Boston, fire union reach deal on raises
In late-night talks, reduce quid pro quo for drug testing
A divisive, long-running labor dispute between the City of Boston and its firefighters came to a dramatic end late last night when the two parties agreed to a deal that extends a new contract to five years and includes a series of financial trade-offs.
The agreement, unveiled at a rare late night City Council session, was announced just hours before councilors were set to vote on a controversial arbitration award for the firefighters that has divided the council and many residents of the city.
The deal contains wins and losses for each side.
A key component of the compromise was reducing, from 2.5 percent to 1.5 percent, a raise given to firefighters in the award as a quid pro quo for undergoing drug and alcohol testing. The deal also defers that raise by a year, to June 2011. Newly hired firefighters will still receive the additional pay, but it will be rebranded as compensation for a wellness program, which will require an annual physical and an abilities test in addition to urine screenings.
The contract still requires one last vote today by the City Council, but that is all but assured given that the agreement was signed last night by Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Edward A. Kelly, president of International Association of Fire Firefighters Local 718, two men who have been warring for years over the terms. The agreement is essentially an addendum to the arbitration award.
The announcement was made with a theatrical flair as the City Council held an 11:15 p.m. meeting, pulling city and union officials back to City Hall, blocks from the TD Garden and Game 3 of the NBA Finals.
“It feels very good. There is some relief,’’ Kelly told a crush of reporters early this morning in an upbeat but tired voice. “But Boston firefighters should be proud.’’
Kelly’s blistering criticism of Menino had been unrelenting over the four-year dispute, but last night he struck a notably different tone as he spoke about benefits of the wellness program in a profession beset by cancer and heart attacks.
Kelly thanked the mayor and his administration for “coming to the table’’ and the “good-faith effort.’’
Menino’s administration responded in kind and strongly urged the council to approve the arbitration award when it meets at 11:45 a.m. today.
“I think it’s a balanced agreement that I enthusiastically and wholeheartedly’’ support, said John Dunlap, the city’s director of labor relations.
“This agreement, I believe, will put the debate over this contract behind us’’ Menino said in a statement. “The firefighters who fought for their contract and the City Hall staff who negotiated across the table are all public servants; I am committed to working together with each of them in the days ahead.’’
The breakthrough came after eight hours of closed-door talks between the administration and the firefighters’ union, a last-ditch bargaining session mediated by three members of the City Council. The team met at a secret location — the SEIU Local 615 headquarters on West Street. .
The unusual arrangement of including councilors at the table was made as a deadline approached later today for the City Council to vote on a controversial award from an arbiter that would have granted firefighters five raises over the past four years. The arbiter’s inclusion of the 2.5 percent raise for random drug and alcohol testing had sparked fierce criticism.
The Menino administration and the union were bound to the arbitration award, but the City Council is not. Under state law, the council must approve funding for the contract and has the authority to reject the measure.
Opposition to the contract mounted as the vote neared, and Michael P. Ross, City Council president, pushed the union to offer a concession. Last week firefighters relented and proposed postponing the raise for drug and alcohol testing for 12 months, an offer the city estimated would save $4.3 million next year alone. But the Menino administration balked at the concession, saying it would not mitigate the long-term costs of the contact.
The new five-year deal will stretch from 2006 to 2011. Firefighters will receive a 2.5 percent raise in the middle of the next fiscal year, on Jan. 1, 2011. In exchange, an earlier six-month wage deferral in the original arbitration agreement will be eliminated, giving the union some money back.
In addition to those increases, firefighters will receive a 1.5 percent raise in exchange for the drug and alcohol testing. But the raise will not kick in until June 30, 2011 — a year later than the arbitration award called for.
The councilors kept their remarks brief last night after the city and the union sketched out the details. Ross said he called the late night session to give the body time to deliberate before today’s final vote.
Only Councilor Chuck Turner indicated he would vote against the arbitration award, praising both parties but saying he was philosophically against any payment for drug and alcohol testing.
Kelly singled out Councilor Felix G. Arroyo for his work forging the compromise. Councilors John R. Connolly and Mark Ciommo dubbed the deal the “Connolly-Ciommo Compromise’’ in a news release, noting that they had teamed up to force the administration and union back to the bargaining table after talks hit a wall.
Most of the councilors seemed downright giddy as they smiled and traded hugs.
“I can’t tell you how great this looks to see Eddie Kelly and Thomas Menino’s signatures on the same piece of paper,’’ said Councilor John M. Tobin Jr. “It’s a new day in Boston.’’
Andrew Ryan can be reached at email@example.com.