It’s a deal: Compromise reached in firefighter contract

Under pressure from City Council members, the Dorchester-based firefighters union and the Menino administration appeared to end years of bitter deliberations this week, coming to an agreement on a much-debated contract.

Under the compromise, the firefighters’ contract with the city includes a 1.5 percent pay raise in exchange for drug and alcohol testing, instead of the 2.5 percent an arbitration panel awarded to firefighters. The testing begins immediately. New hires receive the pay increase only if they take an annual physical, pass a physical ability test and take the drug and alcohol test.

The contract is also extended into a fifth year, fiscal 2011. It includes a wage increase of 2.5 percent that goes into effect in January 2011.

The compromise, signed by Mayor Thomas Menino and Local 718 chief Ed Kelly, is expected to save $45 million over the next twenty years. The City Council, which has the authority to vote up or down on a contract once it emerges from arbitration, was scheduled to approve the compromise as the Reporter went to press.

“The agreement, I believe, will put the debate over this contract behind us,” Menino said in a statement. “The firefighters who fought for their contract and the City Hall staff who negotiated across the table are all public servants; I am committed to working together with each of them in the days ahead.”

“We feel it’s fair for our members, it’s fair for the city,” Kelly said after the Tuesday night meeting.
City Council President Michael Ross, who was among the three councillors who joined both sides at the negotiating table, said “tremendous courage was demonstrated by both sides.”

Other councillors, called to City Hall late Tuesday night to hear a presentation from both sides on the deal, were similarly effusive in their praise.

“This is a good contract,” said City Councillor At-Large Felix Arroyo, a staunch union advocate who sat in on talks between the two sides, as did Ross and Councillor Sal LaMattina.

“I think it was a genuine willingness to come together,” said Dorchester Councillor Maureen Feeney. “This was just a collective effort.”

The mood of the council was a change from several hours before, when frustration was far more widespread than elation. Even as the vote tally was constantly changing, in the last few days the City Council had been in agreement on this much: they wanted the saga of firefighter arbitration award to be over.

Flashback to last week: After hours of testimony in front of the 13-member council and behind-the-scenes negotiations, the firefighters union on Thursday offered to defer for a year the 2.5 percent raise in exchange for drug and alcohol testing. That amounted to over $4 million in concessions, they said.

Arroyo said the move was nearly unprecedented. Feeney called the concession an “unforgettable moment.” “I’m proud to have Local 718 right in my backyard.”

But Menino said raised concerns about the move, saying other unions would request similar deals and cost the city more in the long run. He pressed for the proposed 2.5 percent to apply to only to the current crop of firefighters.

The continued stalemate prompted City Council members, including Councillor At-Large John Connolly and Council budget chief Mark Ciommo, to stick negotiators from both sides in City Hall’s Curley Room, complete with jugs of water, calculators and pads of paper. Negotiations eventually moved to the headquarters of a local union with ties to Arroyo.

“Negotiations were breaking down through the public hearings,” Connolly said in a statement. “Our idea was to force the parties to sit around a table outside the spotlight and come back with compromises that were fair to firefighters and to taxpayers.”

Before the Tuesday night compromise, Murphy, the longtime city councillor at-large who is mounting his second run for state treasurer, was widely viewed as the councillor in the toughest spot as the council mulled the vote on the arbitration award.

For Murphy, a vote for the unaltered contract has been as fraught with potential political peril as a vote against. A vote against the contract, which includes a 2.5 percent raise for firefighters in exchange for drug and alcohol testing, could enrage unions across the state. A vote for the contract could lead to Republican candidate Karyn Polito easily slamming him over fiscal responsibility issues, assuming he made it past the primary fight with another Democrat, Steve Grossman, who has been fundraising at a faster clip.

But after the hastily-convened Tuesday night meeting, Murphy left the room in high spirits.
He wasn’t alone: Kelly and several other union members walked up to an empty rostrum as reporters were interviewing city councillors in the well of the council chamber. As one member took their group picture, Kelly picked up the gavel wielded by the council president and giddily slammed it down.