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Union organizes a mass rally to protest attack on reputation

Personnel from across the state attended a rally near the State House as part of the annual lobbying day of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts. Personnel from across the state attended a rally near the State House as part of the annual lobbying day of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts. (DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Megan Woolhouse and Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / April 30, 2008

A sea of several hundred chanting firefighters in red T-shirts marched on the State House yesterday to demand an end to what they see as a posture of disrespect toward them by City Hall lawmakers and the local press.

Firefighters from across the state attended the rally, which was part of the annual lobbying day of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts. Among them were dozens of members of Boston Firefighters Local 718, who came to protest stalled contract negotiations and accused City Hall of "feeding bogus stories" to Boston news media.

Boston firefighters have been criticized in recent months for resisting mandatory drug tests, after autopsy results indicated that one of two firefighters who died in a West Roxbury restaurant fire last August was under the influence of alcohol and that the other had used cocaine. Since then, two other firefighters have been arrested on drug charges.

Robert B. McCarthy, president of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts, said firefighters would not stand to be treated "like dogs."

"We do what needs to be done," McCarthy bellowed into a microphone set up on Boston Common before the march to the State House. "We ask one thing in return: respect."

The crowd of firefighters chanted in response, saying, "What do we want? Respect! When do we want it? Now!"

Firefighters at the rally said they were also seeking improved health and fitness legislation that would help control stress and diagnose disease early. The statewide union is an umbrella organization that represents 12,000 firefighters. The rally drew firefighters from Somerville, Brockton, New Bedford, and beyond. Officials estimated that about 30 Boston firefighters attended.

Most major US cities require mandatory drug and alcohol testing for firefighters. Yesterday's speeches by union leaders were peppered with fierce criticism of city officials and the news media. The crowd booed at the mention of The Boston Globe, and McCarthy blasted articles in Boston and Commonwealth magazines. The sharpest rhetoric was saved for the Boston Herald, which ran an editorial Monday saying it was time to "start yanking back" on the "ludicrously long leash" given to the city union during contract negotiations.

"We're not dogs," McCarthy said. ". . . We won't be treated like dogs."

Frank Tierney, a lifelong city resident and a Boston firefighter since 2004, said that in recent months it "seems like the media wants to bash us."

"My mother thinks we don't want to have drug testing," he said. "The majority of the firefighters want it. We want to be compensated."

He echoed a familiar gripe among firefighters: city police and Emergency Medical Services unions received bargaining concessions in exchange for mandatory random drug testing.

A newsletter on negotiations circulated by city officials yesterday said both unions agreed to other concessions, including lower pay increases for police officers, in the years drug testing was made mandatory.

Dorothy Joyce, a spokeswoman for Mayor Thomas M. Menino, said the accusations that City Hall is feeding bogus stories to the media are "just another tactic by Local 718 to divert attention away from the real issue of drug and alcohol testing and reforms within the department."

Ed Kelly, the union's president, said in a phone interview yesterday that three 38-year-old firefighters in Massachusetts died of heart attacks in the past year, evidence of the strain of the job. He said he wants to see firefighters receive improved "wellness and fitness" benefits that include routine physicals and regular blood pressure testing.

Kelly said such a plan would be part of a total contract negotiation package, but he refused to elaborate.

"The city has tailored their argument to convey to the public that we, Local 718, refuse to do random drug testing," he said. "I have told the mayor personally to his face that we will do drug testing."

In March, police said they found a firefighter smoking marijuana in a Boston Fire Department vehicle in Dorchester. Anthony Gaston, 47, was arrested and has pleaded not guilty to drug possession charges.

Last week, police said they arrested a Boston firefighter on disability leave after he illegally bought $200 worth of OxyContin painkillers from a known drug dealer. William Boyle, 58, bought the pills Friday at the Broadway MBTA station, police said. The 10-year department veteran has been out on disability since last April.

State Representative Martin J. Walsh, a Dorchester Democrat, said he met with firefighters in his State House office after the rally. He said he sympathizes with firefighters, having filed legislation to spend $1.75 million on fire academy improvements, but he also understands the city's desire to cut costs in tight times.

The battle is being fought in the media, he said, and blamed the problems on "personality issues" on both sides.

"There's no positive here with such a public dispute," Walsh said. "Most of us at the State House have been quiet; no one wants to get dragged in the middle."

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