In a dramatic 5-4 vote, the City Council decided on Monday night to give residents a chance to repeal a local law that empowers an arbitration panel to settle labor disputes between the city and its public-safety unions. The narrow vote came after a long debate and a surprising swing vote by Vice Mayor Yiaway Yeh. Council members Karen Holman, Greg Scharff, Pat Burt and Greg Schmid also voted to place the repeal on the ballot.
The drive to repeal the 1978 provision is already facing intense opposition from the firefighters union, which issued a statement Wednesday calling it "another attack on the basic rights of workers."
"Palo Alto is no Wisconsin," union President Tony Spitaleri said in a statement, referring to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's effort to take away the collective-bargaining rights of state employees.
"Unlike the City Council, Palo Alto voters value fairness," he said, adding that he expects the repeal to be rejected.
Last year, the union sponsored a ballot measure that would have frozen the staffing levels in the Fire Department and required Palo Alto to hold an election any time it wanted to reduce staff or close fire stations. Voters overwhelmingly defeated Measure R.
Monday's narrow vote came about a year after a similar proposal to repeal binding arbitration faltered at the council by a 4-5 vote, with Yeh voting against it. The other dissenters in last August's vote — Mayor Sid Espinosa, Gail Price, Larry Klein and Nancy Shepherd — once again rejected the idea of placing the repeal on the ballot.
Yeh said Monday that while he doesn't support the repeal, he believes an up and down vote on the provision would allow the community to send a clear message to the council.
"Voters do need to have an opportunity to actually weigh in on this issue," Yeh said.
In putting the repeal on the ballot, the council rejected an alternate measure that would have reformed rather than repealed the provision. Under the modification proposal, the arbitrators' scope would have been limited to compensation, and the panel would have been required to consider such factors as the city's financial projections and the costs of meeting the new contract.
The measure also would have set up new requirements for the panel's one neutral arbitrator (the other two panelists are chosen by the two sides). This arbitrator would have to be a California attorney who is a member of the National Academy of Arbitrators.
But Scharff and Holman argued Monday night that binding arbitration takes away the council's ability to manage the city's finances. Scharff said the law puts the city in an "untenable position" of not being able to balance its budget. He noted that the fiscal year 2012 budget the council passed last month includes a $4.3 million hole that city officials plan to fill with concessions from public-safety unions.
Holman agreed and said that while binding arbitration had only been used six times since the voters adopted it, its existence has significantly influenced the city's stances in its negotiations with police and firefighters.
"We really have been constrained by binding arbitration's presence because in order to avoid binding arbitration we have settled for something less than where we needed to be," Holman said.
The council coupled the repeal measure with a new ordinance requiring all disputes between the city and its labor unions (both public safety and non-public safety) to go to mandatory but non-binding mediation.
The clash over binding arbitration is occurring at a time when the city and the firefighters union remain at a standoff over a new contract. The two sides have been negotiating since May 2010 and remain at an impasse. The dispute is scheduled to go to arbitration in the fall.