Binding arbitration battle erupts

Members of the Gilroy Police Officers Association talk after the

Gilroy
–  The city’s public safety unions have made clear they will
fight to protect their strongest bargaining chip in labor
negotiations, but fire union representatives may be willing to
compromise on a current labor impasse.
Gilroy –  The city’s public safety unions have made clear they will fight to protect their strongest bargaining chip in labor negotiations, but fire union representatives may be willing to compromise on a current labor impasse.

Representatives for Fire Local #2805 offered city officials a new contract proposal Wednesday in an apparent effort to head off a politically explosive ballot fight. The day after, a union official told a perplexed group of councilmen that any ballot measure affecting binding arbitration, an impasse resolution procedure that relies on an independent third party, could not go before voters unless it first went through … binding arbitration.

“Our position,” fire union representative Ken Heredia said, “is that through various court decisions, anything that can affect our wages, hours or working conditions has to go through the normal ‘meet and confer’ process,” which ends in binding arbitration if parties fail to agree.

The argument met with skepticism among councilmen, who had gathered Thursday night to hear public comments on one of two proposed ballot measures – one that would repeal binding arbitration and another that would subject arbitrator decisions to voter approval.

“The position of the fire (union) is that we can’t do that unless the arbitrator allows us to do it?” Mayor Al Pinheiro asked. Councilmen Bob Dillon and Craig Gartman also had to ask for clarification.

Nearly two dozen members of the local fire and police unions attended the special meeting, but only Heredia and city labor attorney Charles Sakai spoke during a public comment period. One union member announced that they were awaiting the city’s next move.

In the meantime, Fire Local #2805 has made an attempt to return to the bargaining table before arbitration hearings begin in January 2006. Neither Heredia nor city officials would comment on the particulars of the new proposal, but Heredia said the union planned to disclose the details by Monday.

The city and fire union reached impasse in negotiations in spring, when city officials refused to budge on all but one of the union’s demands – an expensive retirement package that police already receive. The city offered a modified version of the program, which in its original form would allow firefighters to retire at age 50 with 90 percent of their pay.

It remains unclear if the fire union’s new offer will help avoid the ballot measure debate. Mayor Pinheiro has been the strongest critic of binding arbitration, arguing it gives a non-elected outsider control over the city’s financial fate. He has pushed for a ballot measure to repeal binding arbitration.

Other councilmen have focused on keeping unions at the negotiation table rather than eliminating arbitration. Councilmen Bob Dillon, Craig Gartman, and Charles Morales, all of whom are planning re-election bids in the fall, have stated their support for a third option they have dubbed the voter model. If successful, the measure would allow councilmen to declare arbitration decisions harmful to the city’s financial health and to send the matter to voters for final approval. If either ballot measure is approved in November, it could affect current labor negotiations, according to city attorneys.

Councilmen spent two hours in closed session Thursday night discussing the ballot measures in light of the fire union’s new contract proposal and its latest legal challenge.

In order to place a measure on the November ballot, councilmen would have to ratify and deliver it to the county registrar of voters by Aug. 12. They have scheduled an Aug. 11 special meeting.

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