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Breaking the ties that bind? 

SLO City Council votes to put binding arbitration back on the ballot

click to enlarge TOUGH CROWD:  Of 37 people who showed up to speak to the San Luis Obispo City Council about the contentious labor negotiating practice known as binding arbitration, only four asked not to change the status quo. - BY ROBERT A. MCDONALD
  • BY ROBERT A. McDONALD
  • TOUGH CROWD: Of 37 people who showed up to speak to the San Luis Obispo City Council about the contentious labor negotiating practice known as binding arbitration, only four asked not to change the status quo.

The San Luis Obispo City Council voted to put binding arbitration and a pension reform amendment on the ballot for an Aug. 30 election. The vote promises to be the opening act at a drama that will likely put the city in the forefront of California’s labor and pension conflicts.

After more than two hours of public input during a Feb. 22 public hearing, the council voted 4-1 to return a section of the city charter to voters. That section established binding arbitration. Another section that restricts the ability of the council to reduce pension benefits, which would potentially open the door to a two-tier pension system, is also going back to the voting public. For the first time in the city’s history, a vote will be carried out by mail.

Councilman John Ashbaugh voted against the ballot measures, declaring that putting binding arbitration to a public vote was “a declaration of war on our employees.” He said he preferred to work with employees to help solve the city’s financial problems.

Councilmember Andrew Carter, who has established himself as a budget hawk and nemesis to the safety unions, was joined by Councilmembers Dan Carpenter, Kathy Smith, and Mayor Jan Marx in approving the ballot measures.

Smith said letting the public vote on the issue was an essential step for the city to get its financial house in order.

The atmosphere at the meeting was tense. Union supporters filled the back of the room, while most supporters of the ballot measures occupied the front seats. Of the 37 members of the public who spoke to the council, only four spoke against putting binding arbitration to a vote.

Firefighter Ray Hais said binding arbitration should only come before the people if citizens—not politicians—put it on the ballot.

“This does absolutely nothing to solve the [financial] problems,” Hais said to a hushed audience. “It will only strain the relationship between the city and its safety personnel.”

In the days before the vote, both fans and detractors of binding arbitration sent out pleas for reinforcements to join them at the meeting.

Erik Baskin, president of the firefighters union, sent an e-mail to union members to come and “stand in solidarity with your brothers and sisters in public safety.” The e-mail accused the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce of pushing a “few select members” of the council to put binding arbitration on the ballot.

“Their agenda is too [sic] take away our rights to a fair negotiations process so that they will be able to line their own pockets with money from special projects that benefit the few,” Baskin wrote.

The SLO Chamber of Commerce responded to this call for union muscle with its own mass e-mail to its members. Calling binding arbitration “undemocratic,” the e-mail called for chamber members to show up and urge the City Council to “let the voters decide whether to repeal or amend binding arbitration.”

Binding arbitration has been a simmering issue in city politics since it was enacted more than a decade ago. The process is triggered when the city and one of its safety unions reach an impasse during labor negotiations. Both parties agree on a mediator, who then looks at the positions from both sides and determines the outcome. In the SLO version, it’s a winner-take-all process.

SLO voters approved binding arbitration for police and firefighters in 2000. The police union is the only union that’s used binding arbitration since 2000, and it worked out well for the group. Union members got a 30 percent raise in 2008, a raise that cost the city $5.4 million that fiscal year with ongoing costs of $3 million a year.

Though the firefighters have never exercised the negotiating method, the threat of it has worked to their advantage, according to city negotiators.

Why all the fuss over an obscure negotiation technique? If SLO budget wonks are correct—and a stone-sober look at the numbers seems to show that they are—the city could run out of money to pay anything other than personnel costs in four or five years. Though the City Council can control how much money it spends in every other way, binding arbitration takes away its ability to control a major part of the budget, according to Carter, the councilman who asked to have the election amendments put on the ballot.

SLO is not alone in facing a conflict over binding arbitration. Whether on the city, county, or state level, government workers have been feeling the heat from politicians looking to reduce costs. Of the 117 California charter cities, 24 have some form of binding arbitration. Three cities—San Jose, Stockton, and Vallejo—have repealed or substantially weakened the method.

Local safety union members say they understand the financial problems facing the city, but they don’t like a small part of the public workforce getting the blame for a problem that’s much larger than binding arbitration.

“This is an assault on the working man,” a firefighter, who did not want his name published, said several days before the meeting. “We are the scapegoat for all the city’s problems. This is a war on middle-class benefits for the working guy.”

Contact Staff Writer Robert A. McDonald at rmcdonald@newtimesslo.com.

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