When the Salt Lake firefighters union abandoned wage talks with the city this week, it meant that all three of the public employee unions are at loggerheads with city officials over pay scales for the coming year. The difficulty is that the unions and the city both have strong arguments.
On the one hand, police, firefighters and other city workers have gone several years without raises as the city struggled with tight budgets. They have seen inflation erode their pay. The increases they are seeking seem modest and reasonable.On the other hand, the city has limited dollars and while a projected shortfall has become an estimated surplus, officials say they can go only part way toward meeting what the unions want.
If the problem is not resolved by the time the City Council adopts a budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, there may be serious repercussions, including unnamed "job actions." If the unions fail to obtain what they consider an adequate raise, it's certain there will be a serious morale problem and perhaps the loss of many of the best qualified people.
Understandably, the situation has produced a great deal of emotion and frustration. The letter to the editor from the Salt Lake Police Association in the Reader's Forum on the opposite page is an example.
It accuses the Deseret News of "blasting" the police union in an April 26 editorial. Actually, the editorial was sympathetic to the police plight and recognized the years without pay raises. It called upon the city to pay police adequately, to make improved pay a top priority and not allow police to be the victims every year of budget problems. Those sentiments still stand.
The letter criticizes use of the word "contract," in referring to the end of June budget deadline, saying that police did not sign a contract last year. That is technically correct, but the City Council did impose a pay scale and will do so again at the end of June, whether there is a signed agreement or not. How much of the pay issue involves merit pay and how much cost-of-living can be confusing, but it amounts to a mixture of both. Essentially, the letter quibbles over terminology.
While none of the city employee unions is planning an illegal strike - and the editorial didn't say they were - the word "strike" has been used by some disgruntled individuals. The main point of the editorial was to question the confrontational tactics of the union and to advise both sides to avoid "take it or leave it" demands. That objection remains and applies to the firefighters as well.
Writing letters to the U.S. Olympic Committee to discourage choosing Salt Lake City a site, or trying to persuade tourists not to visit the city are not the methods to win friends and influence people. To undercut the city's economy would only hurt the source of funds that must support any pay hike. That makes no sense.
City employees have a strong case. They should make it without threats or questionable actions. In return, the City Council should take a sharp knife to the budget and try to find the 1 or 2 percent difference between what the unions want and what the city is offering.
That will work only if it is approached in a spirit of cooperation instead of antagonism.