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A Better Way to Work with Firefighters

As printed in the San Diego Daily Transcript; May 3, 2007

Steve Francis

Thursday, May 3, 2007

After Mayor Jerry Sanders successfully urged San Diego City Council to impose another one-year contract without a pay raise on city firefighters, a member of the force, deeply frustrated with the city, disgustedly threw down the handmade sign he had brought to the meeting. What helped give rise to this frustration was the mayor's previously stated rationale for not granting a pay raise to the city's firefighters: They "should be based on market rate," he said. As a city, we must do better and put an end to the bitterness I saw play out on CityTV 24.

When tough financial decisions must be made and options are limited, it is sometimes too easy to focus solely on the numbers and lose sight of other equally important factors. While there always will be times when employers will be in the unenviable position of having to convey unwelcome news to employees, the manner in which such news is delivered can significantly affect employee morale, and ultimately the effectiveness of the organization.

It must be recognized each employee brings unique talents and special skills to an employer. Rather than treat workers as widgets and just another commodity to be bought for the lowest possible price, it would have been far better to remember firefighters are, first and foremost, men and women who do a vitally important and dangerous job, and deserve to be treated with respect.

The liabilities the city faces have put it between a rock and a $3 billion dollar hard place. As we have previously written in these pages, there is plenty of blame to go around; endlessly debating how the city got into such financial distress distracts from the goal of developing solutions.

Even with very robust increases in revenue over the past two years, this year's city budget will mean San Diego's liability for retiree health care will increase and, at best, the city will tread water in addressing deferred maintenance. The critical nature of these liabilities and past contracts that obligated the city to raise salaries for white- and blue-collar workers have put budget-makers in a severe bind.

But the city's fiscal straightjacket and even the past success of the firefighters' union at the negotiating table are not excuses to ratchet up the rhetoric and dehumanize the city's most important asset: its people. While labor markets are important to consider, it is unwise for our leaders to emphasize such issues when making certain decisions. Given the current state of the city's financial affairs, there is more than enough opportunity to talk about other considerations that may have affected the decision not to grant a pay raise.

If workers come to believe they are viewed only as a commodity by management, we should expect they will respond to such perceptions with decreased loyalty and organizational morale will suffer. Even if other municipalities are not offering signing bonuses and increased wages, workers faced with such statements from management are likely to want to go someplace where they feel more appreciated. It is not surprising that immediately after the impasse hearing, the firefighters' union announced it would help members find positions in other departments.

Saying words matter and rationale used by management was ill-chosen does not mean the mayor's position is necessarily wrong. Financial problems that the city faces are just too daunting for management not to be extremely conservative when it comes to giving raises. The firefighters also must understand based on media coverage there is a public perception their benefits are excessive and the public may therefore be unsympathetic to a pay raise.

We applaud the mayor for his efforts in trying to control costs. Although compensation always will remain an important way to express appreciation for the efforts of its work force, management must remain cognizant that firefighters take extreme pride in their work. Like police officers, we cannot thank them enough for the work they do.

As Tom Peters, author of the best-selling and widely acclaimed management book "In Search of Excellence" said: "The magic formula that successful businesses have discovered is to treat customers like guests and employees like people." In this instance, management could have done a better job in letting the firefighters know they are valued as people and not treated like cans of soup.

If hard feelings shown at the impasse hearing are a guide, the city has important fences to mend when it comes to our firefighters.