November 22, 2002
By Mark Daly
Describing it as the best his union could expect during the city’s budget retrenchment, Uniformed Firefighters’ Association President Stephen J. Cassidy Nov. 14 reached a tentative contract agreement with the city that is nearly identical to what an arbitration panel granted in September to the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association.
The two-year contact provides compounded wage increase totaling 10.25 percent, plus an additional $800 increase in step payments for firefighters at the end of each of their first five years on the job. For newer Firefighters, each raise in the steps on the pay scale before they reach maximum salary after five years amounts to better than a 2-percent increase.
One month after holding a Central Park rally to demand a “fair wage” for his members that exceeded the PBA terms, the UFA president said all the union’s efforts since he took office this summer were intended to reach this point.
‘City Wasn’t Giving More’
“I think this is the best deal we could get, given the circumstances we found ourselves in, “Mr. Cassidy said following a City Hall press conference at which he and Mayor Bloomberg announced the agreement. “Anybody who thought that somehow the city would give us more than they were giving Police Officers was just kidding themselves.
“A 10-percent raise on top of $32,000 is not a lot of money,” he continued referring to the current $32,724 starting pay for Firefighters. “That’s the problem and that’s always been the problem. The starting salary is still way too low, the top salary is still way too low, and that’s what we plan to address in our next contract.”
Mayor Bloomberg argued the deal was better than firefighters could have expected in light of the steep downward slide this year in the city’s income projections. “Given the financial condition of the city, I think it is as good as we could possibly do,” he said.
Aids Newer Members
The proposed contract for the city’s 8,500 Firefighters follows the pattern of the PBA award issued by a state sponsored arbitration panel this year. It would provide two annual raises of 5 percent over a 24-month period, plus 1.5 percent in other economic gains.
While the PBA arbitrators made the 1.5 percent subject to further negotiations, the city and the UFA agreed to divvy up the total in a way that benefits the Fire Department’s increasingly younger work force.
That same group of new firefighters would begin receiving the full 5.7-percent night-shift differential after one year of service, instead of in their sixth year. The increase will be phased in, with new hires getting none of the differential in their first six months and 90 percent of it in the latter half of their first year. Under the current contract, new hires received just 55 percent of the differential from their sixth month through the end of their fifth year.
The tentative deal also would double the $2-a-day annuity payment for all UFA members and provide a 24-percent increase in the differential for serving as the chauffeur, or driver, of a fire vehicle. The new differential would be 2.05 percent. The tillermen who drive in the rear of the city’s longest ladder trucks would be paid the same differential for the first time.
The proposed contract covers the period from June 1, 2000 to June 1, 2002. By its end, the starting pay for Firefighters rises to $36,878, and the top pay reached after five years of service is roughly $54,000. Contract provisions that guarantee Firefighters a minimum amount of overtime pay would remain in effect.
Unions representing the city’s fire officers, police Lieutenants and Captains, and uniformed sanitation and correction personnel accepted a coalition deal last year that gave 10.25 percent in compounded raises over 30 months, plus 1.5 percent that was reserved for unit bargaining.
Under its previous leadership, the UFA’s executive board gave its tentative approval to that deal, but members soured on it after the World Trade Center terrorist attacks, which claimed the lives of 343 Fire Department personnel. UFA members elected a new team of officers this summer that included Mr. Cassidy, and a formal vote on the deal a short time later produced an overwhelming rejection.
Despite the simmering discontent within the union over the 30-month contract, Mr. Cassidy said the union’s hopes of improving on the wage terms were dashed by the PBA arbitration award. The chairman of the three-member arbitration panel who wrote the award cited the city’s fiscal constraints in providing economic terms essentially similar to the coalition pattern but for a period that is six months shorter.
“The arbitrator used ‘Firefighters’ and ‘Police Officers’ back and forth several times in that language, and we felt it would be very difficult for us to move above that, “Mr. Cassidy said.
The Central Park rally and the union’s efforts to enlist grass-roots support from the public were meant to push the city toward the bargaining table, he added. “They didn’t come to us and say, ‘You know what? We’re going to give you what we just gave the cops,’”
UFA Vice President James Slevin said the decision to sweeten the deal for the union’s newest members was a cost-effective way of getting the greatest value for the available money. It also steered the gains toward a growing section of the union’s membership.
More than 2,000 Firefighters have been hired in the last three years alone, which means nearly a quarter of the UFA’s membership will benefit from the changes.
UFA officials began to detail the contract’s provisions at a membership meeting in Queens Nov. 14, starting an eight-week review process. Ratification ballots will be mailed to the members by the end of December at the earliest, Mr. Slevin said.
The contract is subject to a non-binding vote by battalion delegates and an approval vote by all of the union’s delegates before it goes to the membership. At each stage, a simple majority vote will send the proposed contract forward.