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Firefighters Inflamed By Ballot Measure

Split vote Monday night pushes decision to repeal 1978 law to ballot.

Palo Alto and its firefighters are heading toward another clash at the ballot box this November after a Monday night move by the City Council to repeal a long-standing union negotiation law some members thought too restrictive.

The split vote sends the 1978 voter-approved binding-arbitration ordinance to the public, who will have the chance to kill it and place union negotiations under the framework of state law for both police and firefighters.

The move comes on the heels of over union labor contracts as the .

Only 22 of California's 480 municipalities, including Palo Alto, have adopted similar ordinances, all of them charter cities, City Manager James Keene said. When the two sides hit a stalemate under Palo Alto's current law, Keene said, the city and the union enter mandatory arbitration with a three-person panel, whose decision will be binding.

Each side chooses an advocate, and then they haggle over the third member, City Attorney Molly Stump said. The three-person panel can issue a binding decision between offers and demands, she said, striking a balance between a 3 percent and 2 percent salary increase, for example.  

Under state law, however, the city can issue a "last, best and final offer," to a union once impasse is declared and wait for a reaction, Keene said. The city declared impasse with the union in February, he said.

On Wednesday, Fire Fighter Union president Tony Spitaleri compared Monday's decision to a recent move by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to curb union power statewide, and said the measure will surely be defeated by voters in November.

"This is another attack on the basic rights of workers, just like the attacks on collective bargaining we have seen this year all around the country, " Spitaleri said. "Palo Alto is no Wisconsin. Unlike the City Council, Palo Alto voters value fairness."

Proponents of the law say it helps balance some disadvantages city safety employees face during negotiations for salary and benefits, namely the right to strike, which is illegal under state law for police and firefighters. If voters repeal it, the city will be able to force a contract on police and fire unions, Spitaleri said. 

Councilman Larry Klein agreed on Monday, but the council majority was less sympathetic. Councilman Pat Burt said Spitaleri's statements are hard to stomach.

"I think it is hard to claim that 95 percent of cities in the state of California have unfair labor negotiations, where they lack binding arbitration," Burt said. 

The campaign will be tricky in coming months. Keene said the city cannot spend tax dollars on the issue, while union members will have to campaign on their private time. Same goes for council members, he said, who are barred from using city resources to campaign for the election.

The Palo Alto firefighters union suffered an enormous defeat at the polls last November, after it placed an initiative on the ballot that would have taken salary and benefit demands out of city negotiations and placed them in voter hands.

Several former Palo Alto mayors came out against the effort, because of the fiscal impact, and Spitaleri on Wednesday described the referendum effort as a "means to balance the budget" at the expense of worker rights.

Should anything change, the city has until next week—or 83 days before the election—to yank the referendum from the ballot, Stump said. Meanwhile, mandated arbitration meetings between the city and the union will proceed in September and October, she said. A binding contract agreement in that time, she said, will hold regardless of voter outcome in November.

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