San Francisco Mayor Threatens Mass Firing, Settles for Furloughs

Published April 14, 2010

With San Francisco facing a $522 million budget deficit, Mayor Gavin Newsom (D) proposed firing more than 15,000 city employees and then rehiring some of them, at fewer hours per week, to save money.

After intense budget negotiations with city employee unions, Newsom agreed to let city workers instead take 12 furlough days for the year instead of seeing their work week reduced to 37.5 from 40 hours

San Francisco’s $6.6 billion yearly budget equates to about $8,000 per city resident.

Political Calculation?
Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association in Los Angeles, said he believes Newsom was never going to fire nearly all of San Francisco’s municipal employees.

“It has been our experience with politicians who put these types of plans [proposals to lay off most public employees] that ultimately they are beholden to the public employee unions. [Mayor Newsom] is very influenced by the public employee unions, and it was hard to imagine he would do anything to severely impact their gravy train,” he said.

But Professor Corey Cook of the University of San Francisco, who has been closely following political developments in the city, said he thinks Newsom was serious.

‘Out of Painless Options’
“Newsom’s relations with the unions in the state and in San Francisco are complicated,” he said. “He has never been a favorite son to the unions in any way. He has never enjoyed widespread union support,” Corey said.

“This suggestion [to fire city workers en masse] was a Hail Mary pass,” he added. “It was bold, but this is not rocket science, either. His options to confront the city’s budget deficit were limited, and we will ultimately see whether this was the right thing to do in the long run. He has run out of painless options to solve the deficit. The easy stuff is done.”

Vosburgh remains convinced Newsom’s suggestion was motivated mostly by political considerations. Newsom is running for lieutenant governor on the Democratic Party ticket and needs to show voters he is willing to confront public employee unions and even dare to anger them, Vosburgh says.

High Pay and Perks
California state and local government employees are among the highest-paid government workers in the nation and enjoy lavish defined-benefit pension contracts and health benefits. Polls show a large majority of Californians are angry about the levels of pay and benefits state and local government workers receive.

With the state facing a $20 billion deficit, Vosburgh thinks it was just good politics for Newsom to suggest firing most city public employees.

“A lot of the public is highly suspicious of his motives,” Vosburgh said.

Thomas Cheplick ([email protected]) writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.