Fire union fires back at city in bitter negotiations

 

The city and fire union’s salary negotiations, normally held
behind closed doors, have escalated into an acrimonious and public
battle. While the city claims the union is using

delay tactics

to ensure they receive a 10 percent raise during the next nine
months, the union has said that the city has gone back on verbal
agreements and is casting the union in an unfair light.
The city and fire union’s salary negotiations, normally held behind closed doors, have escalated into an acrimonious and public battle. While the city claims the union is using “delay tactics” to ensure they receive a 10 percent raise during the next nine months, the union has said that the city has gone back on verbal agreements and is casting the union in an unfair light.

Gilroy city officials issued a statement Tuesday evening slamming the city’s firefighters union for “delay tactics” in its negotiations with the City of Gilroy.

“I think it’s unconscionable,” Councilman Perry Woodward said regarding the firefighters’ stance in the prepared statement. “Just last week, the firefighters wrote a letter to the editor (of the Gilroy Dispatch) implying that they were negotiating with us – I think that includes responding to the city’s proposal in a reasonable timeframe. That’s just not what’s happening.”

The city’s prepared statement claims that the International Association of Firefighters Local 2805 has been willing to meet with the city, but that the union “has not provided a constructive response, or even made the effort to provide a counterproposal.” As a result of the failed negotiations, the council voted 6-1 to revert to a two-station model and to close the Sunrise Station in northwest Gilroy during most of the next fiscal year. Councilman Peter Arellano cast the dissenting vote.

Less than 24 hours later, Local 2805 President Joshua Valverde fired back with a letter to City Administrator Tom Haglund that took aim at the city for breaking tradition by revealing closed-session contract discussions and proposals to the media. He said the union was willing to make concessions but needed to receive more budgetary information from the city before that could happen.

“It is very disheartening that the message being sent to City Council would give them the assumption that we are delaying the process,” Valverde stated in the letter. “The assumption being asserted that we will not be willing to continue concessions for (fiscal year 2010-11) is appalling.” Fiscal year 2010-11 runs from July 1, 2010, to June 30, 2011.

The fire union made a one-year concession agreement with the city last year for this current fiscal year that included savings to the city of about $500,000. If that concession agreement is not extended, city officials said Local 2805 members will receive an 8.44 percent increase in compensation starting July 1, plus an additional 1.5 percent salary increase at the beginning of 2011.

Jim Buessing, secretary and treasurer for Local 2805, expressed surprise at the contents of the city news release, particularly the information about demoting fire staff and closing Sunrise Station.

“I see it as a threat upon Local 2805,” Buessing said.

He also said he was surprised that the council decided in closed session to close Sunrise Station.

“It upsets us, when we try to come negotiate in good faith with no obligation to do so,” Buessing said.

Local 2805 and city officials met Monday for the fourth time since November to discuss possible concessions, although two of those sessions were devoted solely to staffing issues. The city initially met with the union in November to discuss reducing the required number of firefighters on an engine as a way to reduce temporary closures due to staff shortages at the Sunrise Station in northwest Gilroy. The station has mostly been closed since the city began implementing “brownouts” there in November. City officials say they could keep the station open if they were able to reduce staffing ratios from four firefighters to an engine to three firefighters. However, union officials have said in the past that maintaining at least four firefighters to an engine is a safety issue.

The city and fire union met again Dec. 1 and Feb. 9, when the city indicated that it would seek budget concessions as part of any discussion over increasing the city’s staffing model.

City officials said they provided budget information and made a formal proposal Monday to extend this fiscal year’s concessions into next fiscal year. However, Local 2805 has not provided a counterproposal.

As a result, the City Council has opted to change to a two-station model for the City of Gilroy for the upcoming fiscal year. The Sunrise Station only would be open in an “overstaff” situation, city officials said. To accomplish that staffing model, three fire captains and three fire engineers will be demoted to the rank of a firefighter.

Buessing said those were the only concessions that the two parties agreed to renegotiate. The city and fire union only agreed to reopen negotiations for fiscal year 2010-11 for a city “residency requirement,” in which firefighters must live within a certain response time of the city of Gilroy, and for “furlough leave/salary reductions,” he said.

Both he and Valverde said a continuation of all of last year’s concessions would amount to double the concessions the union and city had agreed to as possible for the next fiscal year.

Local 2805 received the city’s first written proposal Thursday morning, providing an inadequate amount of time for the union to respond, Buessing said.

Valverde’s letter said that the written proposal differed from the verbal proposal that negotiations counsel Charles Sakai presented to the union in February. Buessing said the council had verbally agreed at that time to spend an additional $300,000 out of the city’s general fund in exchange for having three firefighters per engine at each of the three fire stations. Then, the $300,000 was eliminated from the written agreement, he said.

The city did not have a record of a formal council vote on this matter.

Last year, the city and fire union did not come to a signed concessions agreement until July 7.

“The council is trying to rush this through, and we do not understand why,” Buessing said.

It was still unclear whether the city would have a budget shortfall or surplus during the next fiscal year, he said.

“The answers to the questions we have are not available till May due to their budget situation, not ours,” Buessing said.

Mayor Al Pinheiro stressed that the rush is that the city must make financial decisions and hopes to avoid any “last-minute surprises.”

If the city had taken a wait-and-see attitude in November 2008 when it authorized financial cutbacks, then it would be in a far less financially stable situation today, Pinheiro said.

“We need to get this under our belt to make sure that the city of Gilroy is a better place,” he said.

Councilman Dion Bracco indicated that there is no evidence that the budget will improve substantially this year.

“There wasn’t a good shopping season, we haven’t seen an upswing in business,” Bracco said. “There are not any real indicators that we’re coming out of this, so we have to prepare the city for the long haul.”

Even if the budget situation does improve, several council members said the firefighters should not have first dibs on any budget surplus.

“We’ve got a AA bond rating,” Woodward said of the city. “I don’t think we want to give that up just to give the firefighters a 10 percent raise.”

Pinheiro said the Gilroy Management Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees have both agreed to two years of concessions, while Local 2805 agreed to one. The city plans to meet with the Police Officers Association this spring to negotiate a new contract.

“All we are asking is that they hold their wages at the level that they have today – that’s the same thing that our managers and non-safety employees already agreed to,” Pinheiro said in a prepared statement.

Councilman Craig Gartman said that although technically the union had not received a written proposal until last week, he said, they have known about the contents of the proposal for some time.

“Do we really need to put that in writing?” Gartman asked. “I mean, these are smart people.”

Arellano, the lone dissenter during Monday’s vote, said Wednesday that he could not speak specifically about the city news release, as he had not seen it yet. Council members discussed a number of matters during the closed session. However, he expressed concern about the closure of Sunrise Station and what he feared would be potential layoffs.

Although no layoffs were included in the plan approved by the council, Gartman said the demotions could lead some fire staff to lose their jobs because of “bumping privileges.”

However, he said the city was forced to choose between a strong two-station model or a weak three-station model.

Tensions between Local 2805 and the city have been high since the Sunrise Station began experiencing brownout days in November. At the time, Local 2805 members passed out fliers blaming the city for Sunrise’s closure. City officials responded with a prepared statement that indicated that the closures resulted from a concessions agreement to which all parties had agreed. It said brownouts could be eliminated if engine staffing requirements were reduced.

Earlier this month, Woodward requested that the city take another look at a ballot measure to strip firefighters of the right to binding arbitration – which allows firefighters to call in a third-party arbiter at any point during negotiations to decide which proposal, that of the city or the fire union, to accept. The arbiter’s decision is final and further negotiations are only optional at both parties’ agreement.

Following Woodward’s attempted revival, Local 2805’s executive board fired back with a letter to the editor.

“Firefighters continue to meet in good faith over apparatus staffing, trying to get real answers to real issues that surround any operational change that effects the wages, hours and working conditions of its members,” the letter stated. “To date, we have received very limited and conceptual information with no real substance.”

However, council members say those meetings have been unproductive.

“Yes they are meeting. Yes they are talking,” Gartman said. “But we have yet to see any action from the firefighters. Essentially, we’re not involved in any dialogue with them because they want to see what happens with the economy down road. To me, that’s a lack of response. We’ve made the offer. They’re forcing our hand.”

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