Negotiate. Verb. To work or talk with others to settle a matter. That’s the dictionary definition. And that’s what has happened in the quest for a new city fire contract.
While obviously not everything either side would like, the tentative agreement between Omaha City Council negotiators and fire union leaders looks like a meaningful step toward resolving problems that have dogged city government for too long.
The proposed deal would give firefighters an average 1.6 percent annual raise through 2014 that includes an 18-month retroactive pay freeze. It would move firefighters closer to regular city health insurance, but with better prescription drug coverage.
It also would make some significant pension changes, including eliminating spiking; boosting employee contributions to the pension fund by $825,000 a year; lowering maximum pension benefits for new hires; raising from 45 to 55 the age at which new employees could retire without penalty, and adding a few more years of service needed before some current firefighters could receive maximum pension benefits.
The council took up negotiations after rejecting a deal struck by Mayor Jim Suttle’s administration and the union. The latest pact does include some provisions the mayor proposed.
According to the three council members who served on its negotiations committee — Jean Stothert, Chris Jerram and Pete Festersen — the proposed contract’s wage and health care changes would save taxpayers about $2.1 million over the next two years, while the pension fund would save $822 million over the next half century. Both would be welcome developments.
This new agreement still needs the approval of union members, the city Personnel Board and the City Council, and all the fine print is yet to be read.
But it appears to be a constructive response after a long period of bitterness, which the state Commission of Industrial Relations earlier described this way: “Rather than engage in meaningful negotiations with an eye toward reaching an agreement, the parties are interacting in an atmosphere of distrust, frustration, acrimony and almost constant litigation.”
If approved, this proposal would run through 2014. So it won’t be that long before a new round of talks begins again. Hopefully both sides will continue to show this commitment to respectful and productive negotiation.