Things have come a long way for the San Jose firefighters union Local 230 in the past 12 months, and union president Jeff Welch’s role can’t be overstated. A year ago, Local 230 was the lone bargaining group unable to agree on compensation concessions with the city. Forty-nine firefighters were laid off as a result. A year later, the firefighters union may be at the vanguard, leading the way for the city’s 10 other unions.
Last Thursday, Welch and his team put forward a proposal that would drop firefighters per engine from five to four, and cut total compensation for 647 firefighters by 10 percent—making Local 230 the first public employees’ union to come to a deal with the city. Less than 24 hours later, five other city unions offered a similar proposal. Over a three-day voting period that ended Monday, 95 percent of Local 230’s members approved the deal. .
Welch was vice president of Local 230 last year and took over as president following the retirement of longtime veteran Randy Sekany. Alex Gurza, the city’s lead negotiator, describes the resulting difference in the union’s attitude at the bargaining table as “remarkable” and “drastic.”
“I think that makes a big difference if we’re all working toward solving the same problem,” Gurza says.
Last year, Sekany took a hard-line stance that left firefighters and the city at a stalemate. Officials on both sides admit negotiations were hampered by years of bad blood.
Sekany’s strategy was the scare tactic: He issued numerous statements warning that the inevitable cuts would result in slower response times, which meant property loss and death. In the midst of negotiations, Sekany stunned observers by proposing an alternative budget for the city, which included perplexing line-item cuts such as hybrid cars and ergonomic chairs.
In the end, the city reached a compromise with only one group of sworn officers—the Police Officers Association.