By Sarah Moore
Palo Alto citizens are set to vote Nov. 8 on Measure D, which proposes ending the mandatory binding arbitration for debates between public safety workers and management, which has been in place for 33 years.
This bargaining tool, in which a neutral third party settles disagreements with management, binds both parties to the decisions of the arbitrator. In more than three decades, binding arbitration has only been used in Palo Alto six times.
Advocates of Measure D argue that the city, not a third party, should have control of matters such as pensions and long-term benefits for city workers, while dissenters state that the measure will take away the collective bargaining rights of public safety workers.
Tues., Oct. 11, council members and the public assembled for a forum about the measure at City Hall. The city council voted 5-4 to put the issue on the ballot.
“[Binding arbitration] has been harmful in the past,” said councilman Greg Scharff. “The arbitrators are pretty pro-union, and it’s very difficult to make needed structural change.”
Scharff is joined by four other council members in supporting Measure D, while two oppose it and two more remain neutral on the subject.
Those individuals opposed to the measure believe that the main concern is not the ease with which the city makes structural change but the protection of the rights of public safety workers.
“Without this special form of binding arbitration, they end up having no bargaining power,” said Palo Alto community member and attorney Richard Alexander. “So without Measure D on the books, they can be forced to work under the terms and conditions dictated by the city. That includes not only hours and pay but working conditions, grievances and a whole range of labor issues.”
“We don’t like it because it takes away the collective bargaining rights of the fire fighters and the police officers,” said Palo Alto Fire Fighters Union President Tony Spitaleri. “We’re working with the city council members and community resources to get the message out.”
Nonetheless, proponents of the measure argue that the removal of binding arbitration will not leave public safety workers without representation.
“The public safety workers will have all of their collective bargaining rights,” Scharff said. “There’s a new bill that the governor just signed, that when you have a disagreement with…unionized employees in the public sector, you have to go through basically a nonbinding arbitration process.”
Scharff also noted that 95 percent of cities in California do not have binding arbitration.
As for other Palo Alto city unions, binding arbitration is not utilized as workers are allowed to strike in order to negotiate with management. Public safety workers are not permitted this type of protest.
One main divide between proponents and opponents of Measure D is a disagreement on what the fundamental issue of the measure itself is. Those on one side of the argument believe the main concern that voters should consider is the ability of the city to make key changes in the public safety system. Groups on the other side consider the issue at stake to be the entitlement of fire fighters and police to hold collective negotiations.
Furthermore, as Stanford pays for a third of the Palo Alto fire fighters’ payroll and a quarter of their costs for fire engines and other capital equipment, the decision that Palo Alto voters make on Measure D will dictate the process that decides how University money is spent.
Voters will see Measure D on their special election ballots Nov. 8, accompanied by the more highly publicized Measure E, which would allow 10 acres of Byxbee Park to be designated for the establishment of a waste-to-energy facility.