|Councilor Michael P. Ross spoke of “public outrage’’ over the deal. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)|
City Council head condemns Fire Dept. deal
Threatens to vote no if concessions are not made
Opposition began mounting on the City Council yesterday against an arbitration award for Boston firefighters, with Council President Michael P. Ross threatening to vote against the contract unless the union makes “meaningful concessions.’’
“If they don’t, I believe we have no choice — on behalf of the residents of this city — but to reject the award,’’ Ross said in a heated speech at City Hall, describing what he called palpable “public outrage’’ over the settlement. “Seventy-four million dollars. A 19 percent increase. Paying fire-fighters to come to work sober.’’
Ross’s threat to vote to kill the deal — which the council has the power to do if a majority of its 13 members oppose it — is the most significant hint of opposition yet to the controversial award, which was granted by a labor arbitrator earlier this month.
The award would give firefighters an additional raise on the last day of the contract, June 30, in exchange for undergoing random drug and alcohol testing, a bump the city says will cost $4.3 million next year alone.
Three other councilors spoke yesterday after Ross and gave the impression that they may also vote against the award, indicating there may be enough “no’’ votes on the council to reject the deal and send the city and firefighters back to the bargaining table.
Several other councilors have previously made it clear that they plan to support the award, but none of them spoke at yesterday’s council meeting, the first time the body has formally taken up the issue. The council plans to vote on the award following a public hearing next month.
The criticism of the contract did not appear to faze Edward A. Kelly, the president of Local 718 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, as he sat in the front row of the council chamber.
“We are comfortable with our votes on the council,’’ Kelly told reporters outside the meeting.
The union has no plan to offer any concessions, Kelly said, because they are legally bound to support the award; he said further that the firefighters’ union planned to ask for an additional raise next year, “just like every other union in this city.’’
The City Council has the explicit power only to approve or reject funding for the contact, meaning councilors ultimately face a yes-or-no vote on the award as a whole. But public pressure promises to intensify when the council holds a public hearing to dissect the financial impact of the award, as the city prepares a budget for next fiscal year that calls for 250 layoffs and the closing of four libraries.
Ross yesterday did not specify what concessions he wanted from the firefighters, but suggested that Kelly look to other public unions across the country that are accepting pay cuts and making other sacrifices. An independent analysis Ross commissioned by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Thomas A. Kochan recommended that the union defer the additional pay hike for six months or agree to forgo a pay raise next year.
“I think that would go a long way in demonstrating to his fellow citizens — his neighbors who may not have the protection of a union, who may be out of work — that he is not just in it for himself, but he is standing with his city,’’ Ross said after the meeting. “It’s a simple statement from the head of the union, committing to what his brothers across the country are doing presently.’’
“If that’s not there,’’ Ross concluded, “then I can’t support this.’’
The arbitration award came after a bitter fight and would amount to what the city says equates to a 19 percent raise over four years. The final pay boost ups the net cost to $72 million over five years, when overtime and health care savings are included in the bottom line, the city says.
The union disputes the city’s math and argues that it is only a four-year contract that should not include any costs from next year, even if there is a pay raise on the last day of the fiscal year. The contract provides only a 16.5 percent raise, the union maintains, because the city unfairly includes longevity pay unrelated to the award.
Some councilors have long promised the union that they would support the arbitration award, no matter the cost. Councilor John M. Tobin Jr. has said he made the pledge and had vowed to keep his word. Councilor Maureen E. Feeney has also said she told the union last fall that she would support the award, but is now doing her due diligence. Councilor Bill Linehan of South Boston said last month that he is inclined to vote yes because, “in the past we have supported binding arbitration.’’
But at yesterday’s meeting, Councilor Charles C. Yancey expressed skepticism about the award and the impact it could have on the city’s next budget, calling for concessions by both Mayor Thomas M. Menino and the firefighters’ union. Councilor Chuck Turner repeated his intention to vote against the award, saying that although it may be “fair within the framework of collective bargaining . . . it’s not affordable.’’
Councilor Mark Ciommo, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, acknowledged that the “city is in good financial shape.’’
“Just because we have money reserves,’’ he said, “doesn’t mean you want to approve something if you can’t sustain it.’’