On Tuesday, April 19, the board will vote whether to implement new benefits at a level first offered in November. The terms include an additional $350 per month for health and welfare benefits, and $400 more per month for post-employment health benefits, but no salary increase.
Currently, the firefighters have the option to take that money home, according to a union representative. "A member who takes that $750 home in cash won't be able to under this imposition," said John Wurdinger, vice president of the Menlo Park Firefighters Association Local 2400. "It works out to a 7.7 percent pay decrease. Ten to 15 percent of our membership has either gone bankrupt, had houses foreclosed on, lost homes. We were already down $300 to $500 per month because of increases in healthcare costs. It's sad. I don't know how else to put it."
Negotiations between the board and union first ground to a halt in 2009 after Local 2400 filed a grievance with the state's Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) alleging unfair labor practices.
Talks broke down again in October 2010 after union representatives asked to meet with the district's board members individually after refusing to meet with designated negotiators. The board declined the request, saying in a response letter that it would violate state law.
The district sent another letter last November to union leadership saying it would double the amount put toward health benefits in hopes of coaxing the union back to the bargaining table after the firefighters rejected an offer of $750 per month towards their health plan.
Now, as the PERB case heads to court in May, the district plans to impose the new terms. "While the hearing is set for next month, it could be another two years before the case is fully and finally adjudicated, once you consider the possibility of appeals. The district doesn't believe it can or should wait for completion of such a lengthy and uncertain process," said Rick Bolanos, who serves as the labor representative for the district.
Mr. Wurdinger said the union believes it will win the case. "If we weren't very confident, we wouldn't have held out this long."
Board director Peter Carpenter, speaking only for himself in an email, called the PERB case without merit and thinks it will be dismissed. "The union would have been well advised to start behaving like the other public service unions in California and have returned to the bargaining table with concessions rather than an unwavering demand for an 11% salary increase."
Mr. Wurdinger acknowledged that public sentiment has shifted against unions, but said the firefighters don't deserve to be treated with a lack of respect and common courtesy.
"I'm not evil. I'm just a fireman," he said with a rueful laugh. "I'm the guy who gets your cat out of the tree or performs CPR on your grandmother."