MAYOR WALSH’S proposed contract with the city’s firefighters doesn’t create profound change in the change-resistant department. But it is a reasonably good deal for both taxpayers and firefighters, and one struck without the expensive and lengthy arbitration process that characterized the Menino administration’s negotiations with the tough union. All in all, it’s an agreement that both sides can, and should, live with.
The contract would provide firefighters with an 18.8 percent salary hike over six years at an additional cost to the city of $92.4 million. Last year, the city’s police patrol officers received a 25.4 percent raise from an arbitrator, which was widely seen as a drain on the city budget. Walsh promised during his mayoral campaign that he would negotiate a better deal with the firefighters. And he did, despite concerns that his administration is too cozy with the firefighters’ union, which endorsed him last year.
Firefighters would receive just a 2 percent bump in their base wage during the last year of a contract that covers 2011-2017. The city can use that modest increase to its advantage as a starting point in negotiations with other unions. Firefighter managers also gained additional tools to curb overtime costs and abuse of sick days. But the city made no headway in addressing buried costs, such as the “transitional career award program” that translates into an average salary increase of 0.5 percent each time the base wage increases.
Negotiating with the city’s firefighters has become such an arduous task that the smallest management reforms tend to get magnified. And what passes for normal labor practices in the department are anything but normal. Samuel Tyler, who heads the nonprofit Boston Municipal Research Bureau, points to “ridiculous’’ restrictions that prevent the city’s fire commissioner from deploying personnel to individual firehouses as he or she sees fit. Such moves are now based on seniority. The city’s police commissioner, said Tyler, has a free hand to deploy officers based on performance. The fire commissioner needs similar flexibility.
Members of Boston Firefighters Local 718 are likely to ratify the contract this week. It will be several years before the mayor has another chance to bring reforms to the department. It’s all well and good that Walsh concluded this contract quickly and without acrimony. But his next effort needs to yield greater savings and deeper management reforms, even at the cost of friendly labor relations.