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Scot Lehigh

Firefighters’ arbitration ruling just can’t stand

By Scot Lehigh
April 23, 2010

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HERE ARE two questions for anyone who supports the 19 percent raise arbitrators have awarded Boston firefighters over four years.

Why should our already well-paid firefighters get a pay hike that’s 5 percentage points more than the Boston police got over a similar period?

And why should they get a significantly bigger average yearly increase than local private-sector workers have seen?

Don’t tell me it’s because they’ll now have to undergo random drug and alcohol testing. That’s absurd. The city shouldn’t have to pay for an assurance of drug- and alcohol-free performance. That should be a basic condition of public-safety jobs. Or that they deserve extra because there will be a mild check on sick-time abuse.

The simple facts are these: It’s not fair for the firefighters to get this kind of raise. The city can ill-afford this kind of raise. And taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill for this kind of raise.

But already, we’re hearing palaver from city councilors about how this deal, because it came through arbitration, should be respected. That’s ridiculous. The arbitration binds only the Menino administration and Boston Firefighters Local 718. It does not bind the City Council, which can and should exercise its own independent judgment on the matter.

The solution? It’s as simple as this sentence from the state law governing arbitration: “If the municipal legislative body votes not to approve the request for appropriation, the decision or determination shall cease to be binding on the parties and the matter shall be returned to the parties for further bargaining.’’

The City Council needs to reject this raise and send the two sides back to the table. That’s exactly what the Worcester City Council did in 2004, when an arbitrator came in with an award for the firefighters that their city couldn’t afford.

In Boston, most city unions got an 11 percent raise over four years, says Sam Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau. The teachers and the police unions each got 14 percent, though with Quinn Bill cuts, the real raise was only 10 percent for some police officers, the city says.

“The bottom line,’’ Tyler says, “is that 19 percent over four years is extremely high compared to what other unions received during that same period, especially in light of the limited reforms the city gets in return.’’

Further, while Boston-area private-sector pay has increased an average of 3.4 percent a year for the last four years, the firefighters’ raise would average out to 4.75 percent a year.

Should the council fund this award, unions will no longer go to the bargaining table with the intention of negotiating in good faith. Instead, they’ll stubbornly dig in, with the aim of ending up in arbitration. And why not, if the City Council affirms that intransigence is the best route to bigger raises?

So far, councilors — some of whom are suddenly hard to reach — have taken a cautious approach.

On the plus side, there’s council president Michael Ross. “I start as a skeptic on this,’’ Ross tells me. “I’m going to demand a full airing of the issues and their consequences.’’

But John Tobin and Bill Linehan have both said they are leaning toward funding the raise. Indeed, on Wednesday, the Globe quoted Tobin saying that “a vote against funding this contract goes against collective bargaining, and it goes against the spirit of binding arbitration.’’

That formulation is nonsense on stilts, ignoring as it does the council’s independent role in the process. When I talked to him, Tobin stressed that though he wants to read the full decision, he remains a presumptive yes vote — even while noting that “I have changed my mind before.’’

“I fully recognize that 19 percent over four years is a big number,’’ he said, “and I understand that people are upset over it.’’ He knows that, Tobin said, because of the calls his office has received.

Here’s hoping that every councilor’s phone starts ringing off the hook. Callers should make it clear that they won’t support anyone in any future election who ignores the public interest by voting to fund this raise.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.

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