Adrian Walker

Step up, Councilors

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / May 10, 2010

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A firefighter friend stopped me on the street over the weekend and I knew immediately what was on his mind.

He wanted to talk about the generous raise firefighters won in arbitration. Specifically, he wanted to talk about whether the Boston City Council will cut the check.

“To tell you the truth, I was surprised we got as much as we did,’’ he said. “But if they refuse to fund the contract, why should any other union go to arbitration?’’

The Boston City Council is officially on the clock. It has 60 days to accept the award, or to vote not to fund it.

Chief arbitrator Dana Edward Eischen, in an opinion released on Friday, explained his rationale for backing a 19 percent raise for firefighters while other unionized city workers get 14 percent. But it wasn’t an explanation that is going to satisfy critics of this deal.

The arbitrator’s largesse was due to the firefighters’ willingness to accept random drug and alcohol testing. Yes, they stand to get thousands of dollars a year in exchange for not coming to work under the influence of booze or drugs.

Some people think that sobriety should be a given when one reports to work, but Eischen considers it a “groundbreaking’’ concession.

Another groundbreaking feature of this decision: Eischen’s ability to mangle the language. He wrote: “I conclude that the city’s proposal to skim the frosting, pocket the cake, and avoid paying the fair, reasonable, and affordable value of the meal is a hound that will not hunt,’’ wrote the bard — I mean, the arbitrator.

The cake — which the city apparently pocketed — is a hound? What is this man talking about? And this was the reasonable part of the ruling.

As many, myself among them, have noted, there would have been nothing wrong with giving firefighters a raise on a par negotiated with other city unions. But their winnings at the roulette table far exceed that.

This contract far exceeds what the city can afford. The city pegs the cost of the contract at $74 million after back pay and other benefits are factored in; the union, and the arbitrator, calculate the cost at $39.4 million in retroactive pay, a formula that does not take the full cost of the deal into account. The City Council has talked about holding a hearing to sort it all out, which is a strange way to try to solve a math problem.

So now attention turns to whether city councilors will accept the arbitrator’s conclusion. Councilors have already been besieged by calls demanding that they approve the contract. They have also heard from plenty of constituents who think they should reject it, which seems to surprise some of them.

Without a clear read on what the public wants leaders to do, most councilors have opted to dive for cover. Only John Tobin has said he will definitely vote for it; no one has taken the bold step of publicly opposing it.

Some have said they wanted to read the ruling before taking a position, a dodge that officially expired on Friday. Everyone has had time to read it now.

Understand that the money to fund this deal — which far exceeds the amount set aside for it — will end up coming from the police, fire, and school budgets, because those three departments consume most of the budget.

Also, funding this contract sets an untenable precedent for the city’s other labor contracts.

What’s so hard about saying, “The city can’t afford this, and therefore I’m not voting for it’’?

Should the council vote against the contract, the two sides will return to the bargaining table.

They will return to the table soon anyway, because the period covered by this deal ends on June 30.

My firefighter friend — a perfectly reasonable person — thinks the City Council will pass the deal. I hope he’s wrong.

It really isn’t that hard to do the right thing.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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