The president of the Boston firefighters' union offered a last-minute contract concession today when he testified before the City Council, agreeing to postpone a pay hike for a year if the Council votes to approve a controversial arbitration award.
"I have with me an agreement to freeze that 2.5 percent that everybody is concerned about in this city, for one year," said Edward A. Kelly, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 718. "Let's work together. We want to work with you ... We have made a credible, real concession."
The offer by Kelly, which was immediately welcomed by several councilors at the hearing, could be enough to sway the four undecided votes he needs on the council to secure a seven-vote majority. Kelly's concession would save the city $4.3 million in 2011, giving up for a year money that the union had won in exchange for random drug and alcohol screening.
"What you have made is a significant, unilateral concession. ... So my hat's off to you," said City Councilor Stephen J. Murphy, one of the undecided councilors.
At issue is a four-year contract dating to 2006 that would give firefighters five raises. The city and the union spent yesterday sparring over the total cost of the award and the size of the pay increase and argued about how much money was available in the city’s coffers.The Menino administration reached an impasse with the union during a bitter four-year dispute, which sent the contract to arbitration. The arbitration award was made as the city faces a budget for next year that closes four libraries, pulls staff out of community centers, and lays off up to 250 workers.
The Menino administration and two independent fiscal watchdogs have said that the contract amounts to an average raise of 19 percent and will cost the city $74 million over five years. The union disputes those figures, maintaining that the award is only a four-year deal that specifies 16.5 percent in pay increases. The union argues that the administration and others have unfairly included longevity pay in their calculations.
Further details of the concession offer that Kelly referred to during the hearing weren't immediately available.
The Menino administration has expressed skepticism about the concession, which was discussed Wednesday behind the scenes as 10 hours of hearings played out in the Council chamber. The administration is concerned that Kelly's promise to put off the June 30 raise would not necessarily extend the contract to five years. The union could conceivably come back in a few months and ask for their regular yearly raise.
John Dunlap, the city's director of labor relations, testifying after the union officials called the firefighters' offer a "meaningful concession," but came back with a counteroffer that asked firefighters to extend the contract to five years. In exchange, they would get the 2 ˝ percent raise after six months.
Backroom negotiations had dominated the morning. The hearing, scheduled for 9:30, did not start until after 10 a.m. and immediately went into a recess that stretched 45 minutes. 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.
At one point, the union chief kicked a reporter out of a councilor's office so he could press his case. Asked about the persistent rumor that he planned to offer a concession to get the contract through the council, Kelly remained noncommittal.
"I can't confirm or deny anything," Kelly said he closed the door to the councilor's office with a thud.
Kelly then huddled with his union leadership, pacing back and forth in the hall, before filing into the council chamber at about 11:30 a.m. The announcement of the concession came after combative testimony by both the union's lawyer and the union vice president.
The announcement capped a wild 24 hours at City Hall. Hundreds had gathered outside Wednesday for a fiery prolabor rally. Boston police and municipal guards roamed the fifth floor of City Hall, standing by while scores of firefighters milled about. Inside the council chamber, dozens more firefighters occupied seats. One man in a red shirt held a small boy dressed in a firefighting outfit.
The proceedings in the council chamber swung from tedious discussion about city finances to loud, contentious arguments between representatives of labor and management, rehashing arguments about how the decision was made and how it has played out in the news.
A parade of labor leaders came before the council Wednesday, including representatives of the steel workers, the Boston Teachers Union, the longshoremen, the Boston Police Superior Officers Federation, and the Boston Newspaper Printing Pressman’s Union. Turning down the contract, they said, would be an assault on collective bargaining as a whole.
Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
On the beat
Columnist Shirley Leung says Boston mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh should focus on middle-class housing. Read more