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Missouri cities oppose strengthening firefighter's union

September 23, 2002
By: Jason McLure
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - A measure on this November's ballot to strengthen the bargaining power of Missouri firefighters will face stiff opposition from local governments.

Under Amendment Two, firefighters and emergency workers, who have seen the image of their profession rocket to unprecedented heights since the Sept. 11 tragedy, would gain the rights of collective bargaining and binding arbitration with their municipal employers.

The Missouri Council of Firefighters, a union which represents 5,000 municipal employees, says the proposal would give firefighters the same rights that private sector workers already enjoy.

"Firefighters don't want the right to strike," said John Corbett, president of the organization. "We hope the citizens will see that we have families too and we want the same security that they have. We don't want more than anyone else has."

Corbett added that increased bargaining power would also lead to improved safety measures for firefighters.

But the Missouri Municipal League, which represents 624 city and town governments, argues that the amendment would be a disaster for taxpayers.

Gary Markenson, executive director of the group, said that if the measure is approved, firefighters undoubtedly would receive better pay, causing cities to either raise taxes or reduce services in other areas.

Markenson added that the process of binding arbitration was not only costly but undemocratic.

"It's really, when you think about it, the worst of both worlds," he said. "You can't raise taxes without a vote of the people, and outside arbitrators can come in and spend your money."

Markenson said the measure would be a terrible precedent for government, as other municipal employees such as police, teachers, and highway workers would demand similar rights.

"Right now firefighters are sort of the aristocrats of public employees," he said. "If you look at their wages and fringe benefits and working conditions...and they deserve every bit of it...but they're the highest compensated public employees there are. This just puts them into a more favored class."

Markenson also disagreed that municipal workers should enjoy the same rights as those in the private sector.

"In the private sector if the union demands too much [management] can move a plant or transfer or go out of business or do all sorts of stuff," he said. "In the public sector there's no way you can say the fire department has got too much of an arbitration award, we can't afford it so we're going to abolish the fire department or move it elsewhere or go into a different line of work."

The issue of granting Missouri public employees collective bargaining and arbitration rights is not a new one. It has failed previously in both the courts and the legislature.

In 1948, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that public employees do not have the right to bargain collectively. In 1982, it ruled they did not have the right to arbitration by a third party either.

A measure similar to this year's amendment passed the Missouri legislature in 1990, but was vetoed by then governor John Ashcroft.