"Firefighters are making significant sacrifices every day on the streets, and they're making sacrifices again at the bargaining table," said Fire Capt. Jeff Welch, president of the San Jose Firefighters union. "We're really happy. The city and firefighters came to the table and made a deal to save firefighters' jobs and keep the public safe."
The deal is a marked turnaround in relations between San Jose officials and firefighters, who have been at loggerheads for years. The firefighters' last contract was settled in 2007 through a bitter arbitration process that city leaders complained saddled taxpayers with a $30 million pension liability. Firefighters argued that the city rejected their reasonable offers.
A Santa Clara County civil grand jury in 2009 blasted the firefighters' union leaders for filing "excessive or frivolous" grievances against the city.
But firefighters called the grand jury's report unfair.
Last year, with San Jose facing a record $118.5 million deficit, the city and firefighters were unable to agree on concessions to save 49 firefighters' jobs. And in the fall, city leaders and firefighters waged costly campaigns over pension and arbitration reform measures that Reed championed and voters overwhelmingly approved.
Since then, Welch took the reins of the firefighters' union, replacing longtime leader Randy Sekany. Relations with the city then began to thaw. "Almost as important as the agreement is what this says about the new relationship with the city and firefighters' union and their clear willingness to collaborate," said Alex Gurza, the city's employee relations director and chief labor negotiator. "It's a very, very significant change."
San Jose is facing its 10th straight year of red ink, despite cutting $565 million and 1,600 jobs over the last nine years, as employee costs -- mostly for health care and pensions -- have outpaced revenues.
Reed and the City Council over the past year have asked unionized workers to accept a 10 percent reduction in "total compensation" -- the city's cost for their pay and benefits -- to ease chronic deficits. The city's elected leaders and top management agreed to similar reductions.
Last year, six unions agreed to the 10 percent reduction, while police and another union accepted smaller cuts to prevent layoffs. But much of last year's concessions expire in the upcoming budget cycle despite the ongoing deficits, so city leaders renewed the call for 10 percent cuts from all the unions
Under the proposed firefighters' deal, effective through June 30, 2013, the firefighters would accept most of the 10 percent reduction in compensation in the form of pay cuts, with some of the savings coming from increased cost-sharing for their health benefits.
The deal also allows the fire department to reduce the number of firefighters required on each truck, a provision that Chief Willie McDonald said will increase flexibility in providing coverage with limited staffing.
The proposal still leaves significant issues undecided, including reductions in pensions for current and future firefighters and other benefits such as sick-leave cashouts for retiring employees and bonus checks for retirees. But both sides agreed to continue talking about those changes.
Gurza was optimistic, saying that the city and the union simply "needed more time to work on them."
Reed, who has had icy relations with the firefighters, joined Welch outside City Hall after the agreement was reached and thanked the union for showing "great leadership," which he said will go a long way toward securing similar deals from other workers to save jobs and city services.
"This is a difficult decision in a very difficult budget time," Reed said. "That's a big sacrifice, and we know it will be very difficult for their members. It will be helpful."
Source: mercurynews.com article link