The tentative agreement this week between Mayor Jean Stothert and the firefighters union shows something encouraging about the political culture in Omaha and Nebraska. The agreement provides a lesson that the power brokers in our nation’s capital would do well to learn from.
The history of friction between Stothert and the fire union goes back a good ways, and their prickly back-and-forth over cost-cutting options at the Fire Department had dragged on for weeks.
It would have been no surprise, although bad for the city, had the two sides remained at loggerheads.
Instead, they compromised. Each side gave a bit and came away less than fully happy. But the result, if the agreement wins approval from the city Personnel Board, the fire union and the City Council, is what at this point appears to be a constructive cooperation that enables Omaha to move ahead.
That result not only is healthy for the city’s fiscal management. It also sends a welcome message that Omaha, in contrast to the foot-dragging and political posturing in Washington, D.C., is a community that doesn’t let people’s strong disagreements paralyze the decision-making process.
Nebraska’s state government provided the same positive lesson a few years ago during the debate over how to revamp the state’s labor court, the Commission of Industrial Relations. Nebraska leaders explicitly said they wanted to avoid what happened in Wisconsin, where the state plunged into months of furious political tumult that left many embittered.
In Nebraska, labor and business interests took a different approach, with the encouragement of legislative leaders. The result was a reasonable compromise that the Legislature approved overwhelmingly.
Under the proposed Omaha fire agreement announced this week, the union is to drop the size of next year’s paramedic training program from 48 to nine people. The union’s leaders showed they not only provide life- and property-saving service to Omahans but are willing to work to help with the city’s fiscal health as well.
For her part, Stothert agreed not to lay off any firefighters while the current labor contract between the city and the union is in place through December of next year.
The $4 million in savings expected under that approach would achieve the central aim: getting the Fire Department on track to meeting next year’s $90.6 million budget.
What happened this week doesn’t mean that disagreement between the mayor and the fire union will magically disappear. But it does signal that Omaha can get things done, even in the face of honest disagreement.
That’s a positive, important reflection on our city.