Local 27 of the Seattle Firefighters Union is proposing a voter initiative that would mandate four-person fire crews by amending the Seattle City Charter, which is a bad idea. Local 27 has also been...

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Local 27 of the Seattle Firefighters Union is proposing a voter initiative that would mandate four-person fire crews by amending the Seattle City Charter, which is a bad idea.

Local 27 has also been negotiating a new labor contract. The citizen initiative thus becomes a tool in public-employee labor negotiations. The purpose of the citizen initiative is for the people to bypass their elected representatives and make law directly. In some matters, such as reducing the number of County Council seats or raising the sales tax to provide money for schools, it is fine. These are general questions for the general public. But used to confer a specific benefit for a specific group, it is questionable.
The state has already gone far down this road. Voters have been presented with a statewide initiative to raise the pay of teachers, and another to reduce class sizes, and another to give police and firefighters greater control over their pension fund. All of these were advanced by groups in high public esteem — firefighters in particular after Sept. 11, 2001 — and all passed.

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In each case, the public had only a vague idea what it was doing, but one group knew exactly what it wanted. In each case, the result has been financial imbalance and trouble.

That may occur even if the thing wanted is good. Four-person crews may be good, just as having 20 students in a class rather than 30 is good. The average voter, however, can’t possibly decide if, in modern firefighting, four-member crews should be mandated by charter.

Staffing a fire station — or a school — is a management decision. Perhaps it can be the subject of a labor negotiation, but not with voters. The question is too narrowly put and the outcome too easily manipulated. The voter initiative is not a legitimate tool of collective bargaining.