Fire board will lose its game of 'contract chicken'

Desperate to save money, a California fire board threatening retroactive pay cuts has painted itself into a corner

A news story today introduced a term I'd not seen before — retroactive pay cut. And it appears to be a nasty little tactic being employed to get a leg up in the firefighters' contract negotiation.

Here's how the story has played out so far. Last night, the Live Oak, Calif. Central Fire Board voted unanimously to slash its 46 firefighters' pay by 14 percent. In fairness, one board member abstained — smart move.

The board reached it's 14 percent by taking away 7 percent of the firefighters' current pay and retroactively taking back 7 percent they have earned over the past 12 months. The move takes effect in July.

But, there's a catch. The pay cuts, retroactive and current, disappear if the firefighters renegotiate their current contract before mid-July. The administration and firefighters have been trying to agree on a contract for two years.

The Local's attorney said she's never heard of such a move and doesn't believe it is legal. That's pretty much what another lawyer I talked to said.

Likely to fail
Of course this tactic smacks of a "give me your lunch money and I won't beat you up" ploy. And I suspect it will fail miserably.

The board is desperate as it has a mountain of unfunded obligations — about $30 million — and this pay cut would save it a tick over $360,000.

One person I spoke with said he wouldn't be surprised if there was a behind-the-scenes push for a new tax levy and this was a ploy to push it through. Whether that's the case or if this is a genuine push for negotiating power; I believe it will fail. Here's why.

Most of us want a government that has its fiscal house in order. And most of us want that without additional tax burden. Those are often powerful motivators for public opinion.

But more powerful, even down to the very core of our existence, is our sense of fair play. People will make life-and-death decisions based on perceptions of fairness. And researchers have traced this back to our ape ancestors.

The board using its power of the purse strings to take back money the firefighters have already earned is very likely to kick in local residents' sense of fair play. The board is not playing fair and should expect a great deal of backlash.

The other reason it will fail is that the board is likely treading on thin legal ice. The lawyer I spoke with is fairly certain that during contract negotiations, the last ratified contract remains in effect. And a board can't just go into that contract and make willy-nilly changes.

If this matter is not sorted before July, I expect the union will sue the board for the back wages and probably anything else it can make stick. I don't envy the lawyer who has to defend that case.

This was a squirrely, desperate move by the board and one that needs to crash and burn in a big way so as to prevent other municipal entities from trying the same tactic. Hopefully, "retroactive pay cut" isn't around long enough to become part of our vocabulary.


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