Wednesday, May 04, 2005 | The City Council and San Diego’s four public employee unions have less than two weeks to finalize a labor agreement in order to avert impasse, and both parties are working in an atmosphere cluttered by other topics demanding City Hall’s attention.
Lawmakers and union officials say they are trying to concentrate above the din stirred up by the mayor’s resignation, the trial of two councilmen and the proposal of the tightest budget the city has faced in recent memory.
“The council is so unfocused right now, not that I blame them, but to put in the time to get these contracts done is going to take a lot of work,” said Judie Italiano, president and general manager of the Municipal Employees Association, which represents about 6,000 white-collar city workers.
Many say the labor negotiations will serve as one indicator of how the city will succeed in efforts to restore financial credibility. Gaining concessions from labor is a key element to Mayor Dick Murphy’s plan to solve financial problems stemming from the $1.37 billion pension deficit. Murphy set his resignation date as July 15 so he could oversee the labor talks and the passage of fiscal year 2006’s budget.
Union officials contend that cuts to employee benefits and salaries alone aren’t going to end the debacle.
“Here the city comes back with their hand out, asking for us to give back benefits we made payments on, and that’s not feasible,” said Bill Nemec, president of the San Diego Police Officers Association. “It’s hard for me to believe that paying the city’s workforce can bring it to its knees.”
Johnnie Perkins, director of government affairs for the Local 145 firefighters union, said Tuesday that the firefighters have agreed to a salary freeze for the next fiscal year. He said the salary freeze is essentially a pay cut when considering cost of living increases, and that he’d like to see the city make adjustments in other areas too.
“We’re willing to come 50 percent of the way, but the city needs to also,” Perkins said.
Councilmen Scott Peters said the city is considering other options in addition to cutting employee pay.
The council agreed unanimously in February to pursue contracts that included a two-year salary freeze for all employees, a two-year freeze on new benefits, cuts in medical benefits for retirees, a five-day unpaid work furlough for city workers and excluding new hires from the pension program for their first three years or adjusting several of the current factors.
Deputy City Manager Bruce Herring said the council met Tuesday night in a closed session to discuss labor negotiations and may meet Wednesday or Thursday as well to continue internal discussions. The council can only approve labor contracts at an open meeting, and Herring said they would not vote on agreements at next week’s open meetings.
The council has until late next week to make a final offer to the unions. In turn, each union may accept the terms, in which case the council approves the deal at the May 16 meeting.
If an impasse is reached, the unions who have not reached agreement may appear before the council May 16 to ask for further consideration. Both sides must agree to terms by May 17 or the council can unilaterally implement its final offer for one year.
Any compromise agreed to after May 17 in the event of an impasse would most likely become effective in fiscal year 2007, said Herring, who sits on the city’s negotiating team.
Italiano said MEA officials would meet with members the weekend before the impasse deadline to discuss the white-collar union’s course of action. Firefighters and police officers cannot strike, according to state law.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 127, the union representing the city’s blue-collar workers, did not return calls seeking comment of press time, but there have been hints recently that an impasse could urge the union to strike.
Councilman Michael Zucchet said he wants to negotiate before an impasse, but hinted at considering rolling back benefits as suggested by City Attorney Mike Aguirre if council members feel the union isn’t cooperating.
Voice Political Writer Andrew Donohue contributed to this story.
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