(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
To some residents of Boston, the city’s firefighters are fearless public servants who deserve the pay raises and benefits awarded to them in a controversial arbitration decision. To others, their demands are "ridiculous" and "greedy."
Chris Long, of Jamaica Plain, believes firefighters should have to face drug and alcohol testing, but said they shouldn't get paid for it, as the award calls for. Yet Bridget Colvin, a mother of two from Roxbury, said firefighters bargained in good faith and deserve the award they got.
“They went through the whole arbitration process,” said Colvin, 33. “I just wish them luck.”
To hear it on the streets, Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s heated standoff with Local 718, the city’s firefighter union, is just as divisive in the neighborhoods as it is in the chambers of City Hall.
As the City Council plans to vote, possibly Wednesday, on whether to approve the arbitration award, and as the city administration scrambles to negotiate a new deal, the contentious debate has become a talking point in the neighborhoods.
From East Boston to West Roxbury, young and old, male and female from divergent backgrounds are trying to reconcile their respect for firefighters with the reality that Boston is under financial strain, planning to lay off dozens of workers, close four libraries, and reduce other city services.
“They need to come to some type of agreement,” said Jamal Gathers Sr., 25, of Roxbury, stopping during a game of golf today at Franklin Park.
His view: “The deserve a raise, and the drug tests are necessary, but they shouldn’t be contingent on the raise. It’s just a negotiating ploy by the union.”
“It’s just not fair,” said Nancy Donnelly, a retired database administrator from South Boston.
She said she respects the work they do -- a relative is a firefighter, she said -- but that the union is simply asking for too much.
“They’re not a needy segment of the population," she said. "It’s just greed.”
But to William Fraser, a retired police officer from West Roxbury, who has been through contract negotiations before, the city’s own negotiating stance may not be as clear as it is made out to be.
“They only tell you what they want you to hear,” the 83-year-old said. “I say they deserve it. I wouldn’t want their job.”
“What they did to those firefighters was wrong,” she said. “They’re gonna save your life and my life some day.”
The arbitration award, released last month, gave the firefighters a four-year contract with five raises, including a 2.5 percent boost on the last day of the agreement, June 30, specifically in exchange for undergoing drug and alcohol testing. The city says it cannot afford the award; the union contends it can.
After weeks of debate, the City Council could decide on funding the award by tomorrow. In the meantime, city and union officials have been scrambling to negotiate a new deal that would satisfy all parties.
But across the city, it seemed many residents had already decided, with several saying that firefighters' demands were out-of-whack in today's economy.
Carla Cermark, a 37-year-old mother of three from East Boston, said that she supported a raise, but not in the amount set in the arbitration award, and not for drug and alcohol testing.
“People want more and more while other people have to suffer,” she said.
Marlon Wallen, 41, of the South End, said it is not fair in today’s economic climate to expect the city to pay out several years’ worth of raises in one, retroactive sum.
“It’s unrealistic to say, ‘We want our share and we want it now’ – especially in this economy,” he said.
And David Pahl, 60, who is semi-retired, said that firefighters are expecting benefits that workers in the private sector were forced to give up long ago.
“I think they should get a pay cut,” said Pahl, of Roslindale. “The idea of getting a raise for a drug test is absurd.”
But others said that if anyone should get a pay raise it is a firefighter.
“They put their lives on the line,” said Brian Franklin, 27, an amateur basketball player from Dorchester. He said he knows what it’s like to be unemployed, and that the firefighters may be “pushing it a little bit,” but, “I see them go out there every day, no complaints.”
Brian Heaton, 23, of Brighton, recently applied to become a Boston firefighter. And while he acknowledged the tough times the city is facing, he could think of no better place to invest.
“I drive boats on the South Shore – a job you basically just need a high-school degree to do – and being a firefighter requires so much more, but they make essentially the same amount of money,” he said. “That doesn’t seem fair.”
On the beat
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