San Jose Firefighters Union: New Leader Brings a Successful New Strategy

Things have come a long way for the San Jose firefighters union Local 230 in the past 12 months, and union president Jeff Welch’s role can’t be overstated. A year ago, Local 230 was the lone bargaining group unable to agree on compensation concessions with the city. Forty-nine firefighters were laid off as a result. A year later, the firefighters union may be at the vanguard, leading the way for the city’s 10 other unions.

Last Thursday, Welch and his team put forward a proposal that would drop firefighters per engine from five to four, and cut total compensation for 647 firefighters by 10 percent—making Local 230 the first public employees’ union to come to a deal with the city. Less than 24 hours later, five other city unions offered a similar proposal. Over a three-day voting period that ended Monday, 95 percent of Local 230’s members approved the deal. .

Welch was vice president of Local 230 last year and took over as president following the retirement of longtime veteran Randy Sekany. Alex Gurza, the city’s lead negotiator, describes the resulting difference in the union’s attitude at the bargaining table as “remarkable” and “drastic.”

“I think that makes a big difference if we’re all working toward solving the same problem,” Gurza says.

Last year, Sekany took a hard-line stance that left firefighters and the city at a stalemate. Officials on both sides admit negotiations were hampered by years of bad blood.

Sekany’s strategy was the scare tactic: He issued numerous statements warning that the inevitable cuts would result in slower response times, which meant property loss and death. In the midst of negotiations, Sekany stunned observers by proposing an alternative budget for the city, which included perplexing line-item cuts such as hybrid cars and ergonomic chairs.

In the end, the city reached a compromise with only one group of sworn officers—the Police Officers Association.

Read complete article, ‘Firefighters Respond to Financial Disaster,’ at SanJose.com.

Josh Koehn is a former managing editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley.

24 Comments

  1. Seems like the Police Officers Association is keeping with the scare tactics.  Funny how they came out with a half witted publicity attempt right before the Fire signed.

    • Oh but the big difference is fire is not the same as police.  You couldn’t get by an hour in this city without police.  Very big difference and do some research before you make “half witted” statements like that.  If you think a department that is already 50% under the national average per capita can stand to lose an additional 350 officers without any rise in crime or additional threat to the safety of citizens or change of service provided then go a head and stick your head in the sand and keep dreaming.  The above statement is ludicrous.

  2. Ohhh yuck! Sounds like this union president is kissing butt! He probably has a political career and agenda ahead of him! If he thinks he has set the tone with the police negotiations then he better think again. I know as a FACT that the majority of the police will vote NO on any compensation cuts because they have given back already during the past 2 contracts when fire has been holding out the whole time.

    • With the 10% total comp cut and the minimum staffing concession made by SJFF the amount of concessions in this one contract is more than the paltry sums you have given back in the past two contracts—-by the way, didn’t SJPD get a raise in one of these last two contracts?  SJFF have not had a raise since 2008 and will not see one for the term of this contract that expires in June of 2013.

      Keep running your ads in the paper and put up some more billboards, they are really turning it around for you….ya right!

      • So let me guess, fire will be “staging” (as always) while police fight the city leaders for a fair contract. And when police do, will it be “safe” for fire to come in. Just when the fighting gets interesting, fire “stages”!  Heroes huh?

        • Ummm Didn’t SJFF hold out last year or in your words “fight the city leaders” while SJPOA “staged” or gave up the fight and settled???

          What I suggest is for you to find a way to package the “Revisionist History Kool-Aid” you have been drinking to offset the concessions you will eventually make this year, just like last year.  You could add your new drink as part of one of your advertisements so that at least someone will read that drivel and you might make some of the money you flushed down the toilet on your ill advised campaign.

        • Oh you meant the settlement we settled to and you guys came crying back to the city with your tail between your legs and tried to get the same thing after the city laid off your fire fighters, but the city told you guys to pound salt!  You mean that deal? Oh ya, right.. We “staged”!  Only we are getting ours back in July! You won’t! Real pay for real heroes! Enough said, WE WIN! Enjoy you reclining chairs and big screen tv knowing the boys in blue are getting more!

        • Hmmm…I thought the health care concessions were permanent as is retiree health care pre-funding…and if you think for one second that you won’t be giving anything back this year, I have a bridge to sell you.

          300 dues paying officers is a heavy price to pay but you all work so hard now that I am sure no one will notice.

        • Really ??? Your talking about staging and who’s got a bigger Johnson on the job while BOTH the SJFF and the POA are facing the lowest staffing and largest layoffs ever???

          Your a real man alright, you win. Your the real hero… We get it.  Now grow up and face the reality staring you down…..

          Now do the right thing and cough up your portion so we can move on down the road and oh ya, save some jobs while your at it.  Moronic, seriously???

        • “Grow up and face the reality staring you down” Whats that, agreeing not only to a bad contract but to a “open ended” contract! Are you out of you freakin mind!! Has your big screen TV’s releasing a toxic fume? Nobody in there right mind would sign a “open ended” contract! unless your a Union President who obviously has a polictical future in mind. The only thing Im going to cough up is the smoke your blowing in my face with that rederick of thinking you guys signed a fair deal! but then again your use to the smoke! Or maybe not, How many fires do you guys actually fight? Oh, and you guys are so concerned about saving jobs that you guys held out last time costing your 49 fellow brothers their job. You guys are dong what we did already! But then again were use to you guys “staging” while we take care of business first! Moronic Seriously???

        • Mr./Ms. Bugsy –

          Please explain what you mean by “open-ended” contract? If you mean that there is no “sunset clause” which means that the 10% cut is ongoing and permanent, you would be correct. When SJFF L230 goes back into negotiations in 2+ years, we will be making 10% less than we are making today. This is different than what the POA gave up last time, in that your concession was not ongoing and represented savings during the lifetime of the current contract. When L230 offered the City the IDENTICAL amount offered by the POA, this offer was refused.

          Unfortunately,it became evident to us that the only offer that the City was going to accept, was a permanent concession. Your POA negotiating team is now faced with the same dilemma and must make a difficult choice to do the same as us,or possibly end up in arbitration with the loss of a significant number of police officers. President Beattie and team are working hard to make the right move which will minimize the financial impact to the POA Members, while saving jobs and maintaining service levels to the community. Only George and his team have all of the current and accurate information required to make such an important decision.

          I wish you and your POA Members well. We need cops that are fairly compensated and well-trained. If you are a cop as you claim to be, you know quite well that cops and firefighters rely on each other every day and without mutual respect and teamwork, we increase the risk of getting hurt or worse.

          Stay safe and best of luck to you and your brothers/sisters “in blue”, during these very difficult and unusual times.

  3. It’s not scare tactics.  There are a dozen burglaries a day and 6 detectives. Dozens of auto thefts and 1 investigator. Record homicides… robberies going uninvestigated… just you wait.

    There have not been layoffs yet at the PD, but hold on to your hat my friend.  The rodeo starts soon enough.

  4. The movement by the Firefighter union is significant.  The proposal made and apparently accepted does share the pain of budget shortfalls.

    The initial draft, however, included specific details of what second-tier public safety pension benefits would look like (setting max retirement at 75% of final average salary, and vesting rate at 2.5% per year for 30 years.)

    I believe this was removed but the other concession agreed upon.  The city is moving very slowly on rolling out its second-tier pension unlike other jurisdictions (Campbell, Palo Alto) who just did it with a council vote after the city manager came up with a plan.  Only Campbell has applied second-tier to public safety.

    While the arguements about heroes and danger do suggest that public safety should be considered uniquely and perhaps retain a higher benefit level than other public employees, its not clear yet what the new standard for pensions will be.  The most useful thing would be if the state or a regional body took the lead in setting standards for new second-tier public safety (just as happened in 1999 with the race to top tier pensions of 3% vesting and 50 years old as the new retirement age.  Once CHP and prison guards got this, it was inevitable that all the other public safety folks would ask for and eventually get comparable benefits.)

    Now that reality has set in and its clear that defined benefit pensions at this level are totally unsustainable (especially as the public sector doesn’t pay for the benefit as it is added or earned but give themselves up to 30 years to catch up.)

    The Pensions are actually a huge incentive in both recruitment and retention.  It should be possible to have a hybrid system with a lesser benefit that protects the city (and taxpayer) while also preserving this.  I’d actually like to see the eventual new pension system include both a defined benefit (2% vesting per year, 50-50 split between employer and employee on contributions annually) as well as a defined contribution element (401k with first 5% employee contribution fully matched by employer.)  You could also continue vesting rates after 30 years at 1% per year as a retention tool.

    This makes more sense than staying with the full defined benefit system which inevitably puts all the liability on the employer (and taxpayer) and just seems kind of dysfunctional.

    While some people (Palo Alto) think doing second tier for only non-public safety employees will be enough, I’d like to point out that public safety is the largest piece of the budget and drives everything elese.  In Los Angeles I learned that 80-90% of its general fund is tied up with public safety.  It’s the elephant in the room and no matter how heroic and special public safety is, they need to be included in the move to more sustainable pensions.

  5. San Jose Fire Fighters are the ONLY cadre of city employees who risk BURNING TO DEATH TO SAVE US FROM BURNING TOO DEATH 24 hours a day, 7 days a week…and they, in my opinion, deserve to be highly compensated.

    When students of San Jose government look at the waste of taxpayer money, such as the seventeen (17) peple who comprise Mayor Reed’s personal staff ( a private army who are worthless to the taxpayers) there is plenty of money to pay those valiant, unselfish, heros and heroines a fair and just salary.

    The next time you are on fire and risk buring to death, I sincerely hope a San Jose Fire Fighter will save you, even at his or her peril so that you, who ever you may be, can give your testimony either to support or negate my opinion that San Jose Fire Fighters should be highly compensated via a fair and just salary.

    David S. Wall

    • A fair and just salary for sure.
      But a retirement that makes California Lottery’s “Set For Life Club” winners look like paupers is ridiculous.
      Firefighters should have to save their own money for their own retirement just like most of the people who pay them.

      • Firefighters currently contribute 14% of their gross annual income to their pension.  Police, with their new contract now contribute 20%.  That is anywhere from $500 to $600 a paycheck.  No chump change.  San Jose Police and Fire Retirement is independent of CalPERS, meaning they are THEIR OWN retirement system.  Not a part of CalPERS. By way of comparison, most agencies in CalPERS contribute anywhere from 0% to 9% of their gross annual income.

        • Thank you for your comments, I couldn’t have said it better myself.  I was disappointed to see the infighting as well.  Now, could we please get back to the tripartite bargaining we once had? Jeff W.  and George B., can you make this happen once again?

        • Actually, according to my pay stub, I’m contributing just under $1k per pay check to my pension which works out to just a bit under 23%. However, you are correct in that police officers employed by most other agencies pay anywhere from 0%-9%. This is the highest amount of any agency in the area and (I believe) in the nation. If I were to later to any other agency that was hiring, odds are that I’d get an instant raise, just from the reduction in my retirement contributions. I suspect it’s the same as with the Fire Department.

          Last comment for this post: I was sickened by some of the acrimony expressed in this blog by people who were clearly employees of both the fire department and the police department. The fact is that we all do jobs that most other people in the nation either can’t or won’t do. Hell, most of us would say to they other ‘I wouldn’t do what you do’. Really, it takes a special kind of craziness for each breed of public safety employee to do what we do and we’ve got far more in common than not in the final analysis.

          We’ve got enough people painting targets on the backs of public safety without doing it to each other. And the reality is that we are each unique breeds within our community and as employed by the City. That’s a reality which Mayor Reed and others, with their language giving to librarians and others the moral and functional equivalence of public safety. We need to be out there reminding him and everyone else that you could take a cop or a firefighter, put a broom in his hand and set him to work or set him to replacing books on shelves in a library and with virtually no training required. He’d probably go crazy from boredom, but he could do it. The converse, however, is not true: odds are that your average librarian, clerk or janitor couldn’t make it through the background process, the screening and the testing that we have to pass to just get into an academy.

          We are unique breeds, more alike than different. And we’ve more than enough adversaries without creating more out of each other.

      • In the same manner as with the PD, the number of applicants for fire fighter openings has very little bearing on the number which are actually qualified to do the job. In both professions, candidates must be screened, pass background checks and pass a battery of psychological, physical and IQ testing. Then, they must meet or exceed state standards for certifications. Honestly, I don’t know what the right salary level is for a firefighter. I suppose with them, as with the police, there’s a ‘market rate’ – that level of pay and benefits which is required for the hiring city to be competitive with other cities in the region. I don’t know how SJFD compares with other cities, but of SJPD, I will say this: virtually every other city in the Greater Bay Area offers pay and benefits equivalent to or better than than San Jose’s offerings. We used to be able to attract lateral officers from other agencies – even if they were paid better at those other agencies – largely due to being a larger agency with more diversified job opportunities and being very stable.

        Now, Mayor Reed is leading the charge to make San Jose non-competitive and force the PD into having fewer job opportunities. We won’t be able to compete with other agencies. We won’t be able to attract lateral transfers from other agencies (by far the most cost-effective form of recruitment), and, over time, we will attrite officers to other agencies as job openings elsewhere become available.

        Other authors have stated in other blog posts that Mayor Reed is leading a race to the bottom, and this is true on many levels. He’s a smart man, I’m told, but I fear that his singlemindedness in pursuit of fiscal reforms, this manufactured pension crisis, and utter failure when it comes to performing the crucial balancing acts of attracting business to San Jose and accommodating more residents (he’s consistently voted in favor of rezoning commercial real estate to residential – a disastrous course of action). San Jose is racing to the bottom in terms of it’s business and industry, its ability to maintain a safe community and its ability to enjoy even a modest economic recovery anytime in the future. I fear that, by the time I retire, San Jose will be neither a desirable place in which to do business, nor a safe and attractive city in which to live. But hey, we’ll have a half billion dollar city hall – probably tastefully decorated in *ahem* urban artwork.

  6. We need to quit the profession bashing in our city. Police and Fire do good jobs, take some risks and care for the public. Arguing over who is more important is childish. We work and support each other every day in one way or another. Takeing pay concessions and benifit hits is painful, losing positons and laying off good people is a tradgedy. Every city employee is taking a bite of this shit sandwich in one way or another. Unfortunately some people at the top that helped to get us in this mess dont have to share in our meal… such is life.

  7. SJFF only made a minimal concession. The main issues have yet to be decided per the side letters. Don’t give SJFF too much credit. They were facing a serious setback in arbitration and were facing cuts that would exceed the agreement they made with the city. By their own combative actions, they cost the jobs of 49 of their fellow firefighters. They would rather these firefighters lose their jobs and possibly their homes rather than accept what they ended up accepting a year later. So much for union unity.

    SJFF shouldn’t be lionized for accepting an agreement with the city. They didn’t do it to benefit the people of San Jose, they did it because they faced a greater loss in arbitration.

    • You must be drinking the Reed kool aid. Your view of “minimal concessions” equates to about $16000 out of my check for the next year plus increased health care costs. Unless you make alot of money (which I don’t) that’s not chump change…..

      No one in San Jose Firefighters has even been scared of arbitration… It was a necessary evil to level the playing field..  It’s been well known that BOTH sides lose in arbitration.  Last year the money was offered to pay for the cost of the 49 firefighters and the city said NO. They wanted the the cost for the 49 AND the 5 companies that were closed.

      This year it was obvious that we would loose more people to layoffs if we didn’t do anything… That would have been a danger to not only us but YOU as well. Less firefighters on the street is not good for anyone, especially the residents of San Jose. We did it for us and you and those who stood to loose their job, whether you believe it or not.

      It was the right thing to do……