WBUR

18.8 Percent Pay Raise In Tentative Boston Firefighter Deal

During the mayoral campaign, Marty Walsh argued that his union ties would give him a leg up in negotiations with city unions. Here, Walsh speaks in March after two city firefighters died battling a nine-alarm blaze. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

During the mayoral campaign, Marty Walsh argued that his union ties would give him a leg up in negotiations with city unions. Here, Walsh speaks in March after two city firefighters died battling a nine-alarm blaze. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

BOSTON — After almost three years without a contract, Boston firefighters would get an 18.8 percent pay raise over six years under the terms of a closely scrutinized deal that has emerged as a key test of Mayor Marty Walsh’s young administration.

Before Walsh took office in January, he was a labor leader. During the mayoral campaign, Walsh told voters that his past work would make him an effective negotiator with city unions, but some critics wondered if Walsh would be tough enough at the bargaining table.

Outlined Thursday, the tentative deal, retroactive to 2011, would cost the city $92.4 million.

The Negotiations

Richard Paris, president of Boston Firefighters Local 718, says the negotiations with Walsh got tense from time to time.

“Marty, excuse me, Mr. Mayor and I had some, ah, you know, you know — he grew up in Dorchester and I grew up in Hyde Park, so we were both streetfighters,” Paris said. “So, yeah, we had our street fights in the room.”

But Paris, whose union strongly supported Walsh’s mayoral bid, emphasizes that a once-tense relationship between the city and the firefighters has improved under the new administration.

“When that new team came in, it was good,” he said. “There was a breath of fresh air at the table. Yeah, we had our disagreements at the table. That’s what negotiation is about. But when we got up from the table, we left it at the table and went out and had a cup of coffee and shook hands.”

Walsh campaigned on the idea that he could talk to labor and get a fair deal. His chief of operations, Joe Rull, declares victory.

“We’ve been told over and over and over again, he will not be able to do that. I think we just proved them wrong,” Rull said.

The Outcome

Under former Mayor Thomas Menino, negotiations for the last major police contract fell apart. And an arbitrator stepped in, giving the union a 25.4 percent raise over six years.

“The city of Boston has not fared well at all in arbitration decisions with public safety unions,” said Sam Tyler, president of the business-backed Boston Municipal Research Bureau.

“There are some incremental reforms in the contract that move it forward. But there’s also some, in my mind, setbacks and opportunities lost in this contract.”
– Sam Tyler,
Boston Municipal Research Bureau

Tyler says Walsh gets points for avoiding costly and unpredictable arbitration. And he says the firefighters contract is a reasonably good one, measured against recent history. However, for a city under mounting budget pressure, Tyler adds, the deal is hardly a game changer.

“There are some incremental reforms in the contract that move it forward,” he said. “But there’s also some, in my mind, setbacks [and] opportunities lost in this contract.”

Tyler says the city didn’t do much to address long-term pension liabilities. And growing police and fire contracts, he warns, will gradually squeeze out libraries, parks and other priorities.

But Paul Curran, the city’s director of labor relations, suggests the pursuit of sweeping reform is a bit unrealistic in the back-and-forth of contract negotiations.

“The great is the enemy of the good sometimes. This is a good contract,” Curran said.

Negotiations Interrupted By Tragedy

The city and the firefighters union were close to a deal in late March when tragedy struck.

A nine-alarm blaze tore through a Back Bay brownstone and killed two firefighters. The deaths of Lt. Edward Walsh and Firefighter Michael Kennedy brought a wave of public sympathy. And there were whispers that the tragedy could lead to a richer contract. But union chief Paris says he did not use the deaths as leverage.

“A lot of people thought, oh, you’re going to get 30 percent now. No, no, it was just another day for us,” Paris said. “And we’d do it again tonight and tomorrow, anytime we have to.”

Paris says he’s confident rank-and-file firefighters will approve the contract in a vote next Thursday. If they do, the pact will go to the Boston City Council for ratification.

But that probably won’t mean the end of questions around Walsh and labor. He’s still got plenty of contracts to negotiate.

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  • Doofenschmertz

    I can’t wait for the future when there is no money for parks, libraries and anything not related to pensions, health care benefits and salaries for our overpaid public employees. The MBTA is on track, in about 10 years, to be spending 23%, from the current 16%, of its total revenue on pensions and benefits for retirees. How will the MBTA improve its already decrepit infrastructure in the face of this “tax”? Instead of spending money on roads and road repair it goes to lazy policemen sitting in cars with their lights flashing or watching while someone else actually works. Look carefully on a rainy day in particular and 90% of the police doing detail work are sitting in their cars – if all we need is a flashing light I am sure we could do it more cheaply. I am all for fair salaries and benefits for public employees but that is not what we currently have. Boston Police are the best paid in the country, nearly a third of Boston police earn more than Gov. Patrick ($175,000). The average patrolman and average firefighter in Boston takes home $109,000 (source Boston Globe, Dec 3, 2014 Farrah Stockman). The state’s unfunded pension liability (including both state and all municipalities) is about $83 billion and about $23 billion for the state alone . This is a ticking time bomb. All pensions should be rolled over to 403bs now just like the private sector. Anyone who is not concerned about this issue is just not looking at the numbers.

    • Firewrx612

      I don’t understand how state numbers are relevant. Boston has its own retirement fund, what are its numbers? I also don’t understand how police details are relevant. This article is about Boston Firefighters.

      If you think I’m overpaid that’s your right, but you probably have no real idea what I do.

  • PBKingman

    Questioning the righteousness of this deal is like being disrespectful to a nice old Catholic Priest 40 years ago but here goes. The average pay of a Boston firefighter WAS, before the raise, $97,000. Because it is a part time job and in order to survive many of these people have other jobs and businesses on the side. Taxpayers will eventually be given the choice of losing their homes to fire or to real estate taxes. Good deal. Thank you Mayor Walsh, union stooge.

    • Firewrx612

      Real estate taxes in Boston are quite low.

      42 hours per week is full time.

      • PBKingman

        42 hours is not what I heard. And I bet you would like those real estate taxes to be much higher. Gimme gimme. Bet you would like Prop 2 1/2 gone with the wind. Wish I had one of those giant new SUV and pickup trucks that I see parked out by so many firehouses.

        • Firewrx612

          Heard? Look it up and stop basing your opinions on ignorance.

          I live in Boston and have no desire for taxes to go up, but my research tells me that Boston has relatively quite low real estate taxes. Look it up.

          • PBKingman

            Well, it was Barry Armstrong’s show on WRKO where I heard the comment about firefighters working part time. Barry is pretty reputable. Could be that he was referring to the fact that firefighters may be paid for full time, but they don’t actually work full time. For most jobs there is top amount that employers are willing to pay for said job, especially when the line of applicants for that job goes out the door. Many people want to get on the Boston Fire Dept. because they know what a good deal it is, for them. They know that this city is owned by the union thuggery and the money will keep coming and coming and coming. The rest of us be damned. There are plenty of jobs that can at times be dangerous. Cab drivers, roofers, soldiers, etc. Why don’t we pay our soldiers more money? The answer is that we cannot afford to.

          • Firewrx612

            Barry is misinformed, or probably just lying to promote an agenda. There are no part time firefighters on the BFD. We work two 10 hour day shifts and two 14 hour night shifts per 8 day week for an average of 42 hours per 7 day week.

            The reason we don’t pay soldiers more has nothing to do with whether we can afford it or not. We as a society have made a choice, we value the work that CEOs and hedge fund managers at many times the rate that we value the work of soldiers, cops and firefighters. Or if we don’t we at least turn a blind eye to the lobbyists who write the laws and tax codes that results in that value system.

            As far as danger, yes there are many dangerous occupations. When the list of top dangerous occupations comes out, firefighting isn’t at the top. However, that list lumps big city firefighters in with smaller communities that do far less than what we do. Typically when a list comes out of the most stressful occupations comes out firefighting is at or near the top. In case you’ve been under a rock, I was just at a fire where two guys (one if which was a good friend of mine) were killed and 30 were burned.

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