Oklahoma City’s public safety unions plan to get more politically active this year as they try to mend what’s widely regarded as a broken relationship with City Hall. The decision marks an about-face for the police and firefighter unions. Historically, the unions have stayed mostly silent on city politics and policy, though they have regularly donated to city council and mayoral campaigns. After running an unsuccessful campaign against the city’s MAPS 3 proposal last year, union leaders say they now see benefit in political activism. "You will in the future tend to see us to be more vocal than we have been in the past on issues of general concern to the public, like the MAPS issue was,” said Gil Hensley, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 123. "I believe we have that responsibility to the public.” Hensley added: "Who better than the employee groups that are actually on the inside looking out and seeing what’s happening to do that?” Increased activism by the unions could be a burden or blessing to the political unity credited for Oklahoma City’s ongoing resurgence, political observers and city and union leaders say. As part of its planned political activity, the fire union plans to launch a Web site soon that Phil Sipe, president of International Association of Firefighters Local 157, said will serve as a forum for the union to "intelligently” advocate for or against city policy. Sipe said the goal is to inform and engage residents. The unions’ political prowess will be tested quickly by public safety concerns that figure to get more attention in coming months. Immediately pressing is a 1 percent raise firefighters have demanded that the city says it can’t afford. The matter could go before voters in May. The city is also preparing to undergo substantial budget cuts — a process that poses another potential political pitfall for the unions. "When everyone is asked to make sacrifices, these unions have got to tread carefully in their negotiations,” said Keith Gaddie, a University of Oklahoma political science professor and local government expert. Oklahoma City’s budget shortfall this year is $25 million, which is 7 percent below projections. City officials expect they’ll have much less money to work with next fiscal year than this year and are budgeting in anticipation of that.
Contract dispute remainsThe firefighter union’s first political task may be persuading voters that its members deserve raises. No other city employees received a raise last year. Following a lengthy contract dispute, arbitrators in September granted firefighters a 1 percent raise. As a result, council members will likely ask voters whether to give the firefighters a raise. The binding arbitration law that governs negotiations between cities and public safety unions allows city leaders to take a work contract before voters if an arbitrator sides with the union, something Oklahoma City has never done before. The election could be avoided if the two sides agree on a deal, which seems unlikely. "The negotiation between the city and the unions is one of the most broken things I’ve ever seen,” said Ward 5 Councilman Brian Walters, perhaps the union’s biggest ally on the council. "There is no trust on either side. It’s absolutely sad.” Walters was the only council member who joined the police and fire unions to oppose MAPS 3. He agrees with the unions’ contentions that they are understaffed. But like the rest of the council, he said there is no money for raises. Plunging sales tax revenues caused the city to make 2 percent mid-year budget cuts, with even larger cuts expected for the next fiscal year. Ward 4 Councilman Pete White said he comes from a union background and is inclined to support labor in contract disputes but can’t advocate giving a raise to firefighters that will cause the city to lay off even more employees. Quelling critics such as White could be a tough task for the union, especially if an election takes place, Gaddie said. Gaddie said public goodwill for police and firefighters can take unions a long way, but it will only go so far when cities are laying off workers. "This may be one exception where the public may not go for it,” Gaddie said. White said the campaign against MAPS 3 will pale in comparison to a campaign in which the two sides square off against one another over firefighter raises. "It would be us against them, and that’s bound to be uglier than the last one,” White said. City leaders fear an election putting City Hall up against firefighters could cause both sides’ public image to suffer, making it tough to keep the city moving in a positive direction. Former Mayor Kirk Humphreys said an election pitting the city against its firefighters or police is a bad idea. "There has always been great reluctance really on both sides to ever go to a vote of the people on a contract,” Humphreys said. "It’s a really hard thing for the city to win and there are no winners on that deal.”
Ready to move onEven as the firefighter-raise debate looms, Sipe speaks optimistically about the city’s future relationship with its public safety unions. "We can make this work, and our membership very much wants to make it work,” Sipe said. Council members said it’s nice to hear the unions talk about getting along. "There will have to be some indication that the unions get it — that they understand that to ask for wage increases and ask for more personnel is out of touch with the reality of the current situation,” White said. "They have to be realistic.”