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State board walkout halts mediation on firefighter contract

Email|Print| Text size + By Donovan Slack
Globe Staff / March 7, 2008

A state board that is supposed to foster peaceful labor settlements was thrown into turmoil yesterday as fallout spread from the increasingly acrimonious dispute over the Boston firefighters contract.

Six union representatives on the state's Joint Labor-Management Committee walked out of a meeting of the 12-member panel after they failed to persuade the panel to delay mediation of the nearly two-year-long contract battle.

The protest walkout, said to have occurred only three times in the committee's 30-year history, halted the panel's efforts to help settle the dispute. The walkout was led by Robert McCarthy, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts, an umbrella group of firefighters unions that represents Boston's Local 718.

McCarthy said he walked out because he felt that the committee overall was unfairly siding with management.

"Management was driving the bus," McCarthy said.

One city watchdog who was at the meeting said the actions of the union representatives were deplorable.

"I think it's all part of a strategy to try to delay and eventually prevail on issues," said Samuel R. Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a business-funded group. "They are trying to wear the mayor down."

Boston firefighters have been working without a contract since July 2006. Negotiations for a four-year employment contract began in April of that year and almost reached resolution in early 2007 before breaking down.

By Aug. 1, city officials said negotiations had reached an impasse and asked the state Joint Labor-Management Committee to intervene. The committee, formed in 1977 to speed resolution of municipal police and fire contracts statewide, contains both union and management officials from around the state and has the power to order cases into mediation. If that fails, they can send a contract to binding arbitration.

But as the Boston request for intervention was pending before the panel, two Boston firefighters died in a restaurant blaze in West Roxbury on Aug. 29. In October, two government officials briefed on the autopsy said the results showed that one of the firefighters had traces of cocaine in his system and that the other had a blood-alcohol content of 0.27, more than three times the legal limit to drive in Massachusetts.

The city immediately added mandatory random drug and alcohol testing to its list of demands in contract negotiations. Two officials briefed on negotiations said the union asked for a 21 percent salary increase in exchange for agreeing to mandatory random drug and alcohol testing and other changes the city wanted. But the city refused such a steep pay hike, and, by January, the city turned once again to the state.

The Joint Labor-Management Committee agreed to take jurisdiction of the case last month and ordered it into mediation. Both sides met with a mediator Feb. 27, but they reached no agreement after four hours.

The next arbitration session was supposed to be scheduled during yesterday's committee meeting.

But the panel never got to it after the walkout. The committee cannot take any actions without a quorum, and a quorum requires representatives of both labor and management.

Retired Judge Samuel E. Zoll, who presides over the committee, declined to comment yesterday.

Donovan Slack can be reached at dslack@globe.com.

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