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Oklahoma City council receives new fire union offer

BY JOHN ESTUS AND BRYAN DEAN Published: February 28, 2010

/> Ward 4 Councilman Pete White said Wednesday that in addition to an agreement from the union to forgo raises, the council wants an arbitration panel’s ruling last year that granted firefighters 1 percent raises thrown out.

"The arbitrators’ decision, from a legal standpoint, sets a precedent that we can’t live with.”

The city has challenged that ruling in court.

Negotiation process
The lawsuit by the city is the result of a complex arbitration process many council members believe favors unions. More often than not, unions win in arbitration against the city.

In Oklahoma, arbitration over a work contract for a labor union doesn’t occur unless negotiations fail.

Okahoma City usually begins negotiations with its unions in January or February each year, city personnel director Diana Berry said. The fiscal year begins July 1.

When negotiations begin, city council members meet in executive session to discuss their priorities for negotiation. The two sides then begin exchanging proposals in effort to reach an agreement, Berry said.

After a month, either side can declare an impasse if negotiations aren’t progressing. Because public safety unions cannot strike in Oklahoma, the process moves to arbitration if negotiations fail.

A panel of three arbitrators oversees the process.

Each side appoints its own arbitrator. A third, neutral arbitrator comes from a list of 10 potential arbitrators sent by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. The city and the union take turns striking names from the list until one is left. The city strikes the first name, which can be advantageous because they also make the ninth strike that effectively chooses the neutral arbitrator, Berry said.

The two sides then exchange last best offers seven days before the arbitration hearing date. At the hearing, either side can offer evidence to support their position, Berry said.

After the hearing, arbitrators have seven days to choose one of the last best offers, with the neutral arbitrator usually casting the deciding vote.

If the arbitrators rule in favor of a union, a city has one last option — call an election to let voters pick between the offers.

Such an election has never been held in Oklahoma City, Berry said, but one is currently set for May on the firefighter work contract.

The lawsuit the city filed concerns the wording of the ballot for that election.