Vanguard Commentary: Impasse Does Not Go Far Enough

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firefighters-friends-of-2On Tuesday, the council, as expected, imposed the last, best, and final offer on the firefighters’ union.  While, naturally, the union president Bobby Weist (see his comments in the video below), put up a cursory, rhetorical fight against the contract, the body language suggests that the firefighters were prepared for this and ultimately accepting of it.

Part of that can be parsed from the words of negotiator Tim Yeung and the union president himself.  While Mr. Yeung indicated he was disappointed a compromise could not be reached and noted an agreement was close each time, Bobby Weist argued the line from DCEA, that it never felt like a negotiation – nevertheless, he too indicated that in his meetings with Mr. Yeung, they had movement.

In the end, it seemed like the firefighters accepted their fate.  They did not pack the halls, they did not line up to all speak, they gave their murmur of protest and then went about their business.

I raise this point because our friend and commentator Mr. Toad believes otherwise.  He argued, “Oh just think if there had been any no votes. How you all would have screamed. What do we hear instead of praise it’s the din of one hand clapping.”  He wrote last night, “I want them all praised for doing the right thing on the biggest vote of them all and I want all you bashers to admit you were wrong about Lucas and Dan.”

One councilmember in a text suggested that this action suggests that two of the councilmembers are not in the pockets of or puppets of the firefighters.

I want to clarify this point before moving on – I do not believe that either Lucas Frerichs or Dan Wolk are in the pockets of the firefighters, nor do I believe them to be puppets of the firefighters.  I do believe that some of their votes were politically calculated, however.

Nevertheless, I disagree that the vote on impasse was the measuring stick that Mr. Toad or some of the councilmembers believe it to be.

As I noted in the paragraphs above – the body language of the firefighters’ union president suggested this was not a war, it was murmur of protest.  Compare that to the tactics they have used in the last year where they have created a Friends of the Firefighters, walked precincts, held public meetings, collected signatures, had a no confidence vote in the chief, and solicited, it would appear, letters from key public officials.

The striking thing about all of those actions?  Not one of them was focused on the negotiations.  Not one of them argued against the contract, or impasse.

The battle line for the firefighters was on the front of staffing cuts and shared management.

Based on their actions, their body language and their words, I would have to come to the conclusion that, contrary to the position of Mr. Toad, this was not the most important vote.  On both fire staffing and shared management, the final votes were 3-2 with Lucas Frerichs and Dan Wolk dissenting.

Aside from the firefighters’ assessment of the importance of impasse versus the other two issues, my view is that the other two issues bear far more importance.  I will argue in a moment that the impasse issue is the preservation of the status quo, whereas the staffing cuts and shared management seek to undo the excesses of the past 15 years.

There are, in my thinking, three key acts of council – on the fiscal side as opposed to the 3-2 vote to not read the Aaronson report – that need to be undone.  First, is 3% at 50 that was implemented in 1999.  Second, is the four on an engine that was implemented around the same time.  Finally, was the huge salary increase in the 2005-2009 MOU.

Impasse does not deal with any of those critical issues.  Even creating a second-tiered pension rate could not be achieved outside of an agreement of the collective bargaining process.

All impasse did is force the firefighters to take concessions on retiree health, cafeteria cash out and the employee and employer share of the PERS increases.  This issue brought the union to status quo with the other bargaining units.

What it did not do is undo the inequity of the firefighters versus the other units.

When the issue of the shared management came up a few weeks ago, the firefighters supported something closer to what we had in 2010 – a full merger under the flagship of the city with a city-hired fire chief.

But as Vice Chancellor John Meyer explained, we are not ready for a merger.

He 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.”

The reality is that the Davis firefighters make around 25% more than the UC Davis firefighters.  The people who waited for hours in the cold, when some are hired, will make $175,000 in total compensation, far outstripping their counterparts at UC Davis and also other neighboring communities.

One of the councilmembers I spoke to this week lamented the fact that the MOU did not address that disparity of pay.

For these reason, I believe that the vote on impasse was one of the least important votes that the council took in this area, that it was largely a status quo vote – it imposed on the fire what the other units took and failed to address the excesses of the last 14 years.

The tougher votes were staffing cuts and the shared management.  While I believe the MOU is a good start, we need to work hard to get the firefighters’ compensation in line with what UC Davis pays in order for us to enjoy the benefits of a full merger.

We agree with the Vice Chancellor that this would be “a best outcome.”  But we also agree that we are not ready for it to happen now.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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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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26 thoughts on “Vanguard Commentary: Impasse Does Not Go Far Enough”

  1. Mr.Toad

    Well it took you only two days to go from one hand clapping to Bronx cheer. You want to get rid of 3% at 50 and suppose that the Davis city council should lead the way on this for the entire state. Even the measure Chuck Reed pushed through only lowered the retirement benefit for new hires without touching those for existing staff. Our existing FF’s got the same deal San Jose did, a choice of lower pay or higher contributions.

    You also discount the importance of the cost of retiree health costs and medical benefit cash out but these result in large savings with retiree health premiums being the elephant in the room.

    You suggest that the firefighters should get a 25% reduction in pay to make a merger possible with UC but that is not how the process works. Imposing means your last best offer is put in place so arguing for a reduction that big was never a possibility because it was never on the table and still isn’t going forward. I doubt anyone beside yourself would publicly suggest such a cut. In fact, the best you could come up with is a lament made privately by a single unnamed CC member. Not even Chuck Reed would take such an outrageous position.

    At the end of the day you discount the importance of the hardest vote of them all, the vote to take money out of peoples pockets, instead suggesting that other votes that you favored were the most important. Yet when you compare the savings from the three votes the one that saves the most money is the vote to impose. What this exposes is more about your personal animus than about fiscal reality. It appears that when it comes to the FF’s you lose any capacity for nuance. If someone disagrees with you on any vote you are going to slam them forever. You are even incapable of a carrot and stick approach where you offer praise when you agree and ridicule when you disagree. This demonstrates a political immaturity of the with us or against us style of the G W Bush era. Even the head of the FF’s union showed more maturity by accepting the reality of imposition with more grace than you offer with this article.

    1. Davis Progressive

      mr. toad – i think you get this better than you let on. but i still think you miss a lot here.

      “Well it took you only two days to go from one hand clapping to Bronx cheer.”

      i think what you failed to understand is that most of us, perhaps david included, were willing to let sleeping dogs lie except for the fact that you decided to call people out.

      the city’s proposal, that i believe the dpoa agreed to reduced the pension for the second tier to 2.7% – and that btw, was passed by the legislature and governor brown. that happens i think by 2018.

      “Even the measure Chuck Reed pushed through only lowered the retirement benefit for new hires without touching those for existing staff. Our existing FF’s got the same deal San Jose did, a choice of lower pay or higher contributions.”

      you’re wrong here twice. yes, the measure that reed has pushed would allow governments to reduce rates going forward for current employees. so you are factually incorrect there. but second, david is talking about not current employees but future employees. the poa agreed to the reduction for the second tier, yeung explained previously that pensions couldn’t be imposed through impasse.

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            That point is clear. They ran out the clock on the old benefits package and now that they are on the city’s clock, I think a long term deal with the 2.7% in the second tier is more feasible.

          2. hpierce

            Yet, for non-safety employees, looks like folks are advocating for 2% @ 60, or later. Funny thing…. engineers and maintenance and operations folks make sure the fire hydrants have water available, streets that are passable, etc. Whatever.

      1. Mr.Toad

        The idea that if I didn’t bring it up it wasn’t an issue seems odd. Lucas and Dan have taken a lot of hits without any recognition that their concerns about public safety might have some merit. Yet on the biggest and hardest vote of all nothing but silence. All we get when pressed we is a rehashing of old complaints and lament that it was not enough coming from those who will never be satisfied, even when nobody argued it was anything more than, as Churchill said “The end of the beginning.”

        1. Davis Progressive

          “The idea that if I didn’t bring it up it wasn’t an issue seems odd. Lucas and Dan have taken a lot of hits without any recognition that their concerns about public safety might have some merit.”

          how are we likely to address public safety when we are facing a new $5 million deficit – in lean times, as many communities have found out the hard way – the budget itself is a public safety issue.

    2. Davis Progressive

      “You suggest that the firefighters should get a 25% reduction in pay to make a merger possible with UC but that is not how the process works. Imposing means your last best offer is put in place so arguing for a reduction that big was never a possibility because it was never on the table and still isn’t going forward.”

      we get that. you’re suggesting this was a moment we should stand up and applaud. david is suggesting that we didn’t go far enough.

      ” I doubt anyone beside yourself would publicly suggest such a cut. In fact, the best you could come up with is a lament made privately by a single unnamed CC member. Not even Chuck Reed would take such an outrageous position.”

      not in one fell swoop. but i think the city’s approach needs to slow the growth of compensation – if not decrease it – until ucd’s catches up.

      “At the end of the day you discount the importance of the hardest vote of them all, the vote to take money out of peoples pockets, instead suggesting that other votes that you favored were the most important.”

      at the end of the day you’re proven wrong by the fact that the firefighters fought harder against the other votes and while five people voted for the concessions, three people voted on the others. i think david made his point very strongly and you have not even attempted to get the core there. the evidence all shows the other votes mattered more – highly contested, split council decisions. nothing you say here refutes his core argument.

      1. Mr.Toad

        David could have written that this is a good start and praised all five for putting their fiduciary responsibilities first. Instead he wants the whole enchilada and offers only the stick without any carrot. Maybe you conservative /progressive anti-union types think this appropriate but I find it extreme.

  2. Frankly

    I agree 100% with David here. The new word is “absurd”. The pay and benefits our firefighters receive continues to be absurd. The most absurd is 3% at age 50. We all KNOW that this is basically a lottery win for anyone. It is clearly unfair, unsustainable, unnecessary, over-the-top. Nobody should be able to retire at age 50 with any defined benefits. Age 65 makes sense. And it should not be 90%. It should cap out at 70% max. If you are 65 you should have paid off your mortgage and set up your life so that you can live off of 70%. Of course, if you are 50 and retire, you probably need 90% of your pay.

    But then there is your pay, and the pay for the replacement employee that we needed to hire.

    Firefighters should be required to pass a physical every year. They should at least have to work until they are 60. If they have to retire earlier for health reasons, then they should have some disability insurance to cover the gap in a lower retirement benefit. But getting 90% of their pay at age 50 is absurd.

    We all know it is absurd.

    1. Mr.Toad

      The question is how do you get there from here. You guys act like its simple to take this on and fail to recognize that there is more than one solution to the problem. Also the two votes that David is stuck on had nothing to do with 3% at fifty nor did the vote the CC took the other night address this beyond raising the FF’s contribution to their pensions, something, by the way, that is another way to skin the cat. The sad reality is that you guys will never be satisfied until everyone succumbs to your idea of what is fair. Obviously, therefore, you are never going to be happy. Certainly you are free to go through life bitterly grousing about every vote that wasn’t 5-0 the way you see things. Even so, when you get a 5-0 vote you should praise the council for its courage instead of complaining about the one you won 3-2 included dissenting opinions and lamenting that the punitive draconian punishment you seek to heap upon our public servants is still and probably forever out of reach, as if it is out of reach only because of two members of the CC who you don’t agree with on every vote.

      1. Davis Progressive

        “The sad reality is that you guys will never be satisfied until everyone succumbs to your idea of what is fair.”

        you act as though that were something unusual.

        “Also the two votes that David is stuck on had nothing to do with 3% at fifty nor did the vote the CC took the other night address this beyond raising the FF’s contribution to their pensions, something, by the way, that is another way to skin the cat. ”

        he didn’t say they did. he made two separate arguments. first, that the impasse vote did not go far enough and second, that the other votes meant more to the firefighters than impasse – and he backed it with a pretty strong amount of evidence that you have completely ignored.

      2. Frankly

        Don Shor brings up military retirement as a comparison. I think there are other comparisons like private sector ambulance drivers and EMTs.

        The “fairness” litmus test for me is always going to be the general labor market comparison for peer jobs. And when I say “general” I mean including the private sector where 95% of labor exists.

        I suspect that any well-done comparison would calculate the total monetary value of all pay and benefits going to a firefighter is several orders of magnitude higher than market.

        Personally, I would be satisfied with a Davis firefighter being compensated at 110% or maybe 115% of market. I’m okay with some premium due to cost of living and the fact that we want top-shelf employees.

        But today we are so far off it is just… ABSURD!

    1. hpierce

      Don, hate to appear to disagree with you, but military retirement is much different, as I understand it, than private sector, state, local retirement. Apples and oranges. As I understand it, military retirement is available after 20 years of service, regardless of whether you were in the paddies of Vietnam, the mountains of Afghanistan, or sitting behind a desk in the US. Pay is considerably less than other jobs. I’ve known many folks (or have reliable stories) who retired from the military, and then went on to second careers, either in the public and/or private sectors.

      I know of many state/municipal/county employees who served for years, retired early, and chose second careers. Many of them needed to get out of ‘toxic’ environments, and could get back to their career goals, after having been promoted to supervisory/management positions where they were “out of their element”.

      In their second career, they often have to pay SS taxes, sometimes not only the employee, but also the employer share, if they go into consulting, or even with some public employers. That’s a “gift” to those who will get SS, because in the 80’s Ron Reagan and Congress set things up where in many cases, the SS benefit earned is offset by a government pension, so they pay, but are not allowed to play.

      Davis FF’s are, IMHO, overcompensated, but I’d not use a broad brush to paint that on most government employees, particularly those in professional classes, who could have earned more in the private sector, but made a decision to forgo the salary for the historic security and benefits.

      Seems like many want those folks to forgo but the security and benefits, out of “pension envy”.

      1. Don Shor

        You’re not disagreeing with me. It was an actual question. Military benefits have been in the news lately, and they haven’t been real clear to me. Other than the initial pay level, my impression was that the model was similar as what firefighters get. Frankly painted the broad brush (“nobody should be able to retire at 50 with defined benefits”). Seems to me military folks get to retire at 50, or even earlier, with defined benefits. But I figured somebody here would know better as to how it works. Thanks.

  3. Frankly

    As I understand, there is no minimal retirement age for military service. Military personnel can retire after 20 years of service at 40% of pay, and after 30 years it is 75% of pay.

    Of course rank and file military employees are paid much less than firefighters. They also generally work many more hours than do firefighters… and consistently work in much more difficult and dangerous and less accommodating work environments.

    Nevertheless, I think you hit on a comparison that is reasonable. And in response to that, I can tell you that the military recently increased its mandatory minimum retirement age from 55-60 to 62-67 depending on branch, rank and role. And the recent federal budget approved by the House includes reductions to Military retirement benefits.

    But I still stand by my comment. I don’t think any able-bodied firefighter or military personnel should be able to retire at age 50 with any defined benefits. I would be fine with an earned defined benefit after 20 or 30 or ?? years of service; but that payments would not begin until age 55 to age 67 based on the type of job. And the benefit amount never get to more than 75% of full time pay.

    Military personnel also qualify for social security when they reach eligible age… but again, they are paid far less than firefighters.

    We are living longer. We need to expect that 50-75% of that longer life expectancy is going to be spent working. Especially as our health care costs continue to rise… we just cannot afford to be giving so many government employees these end of career, permanent paid vacations at an early age. I am 53 at at the peak of my earnings capability. There is no reason that I should not be able to work at least another 12 or more years. Honestly, I expect to work up until age 67 or 70. That is 17 or 20 more years than a firefighter or police officer retiring at age 50. That is much too large of a premium to pay for based on their jobs being more stressful or more physically demanding. There are professional landscapers and other professions in the private sector where these workers are doing more strenuous work and these guys are still working well into their late 50s and early 60s.

    1. hpierce

      I’m assuming, Frankly, that your view is that Social Security should be re-vamped to provide NO defined benefit until late 60’s, early 70’s, and we should cut off those with SS benefits that haven’t worked at least 40 quarters in the last 10-15 years. After all, the premise of the original SS system assumed that relatively few individuals would live long enough to collect it.

      I do agree that a healthy individual “retiring” before 65-ish should plan for a ‘second career’, if they are healthy, but the point I think you are making is that someone who leaves public service prior to age 60, and then works on the private side, should have no public pension. 0/Nada. Please correct me if I misunderstand.

  4. David Greenwald Post author

    To me a five over doesn’t prove your mettle is making the deciding vote 3 to 2. To me, Dan’s basketball was in June 2011 when he voted as the third vote on the budget which reduced point compensation by $2 million. Other than that I think Dan and his been politically calculated and has not had to make a tough vote.

  5. Frankly

    I would be interested to hear from those using public safety concerns to argue in favor of maintaining more of the status quo for Davis firefighter organization and pay… what is their opinion on US defense spending and military pay and benefits?

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