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Oklahoma City public safety unions plan more political activism

BY JOHN ESTUS and BRYAN DEAN Modified: February 26, 2010 at 9:44 am •  Published: February 14, 2010

/> 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 on
Even 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.”