Tweak in wording may avert layoffs

Firefighters approve amended contract

FEARLESS LEADER<br>Steve Harrison began his term as president of the Chico firefighters’ union on Jan. 1. Eight days later, the city sent pink slips to five of his members, but he’s confident the layoffs will get rescinded.

Steve Harrison began his term as president of the Chico firefighters’ union on Jan. 1. Eight days later, the city sent pink slips to five of his members, but he’s confident the layoffs will get rescinded.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

For the foreseeable future, Steve Harrison will have a tough time masking a wince every time he hears the word “staffing.” That two-syllable term has caused him—and the families of five fellow firefighters—much grief over the past few weeks, a feeling that won’t soon fade from the collective memory of the union he heads.

That feeling most likely will be far less acute Tuesday night, when the Chico City Council will have an amended labor agreement deemed ready to approve and pink slips will come off the table.

As the CN&R went to press Wednesday, the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2734 was holding a ratification vote on new contract terms. The ballots were counted by 4 p.m., and the result was unanimous.

“We’re off to the races,” reported Harrison, union president since Jan. 1 but part of the bargaining team since before then. He said his members agreed to:

• No raises for two years.

• Reduce starting salaries by 5 percent.

• Pay 25 percent of their health- and dental-insurance premiums.

Harrison signed the ratified contract, and the council will consider it Feb. 3, six days ahead of layoffs announced Jan. 9. City Manager Dave Burkland confirmed that council approval would restore the eliminated positions.

“I can’t believe how hard it was to give up these cuts,” Harrison said Monday evening, while preparing for the vote. “I’m not happy with how the process went, but I’m starting to feel relief.”

The process—first amicable, then contentious—began in October, when the IAFF offered to forgo raises due under its multiyear labor agreement to help cut the city’s general-fund deficit. That pledge fell in line with other employee groups, but while their bargaining units came to terms, the firefighters and the city hit an impasse.

The arrival of the new year without a new contract meant the terms of the old pact took effect—namely a 4 percent raise, which firefighters collected on their first checks. City Hall responded to the added expense by reducing the Fire Department payroll by six spots: one vacant and the five most recently filled.

In the Jan. 15 issue of the CN&R (”How the city got where nobody wanted to go"), Harrison said the move hit the firefighters “like a ton of bricks” after feeling they’d gone above and beyond the city’s call. The deficit-reduction plan calls for 1 percent cost-of-living increases in 2009 and ‘10; the IAFF offered “0-0” but wanted it acknowledged with language pertaining to staffing levels.

No go, the city responded, refusing to lock in personnel numbers. Also at issue: the cost-sharing arrangement for health benefits that union officials hadn’t brought to the membership. That since has happened.

As for the sticking point of semantics, Harrison said the city proposed language saying the money the city would save from “0-0” instead of “1-1” would “augment the Fire Department budget.” Since employee costs constitute the bulk of the budget, the firefighters essentially achieved their aim without tying the city’s hands.

“The point of clarification really is, we couldn’t have staffing in the agreement,” Burkland said Tuesday evening. “Certainly we can and did clarify that any savings would be applied to the fire budget, and it would be to the discretion of the fire chief on how to use the additional funds.”

Harrison’s take: “In our language, it explains it very well—it is what it means, so a year down the road we won’t be scratching our heads and arguing about what we meant. We got some good language, they agreed to it, and we’re moving forward.

“We’re going to get past this,” he added, “but this will be a hard one to get over.”