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Binding arbitration untouched 

Someone may take on police and fire unions, but it won't be SLO City Council

click to enlarge THE FACE BEHIND THE VOICE :  SLO Firefighters Association President Erik Baskin, urged voters to support binding arbitration in a series of robo-calls. - PHOTO BY STEVE E MLLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E MLLER
  • THE FACE BEHIND THE VOICE : SLO Firefighters Association President Erik Baskin, urged voters to support binding arbitration in a series of robo-calls.

In the end, the robo-calls may have served their purpose. In the weeks before a March 3 meeting of the SLO City Council, many city residents received recorded messages from San Luis Obispo Firefighters Association President Erik Baskin urging them to support firefighters by supporting binding arbitration.

While several City Council members in an often-tense meeting said they would like to get rid of binding arbitration, a powerful bargaining tool that voters granted police and firefighters in 2000, they ultimately decided that any repeal would have to be led by the people, not the council.

Unlike every other unionized group the city contracts with, members of the San Luis Obispo Police Officers’ Association, which represents 65 people, and the Firefighters Association, which represents 45 people, by law cannot strike. When it passed, binding arbitration was described as a last-resort bargaining tool; when negotiations absolutely break down with the city, police and fire unions could agree to call in an unbiased arbitrator to make a contract decision. The arbitrator’s decision is final.

 While city finance officials and some politicians were outraged at the size of raises police won last year, having “the big stick” has worked smoothly for firefighters, according to Baskin. He said negotiations have moved faster since binding arbitration was approved.

“It’s resulted in better cooperation between labor and management,” Baskin said. “The relationship between the fire union and city management is considered a model for a lot of smaller cities throughout California.”

Human Resources Director Monica Irons said most groups negotiate contracts within four to six months. That was true for police too, until they had binding arbitration. The first post-binding arbitration round of negotiations in 2000 took 20 months. The next contract—a one-year contract—took 14 months to negotiate. And the third attempt went 29 months before being decided in binding arbitration.

City Councilmember Andrew Carter said the situation gives unions an incentive to go to an arbitrator as long as they already have a reasonable offer from the city. In other words, they have nothing to lose.

The meeting was often tense, as union officials practically challenged the councilmembers to consider getting rid of binding arbitration. Marilyn Venezuela, executive secretary of the Tri-Counties Central Labor Council, urged the City Council to take no action toward repealing binding arbitration, not even a public survey.

“If you choose to take a different path,” Venezuela warned, “we’ll call out an army of volunteers from the Tri-Counties. We already have our walking shoes on.”

While most councilmembers called for a repeal, there are several reasons why they decided not to act themselves. Councilmember Jan Marx said it is not the council’s place to challenge voter initiatives.

“The council does not need to engage the public,” Marx said. “The public needs to engage the public.”

The city could also face litigation if councilmembers tried to repeal the initiative, and they would have to first meet and confer with the unions if they hoped to put a repeal on the ballot. That process itself could wind up in binding arbitration.

Despite calls by the unions to keep politics out, several state representatives weighed in on the side of unions. Pedro Nava, a state assemblyman from Santa Barbara, came to the meeting in support of the police and fire unions. Nava, who will be termed out of the State Assembly, has thrown his hat in the ring for Attorney General, the head of state law enforcement. U.S. Rep. Lois Capps sent a letter of support, as did state Sen. Abel Maldonado. And State Superintendent of California Schools Jack O’Connell showed up too.

One woman during the public comment period dismissed posturing by state officials. “I don’t put much stock in any of these public officials that have shown up tonight,” she said, “’cause who would want to go against the police and firefighters’ unions?”

In many ways that is the crux of the issue: exactly who is going to take on the unions? Chamber of Commerce President Dave Garth said the chamber supports a public survey, but they won’t be the ones conducting it. Garth rhetorically asked why a citizen group hasn’t stepped up, before answering,
 
 “Because they would be fighting one of the most powerful unions in the state … I find it odd that they say they want to keep politics out of it, and then they call in the politicians.”

Contracts for both the fire and police unions expire at the end of the year, and police union officials have said that they intend to get, in this round of negotiations, what they didn’t get last time: a better benefits package. Carter, at the end of his presentation, called on both police and firefighters to take nothing further in salary and benefits packages this year, because of budget turmoil.

New Times staff writer Kylie Mendonca can be reached at kmendonca@newtimesslo.com.

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