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(added 6/7/11)

San José Sends Another Bad Message to Unions

The blowup of a negotiating session on pension reform Friday is further evidence of terrible communication between San Jose's city leaders and its public employee unions. This one couldn't have come at a worse time.

The Police Officers Association is voting this week on a contract with a 10 percent pay cut to save the jobs of some 150 officers. Negotiators on both sides worked very hard to reach agreement last week -- but mistrust of City Hall runs high among police officers, and this latest mess, although it involves other unions, seemed to confirm suspicions that the city plans to impose pension reform through the ballot rather than negotiating. Approval of the police contract was never a sure thing, and this makes it harder.

Unions representing architects and engineers, maintenance supervisors and middle managers showed up Friday for a meeting to discuss pension reform, expecting to finally explore ideas they developed last winter to cut costs. Instead they were asked only to comment on a pension reform ballot measure proposed by Mayor Chuck Reed that would affect not just future but also current employees and retirees with lowered cost of living raises and other provisions. Feeling blindsided, the negotiators walked out.

Human Relations Director Alex Gurza scrambled Monday to set things right. In a letter, his office explained that the staff had tried to focus on Reed's proposal because of a legal obligation for the city to "meet and confer" with affected unions before the council acts on the measure. Since the council could vote in as soon as two weeks, time was short.

The letter was a start, but it will do little to ease minds. It's up to the mayor, city council and city manager at Tuesday's council meeting to clarify their commitments to union leaders interested in working on this problem. They need to see that unions' ideas get a fair hearing and to be clearer about a goal for the negotiations.

Reed has said he's open to ideas other than his own to solve the pension crisis, which threatens to divert hundreds of millions of dollars from city services in the next few years. After a November ballot measure cleared the way for reform, the mayor and council said talks would begin. But when some unions tried to include pension reform in their contract talks earlier this year, they were told to hold off. Among them were police, firefighters and the unions involved in Friday's meltdown.

Meanwhile, Reed has been saying the city was unable to reach agreement on reforms. That's disingenuous. City negotiators have not yet tried.

It's true that some city union leaders don't buy the pension crisis or believe a recovering stock market will fix everything. But others do understand: The police association hired Deloitte to check the city's assumptions, and it confirmed the looming disaster. Police, fire and other unions have invested many hours exploring alternatives.

At today's council meeting, what's at stake is not just the relationship with these unions but the fate of the police contract up for ratification this week. Trust is at an all-time low ebb. Only elected officials can rebuild it.

Source: The Mercury News – Editorial - June 7, 2011


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Created 7 June 2011 • Modified 7 June 2011