Firefighters make show of force at City Hall

Emotions flare at hearing on raises

By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / June 3, 2010

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The roiling debate over a controversial arbitration award for Boston firefighters came to a head yesterday at City Hall, where an army of firefighters held a defiant, spirited rally before standing watch over marathon City Council hearings that inflamed passions on all sides.

At issue is a four-year contract dating to 2006 that would give firefighters five raises, including a 2 1/2 percent boost specifically for undergoing drug and alcohol testing. The city and the union sparred over the total cost of the award and the size of the pay increase and argued about how much money was available in the city’s coffers.

After meeting for more than 10 hours, the council late last night halted debate and promised to resume this morning, when the firefighters’ union is scheduled to testify.

All eyes are trained on the City Council, which must vote on the award. Opposition to the contract has grown among councilors, but they remain divided.

“Today, I can’t support this,’’ said Councilor Sal LaMattina from East Boston. “A lot of people are calling me up, and they don’t want to pay for drug and alcohol testing. We don’t pay the public works guys, we don’t pay the transportation guys for drug testing, and we shouldn’t.’’

Other councilors also spoke against the award because of the pay raise for drug and alcohol testing, including Mark Ciommo of Brighton and Chuck Turner of Mattapan. But others voiced their support for the contract, including John M. Tobin of West Roxbury and Bill Linehan of South Boston.

The contract requires a seven-vote majority to take effect. A vote has not been scheduled.

The proceedings swung from tedious discussion about city finances to loud, contentious arguments between representatives of labor and management, rehashing arguments about how the decision was made and how it has played out in the news.

A parade of labor leaders came before the council, including representatives of the steel workers, the Boston Teachers Union, the longshoremen, the Boston Police Superior Officers Federation, and the Boston Newspaper Printing Pressman’s Union. Turning down the contract, they said, would be an assault on collective bargaining as a whole.

Lou Mandarini, president of the Greater Boston Labor Council and the business manager of Laborers Local 22, demanded that the council approve the award because it was the product of arbitration. His threat was clear.

“If you people vote this down, then believe me,’’ Mandarini said. “One thing about labor, we never forget. Never.’’

Turner snapped back.

“I am insulted, insulted to have labor leaders coming into the council and tell us that you expect us not to think,’’ Turner said.

Robert McCarthy, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts, at one point shouted at his counterpart one seat away.

“It’s outrageous, and he ought to resign every position he holds!’’ McCarthy said, pointing at Mayor Dean Mazzarella of Leominster, the management representative on the arbitration panel that decided the award. McCarthy was the union representative on the panel.

Mazzarella had just told the council that McCarthy threw a fit when the independent arbiter, Dana Edward Eischen, had initially presented a contract that did not include a salary bump in exchange for drug and alcohol testing. Mazzarella held up the piece of paper that he said proved that Eischen added an additional 2 1/2 percent pay raise at the last moment.

Thomas A. Kochan, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who performed an analysis for the council, said that all the parties needed to settle the dispute were present in the chamber, and he offered the council some simple advice.

“I think you should say to the parties, ‘Get this resolved,’ ’’ Kochan said. “I believe the best option for you right now is to work with the parties, hold their feet to the fire, and get something done.’’

Pressure continued to mount yesterday on Edward A. Kelly, president of the Boston Firefighters Union, as several councilors voiced objections to the 2 1/2 percent raise. Asked if the union would offer a concession today, Kelly was noncommittal.

“We support the arbiter’s award as written,’’ he said. “We heard what the councilors had to say loud and clear.’’

The hearings capped a wild day at City Hall. Hundreds had gathered outside for a fiery prolabor rally. Boston police and municipal guards roamed the fifth floor of City Hall, standing by while scores of firefighters milled about. Inside the council chamber, dozens more firefighters occupied seats. One man in a red shirt held a small boy dressed in a firefighting outfit.

The Menino administration reached an impasse with the union during a bitter four-year dispute, which sent the contract to arbitration. The arbitration award was made as the city faces a budget for next year that closes four libraries, pulls staff out of community centers, and lays off up to 250 workers.

The Menino administration and two independent fiscal watchdogs have said that the contract amounts to an average raise of 19 percent and will cost the city $74 million over five years. The union disputes those figures, maintaining that the award is only a four-year deal that specifies 16.5 percent in pay increases. The union argues that the administration and others have unfairly included longevity pay in their calculations.

Before taking on the arbitration award, the council held a four-hour hearing yesterday delving into the city’s reserve accounts. An accountant hired by the firefighters’ union accused the Menino administration of understating the amount of money it had on hand. Several independent financial experts validated the city’s accounting practices, including Cathy E. Minehan, former chief executive officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Minehan lauded the city’s financial stewardship, saying that its AA-bond rating helped it save $30 million recently when it borrowed money.

“At times of uncertainty, it is better to be more rather than less cautious,’’ Minehan said.

Yesterday’s events began with a rally, which drew a boisterous crowd of several hundred, dominated by men in red T-shirts who responded with a roar to the fiery speeches of various labor leaders. One man in the crowd held a sign that read: “Tom Menino, The Democrat who hates Unions.’’

“You can’t be prolabor and against this award,’’ said Rich Rogers, executive secretary-treasurer of the Greater Boston Labor Council.

The Menino administration has reached agreements with 43 of the city’s 44 unions. Dot Joyce, the mayor’s spokeswoman, said the firefighters were the only holdout because their demands have been unreasonable for taxpayers.

“This is a taxpayer issue, because Mayor Menino has always been for the little guy,’’ Joyce said.

At the rally, Councilor Linehan left no doubt where he stood. “For me, there is no other vote but to approve this,’’ Linehan told the crowd. “This is collective bargaining. This is binding arbitration.’’

The crowd included Nick Argenio, 44, who identified himself as a Boston resident and member of Local 2222 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

“We want rights for firefighters,’’ Argenio said. “They are a hardworking group of people. They deserve respect.’’

Globe correspondent Marissa Lang contributed to this report.

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