The roiling debate over the controversial arbitration award for Boston firefighters came to a head today at City Hall, where an army of firefighters held a defiant, spirited rally before standing watch over marathon hearings in the City Council that inflamed passions.
The proceedings, stretching into the evening, swung from tedious discussion about city finances to loud, contentious arguments between representatives from labor and management, rehashing arguments about how the decision was made and how it played out in the media.
At issue is a four-year contract dating to 2006 that would give firefighters five raises. The city and the union sparred 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. At one point, Robert McCarthy, the president of Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts, who represented the union, shouted at his counterpart one seat away.
"It's outrageous and he ought to resign every position he holds!" McCarthy said, pointing at the management representative on the panel that decided the award, Mayor Dean Mazzarella of Leominster.
Mazzarella had just told the council that McCarthy threw a fit when the independent arbiter had presented a contract that did not include a salary bump in exchange for drug and alcohol testing. Mazzarella held up the piece of paper that he claimed proved that arbiter Dana Edward Eischen added an extra 2 1/2 percent pay raise at the last moment.
A voice of moderation came from a bespeckled man seated between the two adversaries: Thomas A. Kochan, a professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who performed an independent analysis for the council. Kochan noted that all the parties needed to settle the dispute currently sat in the chamber. He offered the council some simple advice.
"I think you should say to the parties, 'Get this resolved. We are not going to tell you if we are going to vote it up or down,'" Kochan said, suggesting that they get a finite amount of time to come up with a compromise. "I believe the best option for you right now is to work with the parties, hold their feet to the fire, and get something done."
The council must approve the contract for it to take effect.
Councilor Sal LaMattina from East Boston suggested that they "should resolve this tonight one way or the other," but he, too, pressed for a compromise.
"Today I can't support this," LaMattina said. "A lot of people are calling me up and they don't want to pay for drug and alcohol testing. We don't pay the public works guys. We don't pay the transportation guys for drug testing. And we shouldn't."
Other councilors also spoke against the award because of the last pay raise for drug and alcohol testing, including Mark Ciommo of Brighton and Chuck Turner of Mattapan. But others voiced their support, including John M. Tobin of West Roxbury and Bill Linehan of South Boston. The contract requires a seven-vote majority. A vote has not been scheduled.
A parade of labor leaders came before the council and made the stakes clear of the vote come the next election. They demanded that the council reflexively approve the award because it was the product of arbitration. Anything less would be an assault, they said, on collective bargaining as a whole.
"If you people vote this down, then believe me," said Lou Mandarini, president of the Laborers' Local 22, "One thing about labor, we never forget. Never."
Turner snapped back.
"I am insulted -- insulted -- to have labor leaders coming into the council and tell us that you expect us not to think," Turner said.
Before the hearings began, hundreds of firefighters and other workers massed outside City Hall today for a fiery rally to urge the council to approve it. Labors leaders and a few city councilors took turns at a microphone, painting the vote as a referendum on union support. The crowd, dominated by men in red T-shirts, roared in response.
"This is about labor, working people having a voice, a seat at the table," said Edward A. Kelly, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 718. "This is an attack on collective bargaining."
Some used the stage to attack Mayor Thomas M. Menino, describing him as a monarch who rules on a whim. One man in the crowd held a sign that read: "Tom Menino, The Democrat who hates Unions."
"You can't be pro-labor and against this award," said Rich Rogers, executive secretary-treasurer of the Greater Boston Labor Council.
The city, which in the process of closing four libraries, pulling staff out of community centers, laying off up to 250 workers, has said it cannot afford the award.
"Tactics by Local 718 distract from the real issue," said Dot Joyce, Menino's spokeswoman. "This is a taxpayer issue because Mayor Menino has always been for the little guy."
The Menino administration reached agreements with 43 of the city's 44 unions, Joyce said, with the firefighters the only holdout because their demands have been unreasonable for taxpayers.
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 specifics 16.5 percent in pay hikes. The union argues that the administration and others have unfairly included longevity pay in their calculations.
At today's rally, Councilor Linehan of South Boston left no doubt where he stood.
"For me, there is no other vote but to approve this," Linehan told the crowd. "This is collective bargaining. This is binding arbitration."
Among those supporting Local 718 was Nick Argenio, 44, who said he was a Boston resident, a Republican, and a member of Local 2222 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
"We want rights for firefighters,'' he said. "Look what they do for the city? They do a damned good job. Would you rather have an inadequate fire department?''
Argenio added that he wasn't a Democrat, the political party traditionally aligned with unions. "I'm a Republican and I'm for this,'' he said. "They are a hardworking group of people. They deserve respect.''
One man who identified himself as Jack Kelly and said he was a Boston firefighter repeatedly called the council "spineless cowards.'' He said the councilors should "stand up'' to the mayor and approve the new contract.
Kelly said that other public safety unions got pay raises during their contract talks, and so, now, should firefighters. "Menino wanted this in the first place, but then he turned around and lost,'' Kelly said. "They [the council] need to stand up to Menino.''
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