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All sides press councilors over raise for firefighters

Vote will weigh promises, finances

By Donovan Slack
Globe Staff / May 11, 2010

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Boston City Council members, who have 60 days to decide the fate of the firefighters’ pay raise, say they are coming under fierce pressure from city officials, who can control access to vital constituent services, and the powerful firefighters’ union, which can make or break candidates at election time.

Since last week, when an arbitrator issued an award of 19-percent raises, councilors say they have been consumed by meetings with union and city officials and besieged by e-mail and phone calls from impassioned constituents.

The award, which comes as many workers in the private sector endure wage cuts and layoffs and as the city cuts services, has drawn public ire. But with responsibility to accept or reject the arbitration after a bitter three-year labor dispute, councilors largely remain on the fence, drawing widespread criticism they are ready to yield to union pressure.

“It’s a vote that requires the City Council to show some spine, and the City Council, on this issue, needs a spine infusion,’’ said former councilor Michael McCormack. “There’s only, frankly, so much you can pay in an economy where cities and towns are closing libraries and laying off workers.’’

Even so, some councilors said their hands are tied because they made promises to support the union as they sought firefighters’ support in last year’s election. The union, when deciding who to endorse in municipal elections, asked all council candidates if they would vote yes and support the arbitration award, no matter the cost. Most agreed, according to three councilors who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“Most of us said, ‘As long as it includes drug and alcohol testing, yeah,’ ’’ one of the councilors said. “We pledged our support.’’

The arbitrator’s award said the raises were in exchange for drug and alcohol testing.

According to union documents, 11 councilors received endorsements last year from Local 718, including John M. Tobin Jr. of West Roxbury and Maureen E. Feeney of Dorchester. The only ones who did not were Councilor at Large Ayanna Pressley and Councilor Chuck Turner of Roxbury. Campaign finance reports show the union gave the maximum contribution of $500 to each of the councilors it endorsed.

Union officials did not respond to messages left seeking comment. On Friday, Local 718 president Edward Kelly said he was confident that the City Council would approve the contract “because it’s a just award.’’

Longtime political consultant Joyce Ferriabough-Bolling said the council is facing “a real opportunity to take charge here.’’

“This can and should be a real profiles-in-courage moment for the council,’’ she said. “In the end, who the council should be accountable to is to the residents who elected them, the majority of whom are not firefighters, but who will remember how this impacted their quality of living, if the pact is funded, when election time comes.’’

Across Massachusetts in the last 20 years, 15 city councils and boards of selectmen have overcome labor pressures and rejected arbitration awards to firefighters and police, state records show. Most recently, Worcester rejected a 2004 arbitration award issued in a contract dispute with firefighters. Other communities that rejected awards include Athol, Belmont, Chicopee, Winchester, Lawrence, and Attleboro. In all cases, the parties returned to the bargaining table and came up with a new deal.

Most Boston councilors have so far shied away from expressing opinions on the arbitration award. Councilor Salvatore LaMattina of East Boston said he is leaning toward voting against it, but has not made up his mind. Feeney is leaning toward approving it, but also has not decided. Tobin and Councilor Bill Linehan of South Boston said they will definitely vote yes, saying that rejecting it would undercut the spirit of collective bargaining. Others so far have remained on the fence.

City Council President Michael P. Ross said he has engaged an outside specialist, MIT professor Thomas A. Kochan, to review the decision and advise the council on its costs and other ramifications. The arbitrator, Dana Edward Eischen, said the package will cost the city $39.4 million in retroactive pay; the city says the award will cost $74 million in back pay and wages going forward.

“We want to know what the true costs of a yes or no vote would be, and we want to know what this contract means in terms of contracts with other unions,’’ Ross said. “I think in the end the council will be making that decision based on full information, I would say, void of the emotions and theatrics that are playing here.’’

Longtime political observer and former city councilor Lawrence S. DiCara said he thinks chances are very slim that the Council will reject the award.

“It is very difficult to vote against organized labor and especially against the firefighters union, given that in a city with an ever-shrinking municipal electorate, union members, including firefighters, are an important voting bloc,’’ he said.

Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Donovan Slack can be reached at dslack@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @DonovanSlack.

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