Firefighters blast Palo Alto's labor-reform measure | July 22, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - July 22, 2011

Firefighters blast Palo Alto's labor-reform measure

Union opposes city's effort to strike binding-arbitration provision from City Charter

by Gennady Sheyner

For the second straight year, Palo Alto voters will find themselves in the midst of a heated labor battle between their elected officials and the city's firefighters.

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In putting the repeal on the ballot, the council rejected an alternate measure that would have reformed rather than repealed the provision.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.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at


Posted by Ernesto, a resident of Ventura
on Jul 22, 2011 at 9:07 am

Big surprise: special interest number one is complaining that its taxpayer funded gravy train is about to take a hit.

Tony Spitaleri [portion removed by Palo Alto Online] treats the taxpaying public like a piggy bank responsible for overpaying and overstaffing his department. A recent Santa Clara county grand jury report identified overtime abuse, overstaffing, and a host of other issues that are costing cities money. Spitaleri's response was not to accept this feedback and look for efficiency but rather to blast the jury as biased.

Firefighters should make about half what the Police make. Cops don't get paid to sleep away large portion of their shifts, and perform a much more dangerous job.

Posted by We're-All-Wisconsonians-Now, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 22, 2011 at 9:44 am

> "Palo Alto is no Wisconsin," union President Tony Spitaleri said ..

We'll see, Tony .. we'll see ..

Posted by DeAngelo, a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 22, 2011 at 10:18 am

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names.]

Posted by citizen, a resident of Community Center
on Jul 22, 2011 at 10:32 am

Just witnessed yesterday, fyi: In South Palo Alto, on Bryant Avenue, six--six!--PA police cars and two fire engines treating what to all appearances looked like an old man who'd had some heart trouble (he was sitting on a stool in the driveway, getting attention).

Posted by angry, a resident of Monroe Park
on Jul 22, 2011 at 10:44 am

Yah,I have heard he had an argument with his loved one,he felt hurt and had heart trouble,I am so thank for for our fire fighters to save him.

Posted by Charles, a resident of Triple El
on Jul 22, 2011 at 10:48 am

One thing I have learned over the years is that if Spitaleri is against it, then I am for it. His dogged pursuit of special interest politics has destroyed the credibility and eroded the goodwill once enjoyed by firefighters in Palo Alto. How much longer will they continue supporting him as their leader and spokesman?

Posted by Barron Parker, a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 22, 2011 at 11:14 am

Fire department union boss Spitaleri's last effort to take us for chumps earned him a resounding defeat: 75% of the vote. His over-the-top advocacy against the public interest will earn him a similar defeat on the arbitration issue in November. And in that respect, he serves all of us, rather than the fire department. I hope he continues to represent them.

Posted by Jon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 22, 2011 at 11:18 am

I agree with Charles. I would have been against this 18 mths ago but with Tony's incredible behavior last year on R and this year on staffing, he's just not reasonable and at significant odds with behavior of other city groups like the police. Time we sent a signal to the firefighters that they are not well served by such an unreasonable leader.

Posted by common sense, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 22, 2011 at 11:19 am

It was quite an interesting discussion at the city council meeting. Around 1 hour 15 minutes into the discussion, Yeh made clear he was going with the Repeal ballot measure rather than the Arbitration-lite ballot measure. A couple of more council members spoke, and then Scharf said something like "Council member Holman said what I was going to say, I call for the quesiton (vote)".

Espinosa, who is against repeal denied Scharff's motion to vote, and Burt objected. The council then consulted with the City Clerk & the City Attorney on the meeting rules, which didn't provide any guidance. Espinosa then proceeded to let several of the Arbitration-lite supporters (Price, Klein) speak to try and change Yeh's mind. Yeh stood his ground, and re-iterated his reasons for voting for putting the Repeal measure on the Ballot. I applaud Yeh for letting the voters decide this issue, even though he doesn't support it.

I was really impressed with Holman's arguement that 1) we want to be fair to the city employees, 2) the council's primary responsibility is to the residents of Palo Alto, so the council needs to take responsibility for the budget, and not put it in the hands of an un-elected arbitrator.

It also gives an insight into the Klein, Price, Shepard & Espinosa, who I felt viewed themselves as "rulers" of Palo Alto voters vs Holman, who views herself as a servant of the voters.

Posted by common sense, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 22, 2011 at 11:48 am

One other interesting comment from Council member Shepard - she said during the discussion that she wishes she could do away with Prop 13 and raise taxes. Interesting solution to the budget and fiscal problems that the city has with fire fighters.

Posted by Taxpayer, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 22, 2011 at 11:48 am

I am really curious what the rank & file PA fire safety employees think about all of this. I think they are overpaid, underworked, and overstaffed, and being represented by a person who is taking them down a risky path. I also think many of them are probably pretty good folks who like the work they do and take pride in doing a good job. I'm wondering if they realize what Spitaleri's actions are doing to their relationship with the community. It probably varies by individual but I could see three views:
1.) we are worth all the $'s and Spitaleri is doing the right thing
2.) I know we have been on a gravy train for a while and Spitaleri should try and keep it going as long as the voters put up with this
3.) we are totally overpaid & underworked, and now Spitaleri is creating a situation that is totally damaging our reputation with the community.
My personal view is most of them are at #2 but option #3 must be clearly developing.

Posted by JA3+, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 22, 2011 at 12:11 pm

If Mayor Sid Espinosa & Council Members Gail Price, Larry Klein and Nancy Shepherd do not change their approach here, they may each find the next election a touch difficult.

This issue seems clear from a political perspective: Palo Alto spoke loudly last year, turning away Tony's ballot measure.

It's high time to repeal binding arbitration here; it's been tried and it's failed here in Palo Alto.

Palo Alto may not be Wisconsin; but many Palo Alto residents are deeply concerned over the PAFD.

I sincerely hope the City soon considers consolidation of the PAFD with other local fire agencies. The time has come to give this serious consideration.

Posted by citizen, a resident of Community Center
on Jul 22, 2011 at 1:29 pm

Perhaps the point's been made--I haven't been through every single post--but shouldn't there be a clear distinction between what happened in Wisconsin--which was eliminating collective bargaining, and what is being proposed here: eliminating binding arbitration. They are two different things. If I understand correctly, no one is suggesting that public safety employees cannot continue to collectively bargain with Palo Alto.

Posted by best, a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 22, 2011 at 1:59 pm

I think the Wisconsin union did the right thing, it is a matter of wasting times when pa has this endless bargaining.If the old thing/method/people are not let go, then we will have no chance to welcome new ideas/people/progress.

Posted by citizen, a resident of Community Center
on Jul 22, 2011 at 2:58 pm

Though maybe the further point should be made--what leverage do the employees have in collective bargaining, if they retain it? I'm generally on managment's side here, but I also feel that employees generally should have some power to negotiate their conditions, pay, etc. If binding arbitration is eliminated, what "power" do the employees retain? Perhaps someone can explain this.

Posted by thinking, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 22, 2011 at 3:12 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names.]

Posted by Reasonable means?, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 22, 2011 at 4:40 pm

What is arbitration? As I understand it each side chooses a representative and then agrees on a mutual agreed on arbitrator.

City Council member Larry Klein who rides the conservative rail has said that the fire department should have the ability to arbitrate.

Arbitration goes beyond an organizations "privilege" ...arbitration is an intelligent and legal means to resolve issues for the understanding of both parties and future of the enterprise.

The city of Palo Alto residents who have responded on this issue in this venue appear overtly hostile and have an apparent lack of understanding as to the role and performance of police and fire.

A police chief in Wisconsin said. "If the public decided our pay and benefits, we'd have minimun wage and a ham sandwich for retirement".

I'm not saying changes can't be made...but the one sided hostile reaction of the respondents here - should be reconsidered.

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton
on Jul 22, 2011 at 4:44 pm

There is nothing 'hostile' about insisting that elected officials not abrogate their responsibility to an unelected arbitrator who would have the power to bind the city to unsupportable wages and benefits.

Posted by Loren Pepple II, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 22, 2011 at 5:54 pm

So, we want to spend money on unwanted California Ave tree removal, BIG party bashes, and rusty steele (art), but not on vital services such as fire, police, ambulance, the things we need when there is trouble. Smart. I am a firefighter myself. Cut what is not really needed and is an extra perk. Not the things we really need. Be smart, not selfish.

Posted by Taxpayer, a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 22, 2011 at 5:58 pm

There is very little public anger directed at the flexible, reasonably paid Police here, who do a very hard, dangerous job that doesn't involve being paid to sleep and respond to mostly routine medical calls. Defenders such as "Reasonable means" of the bloated, inefficient, hyper-political fire union, the real target of the public anger, will often try to lump Police and Fire together for political purposes.

Posted by contract, a resident of Meadow Park
on Jul 22, 2011 at 6:05 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

Posted by George, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jul 22, 2011 at 6:29 pm

When job applicants stop lining up around the block for every Palo Alto police and fire opening, you'll know Palo Alto pay and benefits are lower than they should be. Never going to happen.

We are light years away from that situation today. Last year's overwhelming 75% voter rebuke of the Tony Spitaleri firefighter feather-bedding initiative proved that.

Eliminating binding arbitration from Palo Alto rules is the fair and reasonable way to go.

Posted by David Pepperdine, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 22, 2011 at 6:41 pm

This is pretty simple.

The whole US economy is hurting and has had to use technology to become more efficient. This includes moving a bunch of retail online, moving call centers overseas, and using automation to perform various functions formerly done by people. If firefighters' leadership (Spitaleri & Co.) cannot look critically at their responsibilities and figure out appropriate efficiencies, then the city council and voters will get in front of them and lead the way.

Just like every other sector of society, from airlines, to booksellers, to healthcare, firefighters need to focus on effective value-added. This is especially important for a government-supported agency since that burdens the rest of the economy with cost.

Palo Alto citizens would value firefighters much more if they approached their jobs and remuneration and responsibilities from this perspective rather than the current wage, benefit and retirement entitlement obsession - which citizens despise.

Posted by pick, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 22, 2011 at 7:39 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

Posted by George Browning, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jul 22, 2011 at 9:54 pm

As usual Peter Carpenter makes a rational, succinct statement.

Citizen: Remember both police and fire are in constant contact with the dispatch center. If any equipment or personnel is needed elsewhere, they can be sent there at once. They don't have to be in one central location to reach anywhere in Palo Alto in a few minutes.

Most cities don't have binding arbitration and seem to reach equitable agreements with their service personnel. I believe our Council members are reasonable people and won't try to give them "minimum wage and a ham sandwich".

Posted by contact, a resident of Meadow Park
on Jul 22, 2011 at 10:15 pm

If this thing is so important to you,why can not you contact union via email,tell them.

Posted by John, a resident of Meadow Park
on Jul 24, 2011 at 12:42 am

""Unlike the City Council, Palo Alto voters value fairness," he said, adding that he expects the repeal to be rejected."

In all fairness wee will vote for the repeal of binding atbitration.
Unions are ruining the country.

Posted by city council, a resident of Meadow Park
on Jul 24, 2011 at 7:07 am

peter---But our city council loves abrogating their responsibilities so that they then do not have to be held accountable.

Posted by yep, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 24, 2011 at 8:04 am

"Unlike the City Council, Palo Alto voters value fairness,"
Yes, we do and we expect our City Council to be fair. How is binding arbitration fair?

Posted by Frank, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jul 24, 2011 at 8:18 pm

PA Firefighters- the gravy train is coming to a end. Time to get off!

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