MEMBERS OF the Boston City Council were too quick to praise the city’s firefighters’ union for a $4.5 million concession this week. Councilors are eager to avoid a showdown with organized labor. But the firefighters’ new proposal is still a lousy deal for the city’s taxpayers.
Firefighters Local 718 saw that a majority of the 13-member council was poised to vote down a bloated 19 percent pay hike that an arbitrator awarded to the union. Union leaders also knew that, particularly during an economic downturn, many Bostonians were incredulous that firefighters would receive an extra 2.5 percent raise for showing up for work unimpaired by drugs or alcohol. Hence, the offer of a concession from a union that is allergic to the concept.
Firefighters offer to defer the 2.5 percent drug-testing raise for one year. But taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay an extra dime — ever — for permission to drug-test firefighters. The specifics of the firefighters’ offer are problematic in another way: Because the contract now in dispute expires at the end of the month, a new round of negotiations is looming, and the union could seek a retroactive raise greater than what it’s proposing to defer now. The city would resist, of course. But the union probably feels confident that it could intimidate the next arbitrator to come along, just like it did the last one. Then it would be open season for other unions to demand similar increases.
Other possibilities are emerging. City Council president Michael Ross wisely sought the advice of an independent consultant to sort through the mess created by the arbitration award. The consultant came up with an elegant solution — delay the 2.5 percent increase for six months but only on the condition that the contract be extended for 12 months. Firefighters would get their money earlier but couldn’t seek another wage increase in 2011.
That’s a slightly better deal for taxpayers, but it still concedes too much. Councilors are busy congratulating themselves on getting the notoriously stubborn fire union to budge, at all. But their job isn’t done yet. They must reject any award that rewards firefighters unjustly and puts the city at fiscal risk.