, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 18, 2011 at 9:59 am

I think the PA Weekly has summarized the situation well in their editorial. I planned to vote Yes on D even before I read this.

I appreciate our firefighters very much, but I don't think binding arbitration provides a workable structure for negotiations. The playing field has to be fair for the unions AND the city. Binding arbitration has to go. Yes on D.

Posted by Yes on D , a resident of South of Midtown
on Oct 18, 2011 at 10:43 am

I don't know if the firefighters in Palo Alto are like the city workers in San Jose referred to in this article. If so, the concern is really about pensions and healthcare deals.

Web Link

Posted by Mike, a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 18, 2011 at 12:29 pm

Passing D is only going to be one tiny step to fixing the problem we have.

If you can run a spreadsheet you can figure out we cannot pay two times the going rate for total comp for firemen and still be able to run a city with drivable streets and other services.

Posted by city of the free....lunch, a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 18, 2011 at 12:42 pm

“Our police and firefighters will earn more in retirement than they did when they were working,”

Says it all!

Posted by Sylvia, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 18, 2011 at 8:27 pm

Less firefighters and more police officers. Let's not become a San Jose.

Posted by Bob, a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 19, 2011 at 8:52 am

I can't help but notice that many of the posts above are critical of the fire department union. Given how they behaved over the past few years, I can't blame anyone for feeling that way. But aren't the police officers being dragged along when they're not really to blame? Isn't there some way to reign in the fire union without hitting the police officers in the process? Maybe not but I do wonder.

Posted by Andrew, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 19, 2011 at 9:28 am

Bob, due to their track record of reasonable negotiation and respected position in the community, the police should be either unaffected (their union negotiates reasonably and doesn't try to use binding arbitration as a hammer the way the fire union does) by the passage of D, and could very likely be helped by it. With the city better able to rein in the un-needed costs of overstaffing and overpaying the fire department, more money will be available to pay for services the public wants, including more policing (along with roads, etc.)

Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 19, 2011 at 10:36 am

No on D. Kudos to Gail Price for speaking up on behalf of the workers and for not joining in the popular front to attack and scapegoat the workers here. I would rather see city leadership be more visionary and pro-active and find ways to make Palo Alto a better place and not just be trendy good little right-wing sheep and bashing the unions like in Wisconsin. (Although I have to add that I am No on E and see this vision as not actually environmental; it is dissonant).

I met a young man here who it seems is a multi-billionaire for his work in the private sector. Granted he seems quite bright and I assume hard-working. But in that context paying people six figures to be shot at or burnt in the line duty is what it took to hire public sector safety worker during these interesting times.

What about taxing the small group of downtown landlords whose holdings are a highly concentrated part of total assessment that went from $5 billion value to $25 billion value during the recent years -- how does society benefit from that $20 billion windfall (although some of it, a fraction, is investment not just passive gain -- I'd like to see it looked into more thoroughly, how property rights impacts policy here).

D is demeaning. We can do better to reform our collective bargaining not handcuff our public safety workers in this ham-fisted manner. No on D.

Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 19, 2011 at 10:43 am

Ballot initiative Measure D is a smokescreen to avoid talking about the elephant in the room which is not pension reform or collective bargaining or binding arbitration but the compromise of democracy in the form of the power of the downtown property owners and their impact on policy and local politics here.

Posted by Jeff, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 19, 2011 at 10:58 am

YES ON D. Everyone should read former mayor of Palo Alto Dick Rosenbaum's excellent opinon in the Daily Post today giving an historical perspecticve on the effects of Binding Arbitration on Palo Alto. Dick points out that Palo Alto only adopted 3% at 50 because the City knew it would lose at arbitration. Council needs control of the City budget. Kudos to Larry Klein, Greg Schmid, Greg Scharff and Karen Holman for getting that and to a lesser extent Nancy Shepherd and Sid Espinoza for while being union endorsed, remaining neutral.

Posted by Jeff, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 19, 2011 at 11:11 am

I also forgot to mention Pat Burt who is strongly supportive of Measure D. Everyone should also see Scott Herhold's column in the Mercury News praising the efforts of Pat Burt in support of Measure D as a committed Democrat, a guy who believes government has a worthy role in bettering people's lives. In that column Herhold states: "In practice, 33 years of binding arbitration in Palo Alto has worked very much to the advantage of police and firefighters, who now are able to retire at age 50 with as much as 90 percent of their income, a deal most of us could not dream of. Even in a rich town like Palo Alto, it's not sustainable.If you want a single demonstration of why Measure D is needed, go to www.repealbindingarbitration.org. The first graph shows that public safety spending in Palo Alto increased by 80 percent in the last decade. The spending for other departments is basically flat. Herhold then goes on to say "It is hard to change three decades of practice. It is even worse to shortchange other city services. Measure D is one of those rare no-brainers: It deserves a resounding yes."

Posted by Andrew, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 19, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Mark Weiss: One private sector billionaire that you've met does not change the hard fact that the median private sector income is well below that of a PA firefighter with nothing close to the same pension benefit, or that the market says the firefighters are grossly overpaid (as evidenced by near zero voluntary turnover and hundreds of applications the day a new position is listed).

Likewise, even if your search for more tax revenue were successful, that doesn't make it any more OK to use public funds to pay any politically well connected employee group above market rate for their services, at the expense of other public services and interests.

Furthermore, if, as you suggest, the current 200K+ total compensation packages are justified by the labor market in a different era, so too should much lower pay be the norm today, where hundreds would jump at the opportunity to work for much much less.

Palo Alto needs D, and it needs to vote out the councilmembers such as Price who have been bought by special interests.

Posted by Bob, a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 19, 2011 at 12:38 pm

@Jeff -

I read Herhold's column, as well as Rosenbaum's editorial, each of which claim that Palo Alto gave fire and police the so-called 3@50 retirement plan only because of the threat of binding arbitration.

That cannot possible be true. 95% of fire and police employees statewide have 3@50 when almost no other cities have binding arbitration. So, even if Palo Alto hadn't had binding arbitration, it seems unlikely that we could have resisted an industry standard.

In the end, maybe 3@50 retirement is overly generous and maybe binding arbitration is unnecessary, but it doesn't appear that one is related to the other.

Posted by Taxpayer, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 20, 2011 at 8:40 pm

Palo Alto approves new firefighter contract -- City Council unanimously adopts 'watershed agreement' with firefighters union

What is the point of putting this measure on the ballot? Who are they kidding?

Posted by A.L. , a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 20, 2011 at 10:31 pm

Andrew: You give a little and the city takes a lot. People are blind if they think the police will not be effected by removing binding arbitration. The city has lumped fire and police together. If you read past reports and statements, the city does not see the two as separate entities and plans on cutting just as much if not more from police. The city stated they wanted $4.3 in cuts from fire and police but the new contract, for fire, is only $1.1, where is the other $3 million going to come from? Just because the police have worked with the city by opting out of raises, does not mean the city will not stick it to the police.

Posted by Michael, a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 21, 2011 at 8:53 pm

Fire cuts are 1.1M due to the firefighters no longer having their pension contributions paid for by the city (why was this being done in the first place?) The rest can be made up for by not overstaffing the stations now that the union-backed minimum staffing requirements are gone. Police add much more value to the public than grossly overpaid firefighters.

There is a lot of savings that can be had just by undoing the self-benefiting inefficiencies that the fire union has won over time with binding arbitration as its hammer. Measure D will help neutralize this special interest which has been sucking resources away from other city departments and priorities (police, roads, parks, schools... you name it)

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