Politics & Government

The State Worker: California state firefighters return to bargaining table

With zero fanfare, California’s state firefighters union has returned to the bargaining table.

A Department of Human Resources spokeswoman recently confirmed that the Brown administration is in talks with the California Department of Forestry firefighters, but she wouldn’t say why. Union spokesman Terry McHale also kept mum when asked, but it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that the 4,700-member association wants more money.

The union’s path back to the table started in the summer of 2012, against a budget-deficit backdrop and widespread skepticism that voters would accept Gov. Jerry Brown’s ballot measure to increase taxes.

The future looked uncertain, so the firefighters union cut a deal to extend its 2010-13 pact to 2017. It gave members security in exchange for swallowing a one-day-per-month furlough that Brown demanded all the state employee unions accept and hedged against losing ground if the state budget woes continued. If Brown’s tax measure failed, deep budget cuts would surely follow and negotiating a contract without more concessions – more furloughs, pay cuts, a streamlined layoff process or staffing cutbacks – would be virtually impossible.

Then, with heavy union backing, voters approved Brown’s tax measure last November. Labor talks with other state employee unions this summer produced a string of contracts with across-the-board raises that, even though deferred, kick in well before the firefighters’ pact expires.

The firefighters move back to the table illustrates a paradox of state labor talks. Although governors bargain with each of the 12 unions without consideration for how one deal affects others, agreements don’t exist in a vacuum.

All the unions keep track of other contracts. Agreements routinely include a “most favored nations” clause that says if Union A agrees to a contract and then Union B negotiates a sweeter deal, then Union A can meet with the state to discuss getting the Union B arrangement.

The firefighters’ contract gave the union most-favored-nation consideration until June 30, 2013. Because no other union’s new contracts took effect until after that date, the provision was of no use to the firefighters.

Still, as the raises with other unions racked up, the firefighters knew they had another path back to the bargaining table.

“The union shall have the option of reopening this (contract) for the purposes of (pay) increases only, beginning July 1, 2013 –June 30, 2016,” according to an official summary of the extension agreement bargained last year.

No doubt the firefighters have invoked that provision, but it remains to be seen whether the Brown administration will give them a better deal.

And a deal that looked like a lifeline 15 months ago now comes off as a chain that shackles the union to a no-raise contract for another four years.