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City, firefighter benefit dispute headed to arbitration

Submitted by on 1, August 13, 2010 – 5:05 am6 Comments

A dispute between Alameda’s firefighters and city officials over what firefighters believe may have been a unilateral and illegal move on the city’s part to shrink their future colleagues’ retiree medical and dental benefits is headed to arbitration following an Alameda County Superior Court ruling in the firefighters’ favor this week.

Judge Wynne Carvill decided Wednesday that a grievance filed by firefighters after the City Council voted in October 2009 to amend an ordinance spelling out their retiree health benefits – a grievance that firefighters said was effectively ignored by the city – should be examined by an arbitrator.

“All we ever wanted was to be negotiated with in good faith. What’s most disheartening is that the city chose to waste the taxpayers’ money on an illegal ordinance,” Domenick Weaver, president of Alameda’s firefighters union, said Thursday night.

City Attorney Teresa Highsmith could not be immediately reached for comment Thursday night. The city has 60 days to appeal the ruling.

On October 20, 2009, the City Council amended the 1990 ordinance that guarantees lifetime health benefits for public safety employees to say that benefits for future public safety employees would be “solely based” on the outcome of the bargaining process with the unions. Firefighters said they thought the ordinance may have effectively lifted future firefighters’ right to existing retiree benefits without the benefit of negotiations, which they believe is illegal.

The city is in the process of hiring a half-dozen fire personnel, including firefighters, after winning a federal jobs grant.

The firefighters submitted a grievance to Fire Chief David Kapler on December 11, which he rejected. They then appealed to Interim City Manager Ann Marie Gallant, who replied that the city had “no obligation … to bargain over the decision to bargain” over retiree health benefits and that the city had no plans to process the matter further. After asking Gallant to reconsider and getting no response, they went to court on May 28, Weaver said.

The city’s labor lawyers admitted the city refused to process the firefighters’ grievance, but they said they didn’t have to because the firefighters’ contract expired on January 2 of this year. And they claimed the ordinance didn’t impact the terms of the contract or existing employees.

“The ordinance amendments simply restate the city’s obligation to bargain over changes to the (contract) pertaining to retiree medical and dental benefits,” the city’s attorneys, Joe Wiley and Richard Shiohira wrote.

Judge Carvill sided with the union, saying the dispute should go to arbitration, though he said it was up to the arbitrator to decide whether the city’s decision to amend the ordinance was wrong. Still, he said the city could clear up the entire matter by giving the union the same assurances it offered up in court.

“If the city’s position is that all rights contained in the (contract) remain intact despite the amendments to the Ordinance, the Court is puzzled why the City did not provide the assurance requested by the Union in this regard,” Judge Carvill wrote. “If the City were to provide such an assurance to the Union, it is possible the dispute could be resolved without the need for arbitration. The Court leaves that matter to the parties.”

Highsmith told the council on October 20 that the ordinance was needed so that the city could negotiate cheaper retiree medical benefits with its public safety unions – something she said the city couldn’t do if public employee benefits were already set in an ordinance. She said the unions had agreed to review medical benefits for future employees “with the understanding of creating a second tier system,” meeting minutes show.

Highsmith wrote in a staff report that its annual cost for the benefits was $2.1 million and that an actuarial report released in December 2007 pegged the 30-year cost of the benefits at $75 million.

Weaver said the police and fire unions had agreed in their contracts to set up a labor-management committee to work out a new retiree benefits plan. But he said that when he contacted the city about setting up meetings, city officials never got back to him.

At its July 27 meeting, the council rejected a proposal by Gallant to ask voters to eliminate firefighters’ right to compulsory arbitration over financial disputes.

6 Comments »

  • Dave L. says:

    The Imperial City Manager strikes again.

    When does she apologize? If the DA throws out the Lena Tam charges, maybe then?

  • ct says:

    When the firefighters union submitted a public records request to the City concerning Interim City Manager Ann Marie Gallant’s recommendation to place three ballot measures (including the “proposal by Gallant to ask voters to eliminate firefighters’ right to compulsory arbitration over financial disputes”) on the November ballot, City Attorney Teresa Highsmith determined that “to the extent your request includes documents that are exempt from disclosure, it is denied.” As Lauren Do writes (laurendo.wordpress.com/2010/08/13/shrouded-in-secrecy/), “Apparently, even though the populace of Alameda was expected to vote on these pet ballot measures of the interim city manager, we aren’t allowed to understand why and how this all came about.” Referring to Ms Ellson’s article above, Ms Do also says, “It appears that the rush [to place the three measures on the November ballot] might have been to circumvent a ruling by a judge, such as this one, which would force the City to actually talk to its union, instead of blowing them off.”

  • Michele: Great, important report. It’s this kind of stuff that we need to do something about and it’s the reason I have decided to run for a seat on the City Council. Simply put, Alamedans deserve better government. We deserve a city government and staff that values openness and transparency over politics. Our employee unions are being treated by Ann Marie Gallant like they were the enemy and that’s just not right. These are the same men and women that respond in the middle of the night when you dial 911, fill our potholes, care for our parks and make our water and sewer systems run. They deserve to be treated courteously and professionally when it comes to contract negotiations. I would encourage those interested to go to my campaign website and check out my platform and what I stand for. Thanks!

  • Jon Spangler says:

    Judge Carvill “is puzzled” over the City’s intransigence/stonewalling/failure to negotiate (Never mind in good faith):

    “If the city’s position is that all rights contained in the (contract) remain intact despite the amendments to the Ordinance, the Court is puzzled why the City did not provide the assurance requested by the Union in this regard,” Judge Carvill wrote. “If the City were to provide such an assurance to the Union, it is possible the dispute could be resolved without the need for arbitration. The Court leaves that matter to the parties.”

    Where have we seen this kind of obfuscation and blundering anti-negotiation stance before?

    And where did it get us this time? Into binding arbitration, with even less control over the city’s budget than before. I find very little evidence of reasonable behavior on the part of the city staff or their labor attorneys here. I think we should hire people who are willing to talk to the people they are legally required to talk to….

  • K Sanderberg says:

    IAFF is breaking the backs of communities across the state. I am a dyed-in-the-wool union advocate, but NOT when the union becomes a selfish, money-making institution that puts its members’ livelihood over that of the community at large. I’ve worked in public safety and must say I have never seen a whinier bunch of people than the firefighters I’ve worked with in any jurisdictions. Some of my friends and neighbors work in fire service and they are truly a glass-half-full bunch.

    How many fire staffers actually lost their jobs to layoffs in Alameda during any of the reductions in force where maintenance workers, line workers, and support staff were cut? The only fire personnel that separated from city employment were those that were set to retire. The SAFER grant money will swell their ranks further. Wish there were a SAFER grant for rank-and-file employees…or even teachers.

    Those who would blame the current city administration for trying to keep the city afloat through this fiscal situation probably turned a blind eye to the Flint regime when it granted city-paid benefits for life to safety and their dependents (along with a me-too clause that ensured the then manager, clerk, and attorney would share in the spoils). I don’t particularly care to give money hand over fist to a group of greedy hustlers who in all actuality put themselves ahead of the community.

  • ct says:

    Mr Sanderberg’s statement that he doesn’t “particularly care to give money hand over fist to a group of greedy hustlers who in all actuality put themselves ahead of the community” could apply to those city officials who didn’t care to even meet with the firefighters union. That’s part of their job, to negotiate on behalf of the city, but perhaps these city officials are too busy juggling all the various outside attorneys hired to ferret out legal reasoning that supports their official mandates; finding justifications to deny public requests for information; attempting to silence a council member who champions increased transparency in government.

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