At last week's meeting of the Catfish Club—a lunchtime public-issues forum—Mike Zucchet, the head of the labor union that represents the city's white-collar employees, talked about the union's legal challenge to Prop. B.
Bottom line: It's not so much the measure itself that the unions don't like, but how it got to the ballot.
"[Mayor Jerry Sanders] wanted the public to feel like they were ending the pension mess," Zucchet said. "Reforms done at the bargaining table didn't get enough attention."
Indeed, in 2008, the mayor negotiated with the city's labor unions what he then called "comprehensive pension reform." The problem is that, legally, the city can't do anything to change benefits for current city employees or retirees. Prop. B's savings comes from a five-year cap on "pensionable pay"—essentially a pay freeze.
"It doesn't feel like pension reform; it feels like a five-year salary freeze," Zucchet said.
Zucchet's union, Municipal Employees Association (MEA), is arguing that Sanders violated state labor law by authoring Prop. B but then having political allies qualify it for the June ballot via petition. If the mayor had asked the City Council to place Prop. B on the ballot—and got enough votes to do so—it would have triggered labor negotiations due to the pay freeze.
State labor law "doesn't say the city has to do anything the unions want them to do," Zucchet said; the mayor, as the city's chief labor negotiator, just has to meet with the unions.
Sanders has admitted that he intentionally went the petition route to avoid labor negotiations, telling CityBeat editor David Rolland last December, "you do that so that you get the ballot initiative... that you actually want. Otherwise, we'd have gone through meet-and-confer [negotiations], and you don't know what's gonna go on at that point...."
But, as Zucchet pointed out on Friday, the mayor and the unions have been pretty successful at the negotiating table. Among other things, city labor unions have agreed to no across-the-board pay raises for the last eight years, took a 6-percent pay cut in 2009 and, this spring, worked with the mayor to reform the city's retiree healthcare program for an estimated savings of $1 billion over the next 30 years.
About Prop. B, Zucchet said: "It really hit us in the gut that this mayor, who we had this great record with, was doing this."
Zucchet also brought up the announcement last week that the city wouldn't hire any new employees until it can implement a 401(k)-style retirement plan; Prop. B closed the city's current retirement system to all new hires. This came a day after Superior Court Judge Luis Vargas ruled against a request by the MEA and the state's Public Employment Relations Board that he halt Prop. B's implementation at least through October. Doing so would give a PERB administrative-law judge enough time to rule on whether Prop. B is legal, the parties argued. But City Attorney Jan Goldsmith told Vargas that if he were to grant that request, "it would force the city into a hiring freeze," Zucchet said. Vargas denied MEA and PERB's request last Tuesday.
"The next day, the city does a hiring freeze," Zucchet said.