Colorado SpringsNews

Colorado Springs City Council to vote on collective bargaining ballot item

Author: Conrad Swanson - July 24, 2018 - Updated: August 9, 2018

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City Councilwoman Helen Collins climbs the stairs of City Hall in 2015 while fellow council members met two-on-one with a lawyer retained to give them legal advice and consultation regarding the the Independent Ethics Commission recommendation. (The Gazette file photo)

Holding true to a promise their president made this spring, the Colorado Springs City Council will vote next month whether to place a collective bargaining question on next year’s ballot for city firefighters.

Whether a majority of the council will support it is another issue, though. Council President Richard Skorman promised the Professional Firefighters Association, IAFF Local 5, in May that the council would at least vote on the measure.

John Roy, a political action liaison for Local 5, appealed to the council Monday, asking for support. One council member chimed in to back Roy and the notion of placing a collective bargaining question on the April ballot.

More council members spoke out against the move. Mayor John Suthers made a rare appearance at Monday’s meeting and urged the council to deny Local 5 its request.

Collective bargaining status would enable Local 5 to negotiate for higher pay, Roy said. It also would allow the union to negotiate with the city for better benefits and schedules for the firefighters.

Local 5 President Dave Noblitt couldn’t attend Monday but has said the firefighters have been paid below the national average for years and continue to accrue thousands of hours of mandatory overtime each year.

But Suthers argued that collective bargaining would entrench the city in a confrontational negotiation process with the union each year and would favor firefighters to the detriment of other employees.

“Granting collective bargaining to firefighters but not police officers, utility linemen, city foresters and many others would be fundamentally unfair, and it would also create a slippery slope that history shows… results in an entire city workforce being unionized,” Suthers said.

Roy disagreed, saying Local 5 approached the council seeking collaboration, not confrontation. The union could petition onto the ballot but instead hopes to coordinate with the city for a mutually beneficial arrangement

Even with collective bargaining status, firefighters couldn’t strike for raises because state law prohibits public safety employees from walking off the job during labor disputes.

The union seeks to use nonbinding arbitration between the city and a neutral party. Roy said this form of negotiation would enable the city and union to appeal to an objective third party if an agreement cannot be reached.

Most fire departments along the Front Range use a type of collective bargaining, Roy said.

Suthers warned that if the council puts Local 5’s question on the April ballot, a tidal wave of similar requests is sure to follow. The city has other options to raise firefighters’ salaries, he said.

“If you’re prepared to refer this, you better be prepared to refer to the ballot collective bargaining for any other city employees that ask for it,” he said. Collective bargaining “doesn’t add a single dime to the city revenue pie. If the firefighters win and they get more than they would otherwise have gotten, other employees lose, other city services lose.”

Suthers said he researched other communities with collective bargaining status for firefighters. But he acknowledged when asked by Councilman Bill Murray that he has not personally negotiated with unions before.

Murray said he supports placing Local 5’s question on the ballot, and he supports giving it collective bargaining power. Opposing the union’s request next month would force it to petition onto the ballot, which would cost money that otherwise could be spent informing the public, he said.

“Why don’t we give them the right to present?” Murray said.

Councilman Tom Strand said he is undecided but concerned that negotiations could quickly shift into a “grievance process that kind of drags everybody down into hearings about minor disputes.”

Councilman Dave Geislinger said he would be more likely to support an issue seeking collective bargaining for all city employees rather than just firefighters. He said he’ll vote no. Councilmen Merv Bennett and Andy Pico also voiced opposition, indicating at least three opponents among the council’s nine members.

If the issue is shot down next month, Roy said, Local 5 will petition onto the April ballot.

Skorman, who expressed support for collective bargaining in the past, said he anticipates a lively debate next month. He noted that everybody, even those against the measure, appreciates and respects the firefighters.

Conrad Swanson

Conrad Swanson