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Firefighter contract could save city $45m

Weeks of suspense end with compromise pact

By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / June 10, 2010

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The Boston City Council voted overwhelmingly yesterday to approve a new labor contract for firefighters, the final step in a compromise that the city estimates will save $45 million over the next two decades.

The five-year deal, with gives and takes for each side, concludes an extraordinary political spectacle that has consumed City Hall. When the city clerk announced the 12-1 vote, a few hundred firefighters packed in the council chamber jumped to their feet and erupted in thunderous applause, celebrating the end of a labor dispute that has festered for four years.

Approval of the contract came after weeks of suspense with cloak-and-dagger details: a union concession brokered at a kitchen table; the address of a secret bargaining location scribbled on scraps of paper; arm-twisting behind closed doors; and theatrical speeches.

The culmination came as midnight approached on Tuesday at an emergency City Council meeting.

It was there that the parties announced a pact that included significant financial concessions for the firefighters and sacrifices from the city, retaining some additional pay for random drug and alcohol testing and establishing a wellness program for new firefighters.

City officials said the new contract gives most firefighters raises worth more than 17 percent over five fiscal years, from 2006 through 2011; when calculated through the next fiscal year, 2012, the raises amount to 20.5 percent.

“The changes that were made were healthy for the taxpayers, healthy for . . . the city’s financial condition, and healthy for the firefighters in the City of Boston,’’ said Edward A. Kelly, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 718. “As difficult as it was and quite frankly as ugly as it got at times, I can say with the utmost sincerity that it was worth it.’’

Mayor Thomas M. Menino did not attend the final vote, but he spoke to reporters outside a community center in Roxbury yesterday morning about the importance of the new drug and alcohol screening for firefighters and other facets of the deal.

“We both had victories and we both gave concessions,’’ Menino said. “I’m happy it’s over so we can go on to other business.’’

The council reveled in the vital role it played brokering the deal. First, it pressured the union to blink and offer a concession that restarted negotiations. At the final bargaining session, on Tuesday, three councilors sat between city officials and a row of 10 firefighters, keeping the conversation civil and focused.

“This is a real compromise. It’s not perfect. It’s better. And it’s real progress,’’ said Councilor Ayanna Pressley. “For all those watching this, I hope it reminds them that this body is not a rubber stamp.’’

The lone vote against the contract came from Councilor Chuck Turner, who gave an impassioned speech about the looming layoffs of custodians and librarians, urging the mayor to use rainy day money to save jobs.

“In the next three weeks, we are going to face hundreds of workers who are about to be laid off,’’ Turner said, adding that the cuts will affect the “lowest-paid workers in this city.’’

News of the arbitration award first struck like a lightning bolt seven weeks ago, when the Menino administration made public the details of the raises, which included a 2.5-percent bump the last day of the contract in exchange for drug and alcohol testing.

The fight fell to the City Council, which by state law had to approve the funding for the contract. The administration and the union furiously tallied votes. It came down to simple math: In the end, neither side had the seven it needed to get a majority of the 13-member council.

“The truth is, I don’t know how many votes we had,’’ Kelly said yesterday. “And I don’t think the mayor did, either.’’

Three councilors — Bill Linehan, John M. Tobin Jr., and Felix G. Arroyo — came out early as staunch supporters of the firefighters and privately exerted pressure on Kelly to cut a deal. Last week, Arroyo brought Kelly to Tobin’s kitchen table in West Roxbury and the union boss agreed to make an offer — deferring the final pay raise for 12 months, a “give’’ worth $4.5 million or more.

That was the type of concession Council President Michael P. Ross had been looking for when he vowed to reject the contract. It was not necessarily enough to win the firefighters the seven votes, but it reignited bargaining.

“I have tremendous respect for my three colleagues who were declared ‘yeses,’ ’’ said Councilor John R. Connolly, who remained in the undecided camp. “They took unbelievable heat in the media and from the general public. And it was the ‘yeses’ that brought the compromise forward and got the talks rolling.’’

The focus shifted to the handful of undecided members of the council, Connolly said, who “recognized if they remained undecided they could push the compromise further.’’

That set the table for Tuesday’s clandestine talks at SEIU Local 615, where Arroyo said he served as a political organizer and “cut my labor teeth.’’ Arroyo reserved the room and kept the location secret, writing the West Street address for participants on scraps of paper, city officials said.

They sat for five hours, drinking coffee and munching cookies from The Boston Chipyard at Faneuil Hall Marketplace. The mayor conferred from his home in Hyde Park. The city’s labor relations director, John D. Dunlap, at times slipped into the hall for one-on-one talks with Kelly.

The councilors at Tuesday’s session — Arroyo, Ross, and Salvatore LaMattina — played peacemakers. A deal materialized by 7 p.m., and the parties went separate ways to put the agreement to paper. Kelly signed it at about 10 p.m. on the sixth floor of City Hall, officials said. It was faxed to Menino, who signed his name.

“I think there was a convergence of will to come to a responsible solution,’’ Linehan said when asked to identify a turning point. “When you look over the whole period of the negotiations, this week will seem like a single moment.’’

Michael Levenson and Brian R. Ballou of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Andrew Ryan can be reached at aryan@globe.com.

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