OMAHA, NE — Wages for Omaha firefighters could be frozen in 2019.
Mayor Jean Stothert said the labor agreement between the city and firefighters union automatically extends another year if neither party requests to reopen negotiations by Feb. 1. The current agreement covers 2015 to 2018.
Neither the city nor the union asked to return to the table, Stothert said.
“If (the union) would’ve given us notice, we would’ve started negotiations, but they didn’t,” she said.
Firefighters union President Steve LeClair said in an interview that it’s “just a simple matter of missing the date.”
He said the two entities have historically engaged in negotiations without formal notification.
“I don’t anticipate it being a problem,” he said.
But, he added, “absent some collective bargaining agreement for 2019 and beyond, we will have a labor dispute.”
Stothert said she is willing to avoid the wage freeze if firefighters make other concessions. But she said keeping the contract as is would be better for the city financially. Stothert said the city had budgeted $2.5 million for wage increases in 2019 that now it may not need to tap.
“Why would the taxpayers want me to go and spend more of their money if you can get a salary freeze for a year?” Stothert said in an interview.
In a letter sent to Stothert on Feb. 6, LeClair acknowledged that neither entity had asked in writing to begin negotiations but was hopeful that the city would still start talks rather than spoil “the pot of goodwill.”
“We look forward to the prospect of engaging in collective bargaining with the City of Omaha for the purpose of finding a successor agreement to our current collective bargaining agreement,” he wrote in his letter.
Stothert responded in a letter Thursday by saying that the city “has no obligation” to begin talks and that the city may exercise its right to roll the contract over.
But she didn’t close the door on getting back to the table, saying she recognizes “the awkward position (LeClair) may be facing as a result of this development.”
LeClair said both the city and union have a vested interest in a number of issues, such as staffing on medic units, that negotiations would help solve.
“It’s not in anybody’s interest to not negotiate,” he said.
Stothert said she’s willing to negotiate with the union, but only if it’s better for the city and taxpayers.
In the letter to LeClair, Stothert recommended that the union “make an offer that is more advantageous to the city than a 2019 wage freeze and contract rollover.”
“If the union offers a better deal for the city, I’ll take it,” she said in the letter.
But, Stothert said, the union must agree to a couple of conditions, including that the city would not waive its right to roll the current contract over by “entertaining more attractive offers from the union.”
“If they say, ‘no we’re not going to make you any offer at all,’ then basically the choice is theirs to roll the contract over,” she said.
The letter didn’t specify a date the union needed to respond by, but Stothert said it would have to be soon.
“Talk about negotiating with a gun to your head,” LeClair said of Stothert’s recommendation.
The current labor agreement with the fire union was approved in 2015.
It included a major shift that moved firefighters’ health care plan to one administered by the union rather than the city.
It froze wages in 2015 but included a 2 percent increase in 2016 and 3 percent increase in 2017 and 2018.
The contract is set to expire at the end of the year.