As President of the Watertown Firefighters Union, Local 1347, I write today to express my and my membership’s extreme disappointment with the Town Council’s decision to reject the Joint Labor Management Committee’s (JLMC) decision relative to the collective bargaining agreement between the Local and the Town.
The tripartite JLMC panel, comprised of a management representative, a labor representative and a neutral arbitrator is empowered by Chapter 589 of the Acts of 1987 to resolve disputes between public safety employees (who by statute lack the ability to go on strike like all the other unions) and cities/towns that have remained unresolved for unreasonable periods of time. In this case, after nearly 6 fruitless years of bargaining, mediation and arbitration the JLMC, after reviewing supportive documentation from both parties and hearing their testimony rendered their decision known as an “award” in late October 2014. The award included the accepted proposals from both parties that this neutral panel believed to fairly represent the wants and needs of the parties collectively. Not all of either parties’ proposals were accepted by the panel. On Tuesday December 9, 2014 the Town Council took up the issue of funding the award. This is an important step in concluding the JLMC process as it is meant to be the validation of the process whereby the local governing body recognizes the efforts of the bargaining teams from the Town and the Local as well as the work of the JLMC panel. This is typically accomplished by acknowledging that the Town is able to fund the award. Despite testimony during the JLMC hearings from representatives of the Town indicating its ability to fund the award and a funding mechanism in the form of a Council Resolution on the table created by Town Manager Michael Driscoll demonstrating the Town’s ability to fund the award the Honorable Town Council voted 8-1 to reject the neutral arbitration panel’s decision. All 8 of the dissenting Councilors cited “fairness” to the other unions in Town as their rationale for rejecting the award. At face value, this is simply absurd as fairness to the process should be paramount. Once a dispute is mutually sent to the JLMC panel, issues of fairness are rightfully taken into account during the JLMC hearings as the panel considers the existing agreements with other unions in Town when rendering their award. By voting against the neutral panel’s award, the Town Council has voted against the very arbitration process regulated by Massachusetts General Laws itself and displayed an utter disregard for the entire negotiation process and its own firefighters.
Having worked for more than five years without a contract, members of the union representing the 80-plus firefighters of Watertown have, time and again, negotiated in good faith with the Town. Union proposals bred out of painstaking and, at times, pride-swallowing meetings have been rejected repeatedly over the last five years. In every circumstance, the negotiating team has respectfully gone back to the table and made concessions. We find ourselves at an impasse; after a generous and unprecedented offer to forfeit sick leave buyback, frankly, there’s nothing more left for Watertown firefighters to concede.
One particular item in the arbitrator’s award that the Town Council has openly contested is a 3% increase for the 2009 fiscal year reflecting EMT certification for firefighters. Make no mistake, this is not a pay raise and is not an added benefit. It is stipended compensation for these first responders’ training in Basic Life Support to adequately administer immediate care to victims while stabilizing them for transport. Firefighters respond to countless medical calls each year and this training is an absolute necessity. Such a necessity that the Town itself has recognized EMT certification and its maintenance as a condition of employment for its firefighters. The Town Manager has emphasized repeatedly the number of medical calls the fire department responds to each year, hundreds more than when the current EMT training stipend was added to the collective bargaining agreement unchanged since 2000, almost 15 years ago.
In offering to accept two years of 0% base pay increases, as did the other bargaining units in Town, the firefighters are acknowledging the fiscal uncertainty that existed six years ago when our last contract expired and we are mindful of the decisions impacting the town’s other unions. However, those units aren’t being asked to give back or concede a benefit anywhere near the value of the sick leave buy back the firefighters are being asked to give up. The value of that concession cannot and should not be overlooked by this Council.
In 2014, we find our community’s demographic rapidly changing. Residences are being built where there were once vacant spaces and businesses are settling and expanding in Watertown. A thriving resident and business community will boost the town’s economic foundation but at the same time will increase demands for fire department services. I do ask that you bear in mind that while people are moving to town as residents and employees, firefighting manpower and apparatus remain stagnant at already reduced levels.
Watertown is a desirable community. Home values have increased exponentially. One of the Town’s more attractive attributes is the safety net of fire protection and EMS services provided by the fire department. By rejecting the arbitrator’s award, the message being sent to and heard loud and clear by the firefighters is: you may be suitable to work in this town, but you will not be compensated fairly and appropriately for your contributions to the community.
Watertown firefighters care deeply about this community and its citizens, and we will continue to care as we’ve always done, despite the Town Council’s devastating and deflating rejection. As always, we will continue to support youth programs, like Watertown Little League and the many Watertown Public School organizations and athletic teams, we will continue to support charitable organizations, like the Friends of Matt Galligan and the Sonny Whooley Foundation, and we will continue to answer the calls for help from our residents. I humbly ask for your support as the firefighters once again move forward and continue to play by the rules of the collective bargaining process despite the fact that our efforts at fairness have been dismissed by our town’s governing body.
Calls for help will continue to come, the alarms will continue to sound and we will continue to respond. It is what we do … what we love to do for this community; you can count on us … we only wish we could count on the Town Council and that they would value us as a professional, hardworking body worthy of a fair contract.
There’s a way you can help us, contact your councilors and voice your concerns, let them know you support your firefighters.
Mark Sideris, Council President – (617) 924-2699
Stephen Corbett, Council Vice President – (617) 926-6090
Susan Falkoff, Councilor-at-Large – (617) 924-5723
Anthony Palomba, Councilor-at-Large – (617) 926-8560
Angeline Kounelis, Councilor District A – (617) 926-2352
Cecilia Lenk,Cpuncilor District B – (617) 926-4081
Vincent Piccirilli, Councilor District C – (617) 924-0665
Ken Woodland, Councilor District D – (617) 780-4426
Aaron Dushku, Councilor-at-Large – (413) 320-1104
Lieutenant Robert Mannix
President, Local 1347