Editorial: Unions’ snub is a puerile decision

Childish doesn’t begin to describe the behavior by SLO police and fire unions, which are boycotting an annual SLO Chamber of Commerce appreciation luncheon for public safety officers.

The reason for the public snub?

It’s primarily because some chamber members served on a Financial Sustainability Task Force that recommended, among other things, taking a look at a two-tier pension system for city employees and reconsidering binding arbitration for police and firefighters.

“The recommendations that they have made will put public safety and our individual members at risk,” the union presidents said in a letter to chamber members.

Sounds to us like union leadership is attempting to quash public discussion by preying on fears about safety.

Don’t they get it?

Public concern over the rising cost of public salaries and pensions is not unique to San Luis Obispo.

Communities around the nation are confronting this same issue as it becomes painfully clear that governments are drowning in pension debt. At the same time, private sector employees lucky enough to even have pensions are seeing those benefits reduced or, even worse, are being laid off altogether.

At such a precarious time, questioning whether it’s time to rethink binding arbitration for police and firefighters is in no way a personal attack on the city’s highly dedicated and professional public safety officers.

It’s simply facing these facts:

Due to a 2008 arbitration award, SLO police officers are now among the highest paid in the state. According to the state controller’s office, the base salary for a San Luis Obispo police officer ranged from $75,426 to $102,596 in 2009 — more than the base salaries for officers in Santa Maria, Santa Barbara, Bakersfield and Los Angeles, to name but a few cities that offered less pay.

Perhaps the pay scale for SLO police would have been affordable had the economy not tanked. But with the city facing multi-million dollar shortfalls every year, it is time to reconsider whether the city can shoulder the financial burdens imposed under binding arbitration.

Again, SLO is not alone in this; in fact, it’s late to the discussion. Last year, voters in San Jose, Stockton, and the bankrupt city of Vallejo all repealed binding arbitration.

Yet here in San Luis Obispo, those who have the audacity to bring up the issue are accused of publicly attacking police and firefighters.

They’re accused of “pursuing an agenda to line their own pockets.”

They’re accused of trying to cajole the City Council into putting binding arbitration back on the ballot — as if council members are incapable of thinking for themselves.

That’s nonsense.

Given that the city spends 80 percent of its operating revenue on salaries, it’s only logical that the City Council would examine ways to reduce that spending. That’s its job.

It’s a shame that union leaders couldn’t have put politics aside for a couple of hours to graciously accept the thanks and appreciation of the community.

We can only hope that in the future, they can find appropriate venues to vigorously defend binding arbitration — without stifling public discussion and driving an even bigger wedge between public and private sectors.

Letter from union leaders to chamber members