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Boston Firefighters Agree to Postponed Raises

Boston Firefighters Agree to Postponed Raises

Firefighters and their supporters listened yesterday as International Association of Fire Fighters Local 718’s president, Edward A. Kelly, addressed the Boston City Council. [AP]

Boston Globe via YellowBrix

June 04, 2010

BOSTON – The Boston firefighters’ union offered an 11th-hour contract concession on wages yesterday to the City Council, a dramatic twist that appeared to significantly improve the chances that councilors will approve a controversial arbitration award.

Councilors hailed what they called an unprecedented move by Edward A. Kelly, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 718, who made the proposal with a flourish, rising to his feet at a City Hall hearing waving a two-page document. The deal would delay by a year a 2 1/2-percent raise an independent arbiter gave firefighters as a quid pro quo for drug and alcohol testing, saving the city an estimated $4.5 million next fiscal year.

“Let’s work together. We want to work with this administration,’’ Kelly said, acknowledging that the proposed raises for firefighters come as the city lays off librarians, custodians, and workers in the city print shop. “We’ve made a credible, real concession in the face of our own not having a raise for over five years.

“We’re standing with you,’’ Kelly concluded, his voice rising as firefighters broke out in booming applause. “We’re here to help the citizens of Boston. Stand with us.’’

Despite lauding Kelly and lashing out at the city administration, the council stopped short of approving the contract, instead scheduling a vote for Wednesday. But the reception Kelly’s proposal received showed a shift in momentum in favor of the firefighters, especially among councilors who remain undecided.

“Thank you for putting this forward,’’ said Councilor Rob Consalvo, one of the swing votes. “This is real. This is serious. I think it’s a great step in trying to bring resolution to this issue. And I think it will.’’

Kelly’s concession came as an addendum to the arbitration award and requires the signature of Mayor Thomas M. Menino, but not the ratification of the union rank and file, said the union’s lawyer, E. David Wanger.

Council President Michael P. Ross asked Menino administration officials to come back Monday morning with a response to the proposed compromise.

The concession from Kelly was initially brokered Tuesday night at the West Roxbury kitchen table of Councilor John M. Tobin Jr. after weeks of discussion, according to two people involved. Joining him at his home were two other city councilors who have been firmly in the camp of the firefighters’ union, Bill Linehan and Felix G. Arroyo.

Kelly arrived that night with Robert McCarthy, president of Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts. With an offer on the table, people at the meeting said, Kelly made a phone call to Ross, who agreed that it was the type of concession he had been looking for when he vowed to reject the contract if the union did not give something up.

“It was negotiated by the stalwarts on the council’’ who had been publicly saying they planned to vote ‘yes’ on the contract, Tobin said. “At some point, we have to move on. In my years on the council, I have never seen such a divisive issue. It’s pitting neighbor against neighbor. People are getting in arguments at Little League games.’’

At issue is a four-year contract, from 2006 to 2010, granting firefighters five raises over that period. The biggest point of contention has been the fifth raise the arbiter awarded on the last day of the contract, June 30, a 2 1/2-percent increase in exchange for undergoing drug and alcohol testing.

The Menino administration’s initial counteroffer yesterday would have cut the deferral of that raise to six months but extended the contract through 2011. That would prevent the union from coming back and asking for another raise on July 1 of this year, as negotiations for a new contract begin.

“We are not dismissing what the City Council has accomplished or the meaningful concession by the firefighters’ union,’’ said John Dunlap, the city’s director of labor relations.

The proposal put forward by the union would still potentially give firefighters two raises in a year, even if it delays that reality for 12 months, Dunlap said. Those two potential pay increases would create havoc at the bargaining table, Dunlap said, as the city sits down with its other unions, who will want the same.

“The mayor is taking this very seriously. He appreciates the council and 718’s movement on the issue,’’ said Menino spokeswoman Dot Joyce. “He still remains concerned about the impact on other labor agreements and what that will mean for the taxpayers of Boston.’’

Councilor John R. Connolly, still undecided, was one of several councilors who had harsh words for the mayor’s staff, describing their counteroffer as no give and “all take from the city.’’

“If the city signs President Kelly’s concession proposal, then I am definitely a ‘yes’ because the city is saying it is fiscally responsible,’’ Connolly said after the hearing. If they don’t, he said, the city needs “to come back with a real compromise.’’

The councilors who brokered the concession fretted that the deal could fall apart as marathon hearings Wednesday stretched into the night. Yesterday, backroom negotiations dominated the morning. Councilors conferred in small groups on the chamber floor, while spectators — firefighters, city officials, and media — tried to discern what might be happening by reading body language and facial expressions. Kelly roamed the hallway outside councilor’s office and met with members in small groups.

Kelly huddled with his union leadership, pacing back and forth in the hall, before entering the council chamber. Before Kelly’s dramatic announcement, other union officials disputed testimony offered by the city, tried to undercut witnesses called as independent experts, and lashed out at the media for allegedly vilifying firefighters. They also reminded councilors that most of them agreed to vote for the arbitration award regardless of the decision when they sought Local 718’s endorsement in the fall campaign. “You all agreed,’’ said Rich Paris, the union’s vice president. “You gave us your word.’’

Linehan said now, with the concession, there was little reason to reject the award.

“With all due respect,’’ he said, the proposal “gives enormous cover to my colleagues.’’