Watertown Town Manager Michael Driscoll has been silent about the contract dispute with the Watertown Firefighters since the Town Council rejected the arbitration award in December, but this week he rebuked many of the contentions of the union and its supporters.
Driscoll made his statement at Tuesday’s Town Council meeting.
The Council voted 8-1 against supporting the award presented by a neutral arbitration panel, saying that it was unfair to other unions in town because it would give the firefighters larger raises than others had received. Tony Palomba voted for the agreement.
The firefighters sought raises well in excess of other unions, Driscoll said, who said that the union wanted raises and other benefits that would have given an increase of 19 percent. And, the arbitration award would have provided a 9.5 percent raise, he said, compared to the 5 percent to 6.5 percent raises given to other town unions from Fiscal Years 2009 to 2013.
After the Council rejected the award, fire union President Rob Mannix said that the salary raises would have been in line with the other unions. The other increases come from items such as EMT training and longevity. The union also contended that the only union that should be compared to is the Police union.
If the firefighters had agreed to the increase proposed by the town, Driscoll said the firefighters would have been among the highest paid of communities similar to Watertown. He used 10 communities as comparison: Arlington, Belmont, Canton, Dedham, Melrose, Natick, Saugus, Stoneham, Waltham and Woburn.
“Any suggestion by the Union or its supporters that the Town does not value its firefighters or that the Town is not willing to pay Watertown Firefighters a fair wage is simply not supported by the data,” Driscoll said.
Resident Elodia Thomas said she was glad to hear the town’s side of the fire contract dispute, and said that she thought the public discussion has been dominated by the firefighters and their supporters.
“It is refreshing hearing the truth, and discussions of these ridiculous accusations,” Thomas said.
Firefighters have contended that they only reason why the Council should vote against an arbitration award is if the town could not afford to fund the resulting contract.
Driscoll disputed this, saying the Council was within its rights to reject the arbitration, and added that the town did not enter arbitration “voluntarily.”
“Regardless of whether a collective bargaining agreement has been reached voluntarily through negotiations or an arbitrator has awarded a contract pursuant to statute, the Town Council, at all times, possesses the statutory obligation and authority to determine whether the Town’s limited financial resources will be used to fund that particular agreement,” Driscoll said.
He added that Watertown is not alone in rejecting an arbitration award, saying that Northampton, Saugus and Holbrook have also done so in recent years.
Driscoll said he preferred to continue negotiating with the Local 1347 – the fire union – but the firefighters pushed to have the contract go to a Joint Labor Management Committee (JLMC).
While some union members have said, and media outlets have reported, that Driscoll and town town agreed to enter arbitration, he said that it was not something he wanted to do. He said there was “no legal mechanism by which the Town could oppose the petition (filed with the JLMC). Therefore it is completely inaccurate to say that I, as Town Manager, agreed to submit the contract dispute to arbitration.”
Only two firefighters attended the Town Council meeting because the union leadership was out of town at a state union conference. Those that were there responded sharply to Driscoll’s statement
Retired firefighter and former Fire Union President Tom Thibaut said he “did not like the tone” of Driscoll’s statement.
“I was involved in six years of negotiation and it did not go quite the way the Town Manager presented it,” Thibaut said. “There is quite a difference in your opinion and my opinion of what happened.”
The firefighters want to negotiate and was willing to do so before the contract went to arbitration, said Deputy Fire Chief Bob Quinn.
“We are willing to negotiate, but it does take two to tango,” Quinn said. “The union has been making an effort to come to an agreement, but things are going tough.”
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