After six largely harmonious years, it appears the relationship between Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration and the firefighters’ union has hit a rough patch.
Boston Fire Fighters Local 718, one of the city’s largest unions and a big supporter of Walsh in his inaugural 2013 mayoral run, has sued the administration in Suffolk Superior Court, alleging repeated violations of the union’s collective bargaining agreement.
The lawsuit, which names the city and Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn, cited three instances in recent months in which the Fire Department changed the status of firefighters from injured leave to either sick leave or light duty, which would force the firefighters to either work or use up their limited sick time.
The complaint comes as Walsh and Finn have recently proposed a series of changes to department protocol, instituting wellness programs and diversity training that firefighters have privately grumbled about.
The union’s lawsuit alleges the city acted out “in an arbitrary manner and without justification or cause” in changing the three firefighters’ injury status, in violation of the collective bargaining agreement that calls for such cases to be reviewed by an independent medical examiner. The lawsuit also calls for an immediate judicial ruling preventing the city from taking similar action in other cases, until the matter can be resolved through the arbitration process.
“The city, acting through its fire commissioner and the Boston Fire Department, has refused to cease and desist from these unilateral practices while the parties exhaust their administrative remedies through the grievance and arbitration provisions of the collective bargaining agreement,” the lawsuit states. “The city’s conduct is taken in violation of the agreement.”
A spokeswoman for the mayor said the city would not comment on a pending lawsuit. A hearing has been scheduled for Wednesday in Suffolk Superior Court.
Robert Petitti, president of the union, did not return a call for comment.
The lawsuit could have broader implications beyond the courtroom, an indicator of fraying relations between Walsh and one of his biggest original backers, according to City Hall observers.
The union, with more than 1,500 employees, endorsed Walsh in his 2013 mayoral run, and firefighters individually and collectively through their international chapter donated tens of thousands of dollars to his campaign. Months into his new administration, the mayor reached his first agreement for a contract with the union: It was the first firefighters’ contract the city reached without going to arbitration since 2001.
In July 2014, the mayor tapped Finn as commissioner, selecting a three-decade department veteran who could boast personal firefighting experience while also promising reforms.
Four years later, in 2018, the administration again reached an agreement with the union for a contract that lasts through June, 2021. The contract is similar in terms to other agreements the mayor has recently reached with city unions — a 2 percent pay raise each year, with other incremental benefits such as an increase in night differential and hazardous duty compensation.
More recently, however, union members have been quietly but increasingly venting frustration with the administration, particularly as the mayor and Finn have looked to implement changes to address several issues, including the paucity of female firefighters and complaints about the organization’s “locker room” culture.
Samuel Tyler, a longtime city politics watcher who retired last year as head of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a fiscal watchdog, said that the firefighters’ union has had a long history of battling with city administrations, going back to the era of Mayor Raymond Flynn. This appears to be the first pushback against Walsh.
“The union had been used to getting whatever they wanted,” Tyler said. “It’s a culture, the Fire Department, that continues to be resistant to change.”
Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia and on Instagram @miltonvalencia617.