City, firefighter benefit dispute headed to arbitration
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.