The clash between the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce and the city’s two public safety unions over binding arbitration flared dramatically this week, escalating an ongoing political battle that some believe is bound to get worse.
The local struggle is reminiscent of the ongoing union battles in Wisconsin and across the nation over hard-won union rights on the one hand and deflated state budgets on the other.
The chamber Wednesday released the salary and compensation for the first time of retiring President Dave Garth. The information was made public after Erick Baskin, president of the San Luis Obispo City Firefighters Association, asked for it.
The chamber used the opportunity as a platform to criticize binding arbitration — the rule that allows public-safety employee unions to have a third-party arbiter decide wages and benefits if labor contract talks stall. The chamber also made clear that Garth’s $120,000 salary has him earning less than the majority of the city’s firefighters.
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“They would like to characterize this as Dave Garth against the unions,” Garth said. “But that’s just not true. It’s not just the chamber who is against binding arbitration, it is a significant number of people in the community.”
Baskin, who made the request by email March 10, asked for Garth’s compensation and for the benefits package that will be offered to his successor.
“Leaders of the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce have led an attack on public safety employees but for too long have failed to publicly acknowledge the impact of their six-figure salaries and bonuses and perks on the city’s budget,” Baskin said in a news release Thursday.
The city contracts with the chamber for roughly $200,000 a year to promote San Luis Obispo.
The inquiry was made, Baskin said, because he believes that the chamber should be held to the same transparency as city employees because it is a nonprofit.
“And since they have decided to be a political/legislative body, the public has the right to know,” Baskin said.
However, members of the public have been able to access some of that information from 2009 and before through Guidestar, a website that posts the tax returns of nonprofits.
Both public safety unions have said that there is a longstanding, strong divide between the chamber’s economic interests in the city and the unions’ wishes.
The dispute comes after the City Council voted 4-1 in February to ask local voters to repeal binding arbitration. Voters will also be asked in August to consider a measure that would allow the city to offer a two-tiered pension system.
Garth said the chamber’s board of directors decided to share the compensation information with all of its members by news release — while also sharing its stance on binding arbitration.
The chamber argues that binding arbitration has removed the ability of the City Council to make budget decisions without having to become beholden to the unions.
The release also makes a clear division between private sector and public sector compensation packages — pointing out that Garth when retired will only receive half of his highest year’s earnings, compared to the 90 percent that public safety employees receive.
Baskin counters that in the past, public safety unions have won benefits in lieu of pay increases. In addition, the city doesn’t pay their Social Security payroll tax.
Former Mayor Dave Romero, who worked for 36 years as the city’s public works director before serving 16 years on the City Council, said the public political battle between the chamber and the unions is the worst that he has ever seen.
“The blows are sharper and harder now than they have ever been,” Romero said.
Cal Poly political science professor and former Councilman Allen Settle, who served for more than 30 years, said the contentiousness is likely to build until August, when the issue hits the ballot.
“The people in the general public don’t have a chance to hear what the real discussion points are,” Settle said. “It becomes a ‘he said, she said’ rather than a debate about what is really important.”