Wednesday, May 10, 2006 | EDITORIAL

“Firefighters, attorneys unions take it on the chin in contract deals with S.D.” read the news headline in The San Diego Union-Tribune Tuesday.

Wow. Poor unions.

The implication, of course, was that somebody punched them. That somebody was, apparently, the mayor.

“Mayor Jerry Sanders was able to persuade two unions to agree to contracts that actually reduce their members’ take-home pay,” the story reads.

So, did he “persuade” them or punch them? No matter. The truth is he did neither.

More than six months ago when Sanders and City Councilwoman Donna Frye were battling to be mayor, the two rivals shared one clear assumption: The city was facing a financial crisis.

It was refreshing. After years of denials about the problems the city faced, voters were guaranteed to elect a mayor who appreciated the extent of the crisis. But while both agreed that the city – if left unreformed – would face bankruptcy, they disagreed bitterly about how to change City Hall. Frye proposed tax increases along with a package of reforms.

Sanders, however, refused to consider a tax increase. He said the city could instead avoid bankruptcy by demanding concessions from the employee unions. In fact, he was proud of saying that he was the first to suggest using bankruptcy as a threat in order to bring the unions to their knees.

Now we’ve apparently moved on to a different world. The mayor has now finished negotiations with three employee unions and he did not secure, or even ask for, many of the concessions he said were necessary to keep the city from having to declare bankruptcy.

And he has not initiated, nor hinted of, any plans to lead the remaining two employee unions back to the negotiating table as he promised. The largest union of city employees, the Municipal Employees Association, or MEA, is entering its second year of a three-year contract negotiated by former Mayor Dick Murphy.

Despite his campaign rhetoric, Sanders has not approached the employee unions any differently than Murphy did. The firefighters did not receive raises in the contracts Murphy negotiated last year. And although they will pay slightly higher health care costs in the coming fiscal year, they are not alone in this country.

The truth is, San Diego’s firefighters did not “take it in the chin” this year any worse than they did when Murphy was in charge. In the same vein, Sanders’ reluctance to engage the MEA in the fierce discussions he promised months ago implies that he now actually approves of Murphy’s deal with that union.

What a change from last November. When Sanders was asked how soon he’d know whether the city should seriously consider bankruptcy, he said the month of May. By then, he said, he’d know the city would need to go into bankruptcy if the unions refused to come to the table.

It’s May. The largest city employee union has not come to the table and the police union frankly got up and walked away from it. Sanders did not threaten anyone with bankruptcy.

Sanders abandoned his campaign promises to increase the retirement age for all city employees. He quietly scrapped plans for a mandatory work furlough and a change in the way pensions are calculated.

The mayor may just be learning that it’s a lot easier to say things on a campaign trail than to actually follow through on them. It’s one thing to back away from campaign promises. It’s quite another to back away from campaign promises that are supposedly vital to the city’s fiscal health.

Unlike the Union-Tribune, some of us remember his campaign posturing. If he has decided the city should compensate firefighters and others better than he had planned, that’s fine. But, if he’s not going to increase taxes, Sanders should tell us how he plans to steer the city away from the fate he warned could only be avoided if the unions took a hit much more painful than what we’ve seen.

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