Northampton, fire union looking forward to labor peace, urge council to fund new contract
Northampton City Hall
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eft Fire chief Brian Duggan, mayor David Narkewicz, Scott Flynn, president Shawn Denkiewicz, vice president, Northampton Fire fighters, I.A.F.F Local 108 during a press conference to explain the contract negotiations.
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left Fire chief Brian Duggan, mayor David Narkewicz, Scott Flynn, president Shawn Denkiewicz, vice president, Northampton Fire fighters, I.A.F.F Local 108 during a press conference to explain the contract negotiations.
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Scott Flynn, president of Northampton Firefighters Local 108, right, speaks during a press conference Wednesday. Also pictured are Fire Chief Brian Duggan, left, and Mayor David Narkewicz, center.
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NORTHAMPTON — Calling it a milestone that ends an acrimonious contract fight, Mayor David J. Narkewicz and firefighter union leadership said they have worked out a new pact that removes a cloud over the Fire Department and will provide stability for the next several years.
At a morning press conference Wednesday, the two sides explained the agreement reached for two three-year contracts that cover a six-year period from fiscal 2011 to 2016. One of the contracts is retroactive and covers fiscal 2011 to 2013 — the union has been working under the terms of an expired contract since June 30, 2010 — and the other includes this year through fiscal 2016.
“This has been a long road and it hasn’t been an easy road, but we’re at a better place at this point,” said Scott P. Flynn, president of Northampton Firefighters Local 108.
“I think this is an important milestone,” he said. “I really see this as an opportunity to turn the page, to move forward, to get back to doing what we all want to focus on, which is provide top-notch public safety to the city.”
Before that can happen, however, the City Council must vote to fund the agreement at its meeting Thursday night. Last month the council rejected a request to pony up the money to cover the cost of a contract settlement issued by a state arbitration panel that would have given union members a 7 percent raise over the last three fiscal years. Unlike the agreement announced Wednesday, the state panel’s award did not extend to 2016, but stopped at 2013.
The council said it could not afford the deal’s $406,000 price tag, especially on the heels of a voter-approved Proposition 2½ tax override.
Narkewicz and Flynn both expressed hope that councilors would vote to fund the contract this time around. The raises are smaller in the new deal, meaning the city would need to pay about $316,400, a difference of $89,600.
If the council approves the contract, it will also be asked to transfer $170,406 to the Fire Department to pay salaries of union members in the current fiscal year based on new hourly rates in the retroactive wage increases. Under the state arbitration panel’s ruling, this latter amount would have been about $222,200 — a difference of about $51,800.
Acknowledging that union members were upset when the council voted against funding the arbitration award last month, Flynn on Wednesday made a plea for the council to recognize what he termed “sizeable concessions” the union made in recent days to put the dispute behind them. He said union members voted to ratify the contract Monday night in a vote that was not unanimous, though he declined to provide a breakdown.
“The firefighters believe that this is the right thing to do, that we need to move beyond this difficult period in our careers,” said Flynn. “We’re optimistic that the council will support this and that we’ll see brighter days ahead.”
If the council fails to approve the contract, Flynn said, union members are concerned that it will weaken future contract negotiations that must go to arbitration and make it too easy for the council to reject agreements. Arbitration facilitated by the state Joint Labor Management Committee for Municipal Police and Fire is the only means for police and firefighters to resolve contract differences, he said.
Narkewicz said he also hopes the council will sign off on the deal, especially after he met with its members in executive session Aug. 5 in advance of an intense negotiating session scheduled for two days later. At that meeting, the mayor discussed strategy and got a sense of what funding level councilors were likely to support, he said.
“My hope is that this will meet the issues that they had with the previous funding structure and that they’ll be able to support it,” he said.
The new contract addresses wages and step raises, the main sticking points in past contract negotiations. In the end, the 64 members of Local 108 are in line for an 8.5 percent raise over the combined six years of both contracts, Narkewicz said.
The retroactive contract calls for a 3 percent salary increase for fiscal 2011, no increase in fiscal 2012 and a 1 percent increase for the last fiscal year. The current contract provides members with a 1 percent increase halfway through the current fiscal year, followed by 2 percent in fiscal 2015 and 1.5 percent in fiscal 2016.
Disagreements over step raises were also ironed out as part of the new deal. A step raise, unlike cost-of-living increases, is an incremental pay increase for junior members of the department during their first eight years of service.
The union agreed in fiscal 2010 to freeze their wages and step increases, leading several firefighters and captains to take a double hit when those steps were not reinstated in the ensuing years. In some cases, that meant some union members hired after 2010 are making more money than those hired that year.
This became a major sticking point during negotiations with then-mayor Clare Higgins, but Flynn credited Narkewicz with being willing to “make these firefighters whole.” The new deal includes step raises for five firefighters and four captains during fiscal 2011 through 2013, but Flynn noted it does not go back to fiscal 2010.
While the entire package is less costly than the arbitration ruling, Flynn said members feel it’s more fair to all union members and “rights an injustice, in our minds.”
Fire Chief Brian Duggan said he views the labor peace as an opportunity to open the lines of communication between administration and union members. For the one of the first times in his 15-year career in Northampton, the union has a contract that looks forward, he said.
“All too often the contracts that we have had have expired, and expired by several years, to the point it doesn’t promote positive communication between labor and management,” Duggan said.
The two sides have had a rocky relationship in recent years, with the union taking a vote of no confidence in Duggan in the spring of 2012. Duggan and Narkewicz said at the time that move was a contract negotiations ploy, something the union denied.
The chief and the mayor both said they never wavered on the outstanding services provided by the Fire Department.
“At no point during the negotiations, whether it was the darkest day, did those services falter,” said Duggan.
Aside from wages, Narkewicz said the new contract incorporates all of the other issues of the ruling made by the state arbitration panel.
Most of those issues went in the city’s favor. Among those were the elimination of a 25-cent-per-hour shift differential for firefighters who work between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m. Arbitrators also sided with the city in ruling that firefighters called to respond to an emergency shall be paid from the time the alarm sounds rather than from the top of the hour.
Arbitrators sided with a union proposal for a stipend of $1,500 for ambulance assistance for members who don’t have an EMT certification. This ruling will not mean more money out of city coffers. It simply distributes the stipend money, which remains capped at 22 percent, among union members in a different manner.
Both Narkewicz and Flynn said the contract makes no changes to the stipend system, though that program will be examined soon and may be adjusted.
“We agreed to discuss that aspect of the contract going forward,” Narkewicz said.
Local 108 Vice President Shawn Denkiewicz said the contract is a good one that respects both sides. He called for continued contact between the mayor and union leadership moving forward.
“I would just like to see the City Council come through and fund the agreement on Thursday,” he said.