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Scot Lehigh

Lessons to heed from the firefighter talks

By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / June 11, 2010

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YOU CAN say this about the Boston City Council: By showing a little resolve on the firefighters’ contract, councilors helped make a bad situation somewhat better this week.

The pact approved Wednesday is still too rich given the uncertain state of the economy, the ongoing state and city budgetary problems, and the smaller average raises private-sector workers have seen. Further, the deal sets a problematic precedent by explicitly paying for drug and alcohol testing for current firefighters. And it will no doubt establish 4 percent as the other public safety unions’ expectation for next year’s raises.

And yet, this may have been the best that could be salvaged given that the Boston Firefighters Local 718 had a more generous arbitration award in hand — and decent odds of winning a council majority merely by deferring its raise for drug and alcohol testing for a year.

Instead, the union also agreed to cut that 2.5 percent raise back to 1.5 percent. That means that of the $100 million that the arbiter’s award would have given it for testing over the next 20 years, Local 718 gave back $45 million. For that concession, union president Ed Kelly and the firefighters deserve considerable credit. They got that and more Wednesday from a City Council that had been caught between an expectant union and a dyspeptic public.

Now the question is, how could the contract-negotiation process be improved to avoid a repeat of this acrimonious four-year standoff, which eventually left the council and the administration grappling with a hard-to-afford arbitration award?

For starters, both the administration and the unions in question should make public their opening positions as they enter negotiations. Taxpayers have a right to know upfront what a union wants in increased pay and benefits, what the city is offering, and how both sides justify their stances. As the body that ultimately votes to fund union contracts, the council has every right to make such a request.

If both sides had to justify their positions from the get-go, it would greatly reduce the game-playing and the stances taken just for bargaining leverage. It would also let watchdog agencies analyze the costs and effects of the competing proposals. As it is now, voters and taxpayers often only get a real sense of a contract’s cost and ramifications after an agreement has been negotiated or an arbitrator’s award arrived at. Indeed, Quinn Bill benefits popped up virtually unannounced in the 1998 police contract, says Sam Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau.

“There was no indication it was coming, and all of a sudden, bang, it was in the contract,’’ Tyler said. “That is the best example of why there’s a need for some discussion about the direction the two sides want to go with a contract.’’

Secondly, rather than letting negotiations drag on like an existentialist’s nightmare, after a certain point — a year, perhaps — councilors should push to do what they did here: become observers in the process.

Certainly the presence of Councilors Felix Arroyo, Sal LaMattina, and Michael Ross at Tuesday’s negotiating session helped change the acrimonious relationship between the bargaining parties.

“The dynamics of the negotiations were far more congenial and productive because both parties needed to demonstrate a good faith effort to resolve the dispute,’’ said John Dunlap, the city’s director of labor relations.

“Trust came into it,’’ said Robert McCarthy, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts. “They were performing in true labor-management fashion, with give and take on both sides.’’ Although McCarthy initially feared that having the councilors present “would convolute the process,’’ actually “it was more like a family intervention,’’ he says.

Why? “Ross, myself, and Sal don’t have that history that they have,’’ suggested Arroyo, former political director for SEIU Local 615. “We let them know that this had to keep moving.’’

So it was a family intervention that worked, up to a point. After years of bitter and unproductive bargaining, there’s surely a lesson there for a better way forward.

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

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