Fresno City Hall, firefighters union jockey for position in contract fight

The Fresno BeeJune 12, 2014 

The Fresno City Council on Thursday used its meeting agenda as a negotiating tool with a union.

The tactic left many in the council chamber wondering what happened.

The council called a special meeting to debate whether to impose terms on the union representing rank-and-file firefighters.

The contract expired last year. The administration of Mayor Ashley Swearengin and the union negotiated at length. They reached an impasse, giving the city an opportunity to force its will on the firefighters if the council agreed.

Council President Steve Brandau convened the special meeting. Council Member Oliver Baines asked that the meeting be postponed to June 26. His colleagues agreed.

That was the end of a meeting called 24 hours earlier. About 75 firefighters filed out of the council chamber only minutes after taking their seats.

Union President Pete Flores said it was a strange series of events.

But, Flores added, "this gives me hope. When the city works collectively with the employees, it is the community that benefits most."

City Manager Bruce Rudd said the city has negotiated in good faith.

"One way or another, we're going to come to a conclusion on this," Rudd said.

What's at play is city officials' last-ditch effort to convince the union that they have the winning hand.

The city and the union came close to a deal twice in the last five months. The firefighters rejected both deals, most recently in early June. Flores said the vote was close.

Neither side is revealing many details. But Rudd said the city's desires are much like those in recent union battles -- more contributions by members toward health care and pensions.

The firefighter give-backs would total about $850,000 a year, Rudd said, money vital to balancing Swearengin's proposed $1 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Flores said firefighters have given up cash to help the city balance past budgets. He said the union has ideas to help the new budget without forcing the members to open their wallets.

Details are murky, but it's clear something happened to speed up this city-union conflict. Eighteen months or more can pass from the end of a contract to a council debate on whether to impose terms.

Mediation and fact-finding hearings often follow the declaration of an impasse. None of that happened this time. Deadlines for initiating these steps apparently passed without the necessary action.

Rudd said the firefighters have a clear option.

He said they can take the two-week break provided by Baines to reconsider the deal on the table. That has the $850,000 bite, he said, but it also has a raise at a later date.

Or, Rudd said, the firefighters can take a chance on the council rejecting the administration's attempt on June 26 to impose terms. These terms, he said, are all stick ($850,000 in concessions) and no carrot (no raise).

This explains Thursday's special meeting. It reminded firefighters that the deal with the raise is good "compared to what will be imposed on them," Rudd said.

Some council members gave the union a hint of their thinking at the end of the council's regular Thursday meeting.

Brandau, in a motion to amend Swearengin's budget, asked that the $2 million fund for street improvements be bumped to $3 million, the money to be split evenly among the seven council districts.

In other words, some council members are already spending those firefighter concessions.

Council members will vote on this and other motions on Monday.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or Read his City Beat blog at

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