During the heat of the fight that successfully defeated Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s Proposition B — which would have required city workers to contribute more to their pensions and dependents’ health premiums — The San Francisco Examiner editorial board met with a delegation from The City’s major public employee unions, including Tom O’Connor of the firefighters union and Gary Delagnes of the Police Officers Association.
The delegation presented some reasonable arguments against potential flaws in the proposition’s language and warned of negative consequences that could arise. Ultimately The Examiner did not drop its endorsement of Prop. B because the urgency of derailing the looming $1 billion annual costs for retirement and benefits of city employees seemed to trump any possible objections.
However, we gave the union leader concerns a respectful hearing and printed a balanced endorsement that didn’t dismiss labor’s objections to the measure.
One of the delegation’s strongest opposition arguments was that retirement and health coverage givebacks need not be imposed by ballot. All local public employee unions (with the one glaring exception of the Muni operators) already proved their willingness to negotiate deficit-reducing givebacks directly with Mayor Gavin Newsom and his Pension Reform Workgroup. This process, bringing together top City Hall fiscal officials and San Francisco Labor Council affiliates, delivered two prior pension and health benefit reform measures approved by voters in 2008 and June 2010.
The union leaders who met with The Examiner strongly stated their agreement that The City’s ballooning pension and benefit costs are unsustainable and would in a few years lead to crippling cuts in basic municipal services — accompanied by drastic layoffs of civil employee union members. They expressed willingness to continue serious negotiations.
So now, following the election, Mayor Newsom has reconvened the workgroup and meetings are to begin this week. While Newsom will only be mayor for some eight more weeks before taking office in Sacramento as lieutenant governor, restarting direct reform negotiations between City Hall and labor could hopefully build enough momentum to continue the process under the interim mayor taking office in January.
This means the time has come for The City’s major unions to do what they told The Examiner they would do. They must live up to the promises they made to the public while fighting Prop. B and participate in serious action to rein in runaway San Francisco pension benefit costs. It’s a good sign that some of the key union chiefs are going on record to specifically confirm labor’s pledges.
Tom O’Connor, president of Firefighters Local 798, said. “We all understand the need to look at further reforms and proposals that are fair and equitable to workers and protect city taxpayers and services for the long-term ... We’re ready to roll up our sleeves and solve the problem. If police and fire have to lead the way, then so be it.”
That is exactly the attitude needed to rescue The City once and for all from its explosively growing burden of unfunded retirement obligations.