Union reps want city to come back to the bargaining table
Berkeley fire fighters want the city to know they are serious about renegotiating their 2000-2004 contract.
They showed up in full force at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, making a sea of blue several rows deep. Several fire fighters stood up to testify to the dedicated service and bravery of their colleagues in order to convince the city to give them a fair shake.
When the fire fighters negotiated their compensation package in 2000, they agreed to give up 7.75 percent of their wages each year to qualify immediately for a new benefits package enacted by the state of California called “3 percent at 50.”
In this new California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS), retirement benefits would amount to a certain percentage of a public safety officer’s highest year of earnings, determined by multiplying 3 percent times the number of years of service. The previous system gave public safety officers 2.5 percent at 50.
“At the time we were negotiating with the city, we knew that to enjoy the benefits, it would not be free. We’d have to give something up,” said Rick Guzman, who is president of the Berkeley Fire Fighters Association and has been a fire fighter for 16 years.
So Berkeley firefighters went two years with no raises – not even cost-of-living adjustments – so that members who were on the verge of retirement in 2000 could take advantage of the new program.
But when the police department settled their contract a year later, the city agreed not to trade cost-of-living adjustment raises for the CalPERS benefits.
“Basically, the cops got an increase in salary and the city to pay for CalPERS,” said Guzman.
But Randolph Files, president of the Berkeley Police Association, did not see it this way. “There was a trade-off of money versus time,” he said.
Although the two unions went into negotiations together, the fire fighters separated to negotiate a contract that would put the benefits in place in July 2000. Police officers’ benefits do not kick in until July of this year. Moreover, the police officers’ contract is also six-years long, while the fire fighters’ is four.
“You’re comparing oranges and jet-skis,” said David Hodgkins, Employee Relations Officer for the city.
“Everyone pays for it in one way or another. When you’re bargaining with unions, they see their interests differently. They carve up the money in different ways,” he said.
Nevertheless, said Guzman, “We’re pissed.” The fire fighters want to bring the city back to the bargaining table.
A “zipper clause” in contract negotiations, however, says that both sides must agree to come back to the table. The city can only re-enter negotiations if the City Council gives Human Resources the go-ahead. This is why the fire fighters were at Tuesday night’s meeting.
Although Mayor Shirley Dean proposed a resolution on Tuesday that would have immediately granted fire fighters a 7 percent pay raise effective this July, she withdrew her proposal. The City Council instead adopted Kriss Worthington’s proposal that the City Manager consider an “equitable policy in implementing new state retirement rules for firefighters and for all city employees” in the city’s regular budget process.
The union is now preparing information for city officials that will compare their compensation packages to those of other fire departments in the Bay Area. Guzman said it should be in the city’s hands by next week.
Fire fighters will know by April whether the City Manager puts their raise in his recommendations. The budget will be finalized in June by a City Council vote.
“This is super-fast-forward in government time for something that’s going to cost nearly a million dollars,” said Worthington.
Although he said he was sympathetic to the fire fighters’ request at the Tuesday meeting, he could not give them the money on the spot.
“That would not have been fiscally responsible. As elected officers know, there’s no instant gratification in government,” he said.
Hodgkins would not comment on whether he thought the existing contracts were fair or whether he wanted to re-open negotiations.
“I think we have a contract and I will abide by the conditions therein,” Hodgkins said. “I will do as the council directs.”
This isn’t enough for fire fighters. “They’re dragging their feet,” said Guzman. “First it was that, then it was this. Now they say they don’t have the money to do it,” said Guzman.
“I had a bad feeling about it when we signed the contract. I was afraid they would give it to the cops and change it on us.”
But the police officers, for their part, hope that the difference in contracts does not cause bad blood between the two unions. “They’re a labor union, so we support them,” said Files. “If they’re treated unfairly, we ask the city to treat them fairly, just like any labor group.”