Commentary: Hundreds Would Happily Take Fire Contract

weist-picketBy next week at this time, it is possible that the Davis firefighters will have a new contract imposed on them.  For the last eighteen months, the city of Davis has been battling its firefighters’ union trying to get them to take the same concessions that now all other city employees have taken, despite the fact that the bargaining unit is the best paid group of rank and file, non-management employees in the city.

Ironically, the city might be selling high, as hundreds of potential firefighters were willing to stand out in the cold for hours, just for a chance to apply.

On Tuesday, the city opened up recruitment for the Firefighter I position – the entry level position.  Applications were only taken on Tuesday starting at 8:30 a.m. at the Veteran’s Memorial Center.

The first 125 applicants will be given a written test immediately following the acceptance of their application.  By noon on Monday, already 15-20 people had lined up for the opening of the position, with some lining up as early as 5 a.m. on Monday.

The city reports about 300 individuals came looking for a spot.

At present, the Firefighter I position earns roughly $93,000 in salary and nearly the same in benefits.  So for an entry level position, the typical firefighter will make over $175,000 in total compensation – a figure that the council has been battling with the union to reduce.

If the union wants to argue that the city could not hire qualified firefighters at a reduced compensation, the attendance figures earlier this week suggests otherwise.

Certainly UC Davis has no problem attracting qualified firefighters at more than $20,000 less per year and $47,000 less for management employees.

As noted in last week’s debate over the shared management agreement, one of the chief hurdles to a full merger is the compensation discrepancy between university firefighters and city of Davis Firefighters.  It was the compensation issue that ultimately undid the 2010 merger agreement.

UC Davis Vice Chancellor John Meyer noted, “The culture of the rank and file firefighters is not rife for a full merger at this time. I don’t think you could get both labor groups to agree.”

“It would be a huge financial burden on the university to do a full merger at this point,” he said.

John Meyer added, “I don’t disagree by any means that that would be a best outcome. But I don’t think it can happen in one step. Without some of these interim steps, I don’t think the trust is built.”

In January of 2012, John Meyer “paused” the fire merger process, citing what he called a “significant compensation disparity” as a culprit.

“I am deeply concerned about the significant compensation disparity highlighted in the Citygate report,” he writes.  “The report suggests that UC Davis will increase its compensation in support of consolidation efforts. I believe such action would not be sustainable by UC Davis and should not be assumed in future planning.”

At the same time that the fire department is flush with applicants, and probably would be at UC Davis compensation levels, the city of Davis Police Department is struggling to fill positions that have been open for some time.

The Davis Police Officers’ Association was one of the employee groups that agreed to the concessions from the city back in December 2012.  When the firefighters were taking a huge pay increase in the mid-2000s decade, the police officers took a much more modest 18% increase.

Back in May, we noted that a firefighter in the city of Davis makes $7,748.10 per month in salary, while the police officer makes $6,752.37 per month in salary.

This is the base salary.  It does not include the tens of thousands of hours of their overtime, their pensions, their health care, their retirement health care, or their cafeteria cash outs.

Police officials are increasingly concerned about a rising wave of crime, punctuated earlier this year with a rash of burglaries and assaults and even some rare murders in the city.

The police are fearful that they lack the resources now to combat that crime, which is in part why they came en masse to city council back in September to counter pressure from the firefighters’ union.

The numbers on Tuesday demonstrate that the city would remain well protected, even at wages and benefits substantially lower than those that current employees have become accustomed to seeing.

The firefighters have been opposing all changes, bringing in a number of different tactics – most recently a petition against the shared management agreement between the city and university.  Union President Bobby Weist claimed last week to have 2000 signatures in hand, though the city has never received that petition and witnesses reported to the Vanguard that the firefighters were encouraging non-residents to sign it.

There were also two separate letters from public officials opposing the agreement.  However, the council approved it 3-2 last week.

The council published the results of fact-finding, and is expected to unanimously approve an imposition of the last, best and final offer.  If anything, the numbers on Tuesday demonstrated that perhaps the city is not asking for enough in concessions and that we could get very qualified firefighters at a much lower cost to the city.

As the city plunges deeper into the red in the next five years, this issue bears revisiting.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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    1. Rich Rifkin

      That’s not legal. The City of Davis has seniority protections. Also, it’s unfair to blame the current firefighters for the excessively expensive contracts they have been given. Keep in mind that it is the job of the union to fight for its members, much like a defense attorney is paid to fight for his client, even if the guy is guilty.

      The problem, in the past, was mostly that we elected people to the City Council who, one, allowed themselves to be corrupted by taking thousands of dollars in campaign aid from the fire union, and two, failed to fight for the best interests of the City of Davis in negotiations. Part of this, I believe, stems from having a pro-union ideology. (The Republican equivalent is often a pro-business bias, complemented by GOP politicians who take money from companies and then do their bidding against the public interest.)

      But even without corrupt negotiations, our problem in Davis has been made much worse by the extraordinary inflation of medical insurance. That keeps getting worse. The benefit in Davis is set to go up another 11.11% on January 1*. Additionally, our problem has been worsened by the continually increased rates to fund worker pensions. Aside from salaries, the pension funding and medical care costs (including for retirees) is the reason almost all California cities and counties are hugely in debt and many will go insolvent without very serious reforms.

      Hopefully, with the strong leadership we have had from S. Pinkerton and 3 current members of our city council, Davis will avoid bankruptcy and get our fiscal house in order. The shame of our fire contracts is not just that they threaten the solvency of our city. It is that the people who are most in need–low-income residents and employees in other departments who make far less than firefighters make–are primarily the ones who have been paying the price. Davis now employs about 100 fewer people than it did 5 years ago. Services are much worse. Our roads are in bad shape. A swimming pool has closed and others have much shorter hours. Other maintenance is in dire straits. Our debt to CalPERS is astronomic. It seems to me that if you are in favor of the general interest, you should be in favor of sustainable labor contracts, which inflate no faster than the city’s income grows. If not, more low-level employees will suffer and more services which are for the needy and for the general public will be cut.

      *This Calpers doc shows the rate increases:

      The rate in Davis for employees and retirees is set by the Kaiser Family Plan for the Sacramento region. The rate for our firefighters, however, uses the KFP–Bay Area, which is more costly.

        1. Rich Rifkin

          You’re right. We are one member away. And what is ironic is that the vast majority of voters in Davis don’t understand that or don’t care much if they do. Dan Wolk and Lucas Frerichs are, as you know, doing the bidding of the fire union, and those two are doing that because they KNOW that the people of Davis will never hold it against them. Dan is about to easily win his race for the Assembly–sorry Joe–and Lucas is positioning himself to win a seat as a supervisor, and then move on to the Assembly when Dan moves up. One of the main reasons those two have such bright futures in Democratic politics is because they have made it very clear to the powerful unions which run their party that they can be trusted to vote in favor of the powerful unions, no matter how bad that hurts the general interest. In my view, their position is logical. And that logic will not change until the people in general demand that elected officials fight for the public interest, not the special interest. I am not holding my breath expecting that to happen.

          1. Rich Rifkin

            One thing to keep in mind–I told this to one of the Council members recently who is on the 3-side of the 3-2 votes we are talking about–is that it is very easy to vote no on an issue as a parliamentarian if you know that the difficult vote will pass without your vote. Ordinary residents, who follow politics and appreciate the benefits of the passage of the issue, will give some credit to those who voted yes. But almost no one, as long as the vote is not reversed, will hold the no votes against the two who voted no. However, in cases like this one, there is a very powerful (in terms of money) special interest, with ties to other like-minded special interests which have great power in California, which will definitely hold their loss in a 3-2 vote against the 3 who voted yes, and that same special interest will give great credit, plaudits, and down the road support to the 2 who voted no, as long as those 2 are seen as reliable allies of the special interest in question.

            Given this, Lucas and Dan personally benefit from voting against these issues–like sharing a fire chief with UCD–and pay no price in our community, because they lost. That is the great value in losing 3-2 votes on issues like this. ….. On the other hand, if a parliamentarian loses lots of 3-2 votes because he is seen as ineffective in convincing his colleagues to vote his way, his supporters (or some of them) may in time come to believe that he is no longer an asset on the Council, because he lacks the personal skills to persuade a colleague to support his causes. I think this has happened in Davis politics to at least one member of the City Council who lost a lot of 3-2 votes.

  1. B. Nice

    Lucas did not strike me as a union patsy at the council meeting where the last best final offer was imposed on the DCEA. Out of all the council members I felt he spoke the most forcefully about the need to reform the pension system, and adjust health care buyout amounts.

    1. Rich Rifkin

      The DCEA is powerless. It does not have any power over the Democratic Party. The same cannot be said of the Davis fire union, which is affiliated with the CPF lobby*.

      Also, what a member says from the dais can at times diverge from what he does, what he says behind closed doors and how he ultimately votes. On every contentious issue with the firefighters in 2013, Lucas has been their strongest ally. He was the lone member who took their side with regard to the fire chief issue, when it first arose. (Dan Wolk later changed his vote, to join with Lucas, after the fire union told Dan’s closest supporters to sign a letter written for the fire union opposing the shared fire chief model.) Even though Dan and Lucas have been working hard to get Brett Lee to join with them to fire Steve Pinkerton, on behalf of the fire union, which hates Pinkerton, I don’t expect Dan and Lucas to vote against imposing contractual terms on the fire union. Doing so would actually hurt those two, because, as you noted, they were in favor of imposing terms on the DCEA. But, if they are successful–they just need Brett to get the job done–in running Pinkerton out of town, the fire union will ultimately start winning votes with the City Council, no matter how bad that is for the people of Davis and for the other City employees.

      Note that if a member of the legislature helps to kill a bill pushed by the CPF, that member will lose his positions on important committees. If you don’t believe me, ask Sen Lois Wolk.

      1. Rich Rifkin

        For the record, I discussed the situation in person with Lois after she was removed from the Local Government Committee in the wake of her voting against the CPF on the bankruptcy bill, which was co-authored by Mariko Yamada, who is a tool of the unions. I am not at liberty to tell you everything Lois told me. I simply point out to you that I discussed this matter with her after it took place. I have another source who was inside Sen. Steinberg’s office when Sen. Steinberg cooked up the lie, which the Bee published and this blog repeated, which said that the reason he removed Wolk from her Local Government position was because she didn’t vote his way on a Delta bill. Tellingly, Steinberg failed to remove her from the committee which passed his Delta bill.

        1. Davis Progressive

          fittingly labor has never been a big fan of wolk. it’s interesting to see if labor will support dan wolk or if they are simply angling to avoid labor coming out heavily for pope and pushing him in like they did yamada. that’s where i differ from you in 2008 cabaldon was supposed to win, but didn’t.

      2. B. Nice

        Do you have proof that: “the fire union told Dan’s closest supporters to sign a letter written for the fire union opposing the shared fire chief model” or are you assuming this to be true?

        What about this statement: “Even though Dan and Lucas have been working hard to get Brett Lee to join with them to fire Steve Pinkerton”. Again is this an assumption or do you have proof to back up this claim.

        Note, I’m just trying to separate facts from opinion/assumptions I’m not always sure on post which are which.

  2. Jim Frame

    I used to think that the leaders of Local 3494 were inexplicably blind to the negative effects (e.g., bad press, worsening relations with the City Council) of their persistent resistance to rational adjustment in Davis firefighter compensation, but now I’m wondering if Local 3494’s position is being dictated by the CPF state office in spite of a more realistic view on the part of local representatives. The statewide leadership may believe that if Local 3494 — a CPF success story if ever there was one — is seen as losing ground, other jurisdictions will be encouraged to press harder for fire budget cuts of their own. If true, this would help explain why Local 3494 has adopted such an inflexible negotiating stance when all the other bargaining units save DCEA (which has a legitimate — in my view — gripe about being tossed under the bus) have accepted the new budget reality.

    1. B. Nice

      It seems that both organization have put themselves in a lose lose situation by taking such a hard line stand against accepting what seem to be inevitable adjustments. They are going to have the adjustments forced upon them and they have lost public and to some extent council support to boot. Not good long term strategic planning by either organization.

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