Collective bargaining for firefighters: yes, but... 

Voice of Reason

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You know that phrase, "fight fire with fire"?

Yes, it's a Metallica song. But before it was ever written into a weird, kickass amalgam of bass guitar and harpsichord, a version of it was penned by the Bard of Avon in King John.

"Be stirring as the time; be fire with fire; threaten the threatener and outface the brow of bragging honor," William Shakespeare wrote in the late 16th century.

Translation: Fight back using the same methods as one's attacker. Much as the local fire union is doing against a city it doesn't feel has given it a super fair shake.

Ballot measure 1 has area firefighters asking residents for the right to collectively bargain on items like wages, benefits, pensions and working conditions.

It's worth noting that state law prohibits firefighters from striking — a very good thing — and that the measure applies only to sworn members of the fire force, not the department's top brass or the civilian support staff.

We support the measure and a "yes" vote ... but we feel a little squishy about it.

According to union representatives, the initiative would ensure that firefighters have continuity of representation and a seat at the table regardless of who's in charge. Whenever the mayor or City Council changes, they argued, it impacts the force's dynamic with the executive leadership. This measure would help ensure members' voices are heard.

And who doesn't want to support that?

Look, we like the firefighters. We believe it is healthy for rank-and-file workers to have the chance to bargain on their own behalf for the best possible working conditions.

And there's no question that the department is understaffed, working with outdated equipment, and — thanks to the city delaying the addition of a station at Banning Lewis Ranch — running up against some very real barriers that could prevent them from responding in a timely manner.

So for the people who keep our city safe to have a voice at the table seems like a no-brainer, right? Until you consider the negatives. And there are some.

For one, Issue 1 applies only to firefighters, an already well-paid and influential segment of city employees. They would enjoy exclusive rights, and we wish the measure covered all city employees under a universal set of bargaining criteria.

Then there's the fact that, despite the shortage of staff and older equipment, it's not like the fire department has ever been ignored by the city. To the contrary, during the economic downturn when other departments were forced to tighten belts, fire department growth was just impacted by attrition. Unlike other city agencies, force numbers were never actually cut — a fact the union representatives readily acknowledge.

And lately the city has committed to growing its force by eight firefighters annually for each of the next four years (a $552,246 proposition in 2019 alone), while also working to bring its fleet up to date.

Third, we cringe at a stipulation that could force a special municipal election. The measure says that if the two sides can't reach an agreement, negotiations go to an independent third-party arbiter. If the arbiter's decision isn't accepted, the issue goes to a special public ballot. Special elections are incredibly expensive propositions — upwards of a half-million dollars — with historically very low voter turnout. It's a nuclear option that is intended to keep the bargainers at the table, but, boy, it's a costly one.

Our last, and probably most pressing, concern is broader than just the ballot issue in question. If just the sworn CSFD firefighters have the power to negotiate with the city, they will have disproportionate clout compared to other city workers. In reality, more for these employees could mean less for others.

City revenues are hamstrung by the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights. When the union inevitably goes to bat for pay raises or better pensions, where will the money come from? No one wants to say no to the team that runs into burning buildings or provides medical first response, so it's the smaller, less-sexy departments like long-term maintenance that would likely take the fiscal hit.

But despite our concerns, overall this measure is a needed step in the right direction. We vote yes.

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