Berkeley firefighters staged a one-day walkout last February to protest shortcomings in their labor contract, department officials acknowledged Friday. But they maintained that fire stations were fully manned throughout the protest and that the work stoppage never posed a threat to Berkeley residents.
“The fire department did not abandon the city,” said department spokesperson David Orth.
On Feb. 27, 26 firefighters called in sick and failed to report to their 8 a.m. shift. According to Orth, the firefighters already on duty were aware of the impending action, and worked a double shift to compensate for their colleagues’ absence. On a standard 10-hour shift 33 firefighters usually staff the city’s seven fire houses.
Firefighters, who have since renegotiated their contract to their liking, were angry that the city had recently inked a new contract with police officers that provided them with more lucrative benefits than those given firefighters in their four-year contract signed in 2000.
“It was a symbolic move regarding people who thought they were being treated unfairly,” Orth said.
City officials, however, said the move was unwarranted and caught them off guard.
Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who called the walkout “extreme and unnecessary,” noted that the previous night both council factions had expressed support for reopening the firefighter’s contract.
“It was a complete surprise,” said David Hodgkins, the city’s lead labor negotiator.
On the morning of the walkout the city manager’s office alerted Rick Guzman, president of Local 1227 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, that the city considered the walkout illegal. Staff also issued a memo to councilmembers alerting them of the situation, said Deputy City Manager Phil Kamlarz.
According to City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque state law prohibits emergency workers, such as police officers and firefighters, from striking.
Working on her advice, the city manager’s office decided not to grant sick pay to 24 of the 26 firefighters who missed their shift. Hodgkins said that a sterner response was considered but city officials decided not to escalate the confrontation. The union did not contest the city’s decision to dock the protesters a day’s pay.
Firefighters were angry about having to give up salary to join a new pension plan for public safety workers called “3 percent at 50.” In this California Public Employee’s Retirement System (CalPERS) retirement formula, benefits for a 50-year-old firefighter or police officer would amount to a certain percentage of that worker’s highest year of earnings, determined by multiplying the number of years of service by three.
The previous system gave public safety officers 2.5 percent at age 50.
To get the city to agree to the new formula during their negotiations in 2000, firefighters agreed to sacrifice 7.75 percent of wages. However, the following year, police officers won the same pension plan without surrendering any wages, which angered firefighters.
In the renegotiated contract approved by City Council Tuesday, the city gave firefighters a 7.6 percent raise. In return, firefighters agreed to extend the contract for two years, with annual raises of 5 percent in 2005 and 6 percent in 2006. The contract will cost the city $2.6 million over the next four years.
Guzman was not available to comment on the walkout, but last week expressed satisfaction with the new contract.
“Everyone is pretty ecstatic that this was accomplished,” he said.
Kamlarz said the February walkout did not force the city back to the bargaining table.
“Our concern was that we wanted to pay firefighters a fair wage so we can recruit and retain them,” he said. Under the previous contract, Berkeley firefighters earned less than the average paid by neighboring cities.
Contact reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org