Battle Shaping Up Between Chicago Mayor, Firefighters

CHICAGO, IL &#8211 Nearly four months after losing the hero fire commissioner who championed their cause, Chicago firefighters finally know what cost-cutting concessions Mayor Rahm Emanuel is seeking when their contract expires on June 30.

In a plan the firefighters union calls “insulting” and “ridiculous,” Emanuel is taking aim at such treasured union perks as holiday and duty availability pay; clothing allowances; pay grades; premium pay; the physical fitness incentive and the seven percent premium paid to cross-trained firefighter paramedics.

One former union official estimated the proposed concessions could cost the average firefighter $7,000 a year.

Chicago firefighters in what’s known as Class 1 currently receive an entry level salary of $50,490 for the first 12 months of service and $90,378 after 30 years.

The mayor’s plan does not include closing fire stations. But, it would alter the minimum manning requirement that triggered the bitter 1980 firefighters strike.

The current contract requires that every piece of fire apparatus be staffed by at least five employees. Emanuel’s plan calls for all “double houses” that include both engines and trucks to be staffed by nine firefighters instead of 10.

Rookie probation would double — from nine months to 18 months.

And just eight months after denying plans to upgrade ambulance service in Chicago, Emanuel wants to covert the city’s 15 basic-life-support ambulances to advanced life support.

The plan would cost roughly $50,000 for every one of the 15 BLS ambulances. It would leave the city with 75 ambulances capable of providing the most sophisticated level of care.

Chicago currently has 60 ALS ambulances, each staffed by two paramedics qualified to administer intravenous medication. ALS ambulances are stocked with drugs and equipped with heart monitoring devices.

The 15 BLS ambulances are staffed by emergency medical technicians who undergo less training. BLS ambulances do not have medicine or monitoring equipment. They are only permitted to transport patients to hospitals.

Tom Ryan, president of the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2, did not return repeated phone calls about the city’s proposal. But, he did not mince his words in a letter to the rank-and-file that spelled out specifics of the city’s plan.

“We obviously refused to agree to any of these horrendous proposals and if what you are about to read makes you angry, it should. This looks to be a long and bitter battle,” Ryan wrote.

“We will, of course, continue to vigorously fight these insulting, ridiculous proposals. There likely will come a time when all Local 2 members will need to join in voicing our disgust over these outrageous attacks on the wages, benefits and conditions we have fought for and earned throughout the years. The city is testing our resolve. The battle has begun!”

Attorney Jim Franczek, the city’s chief labor negotiator, could not be reached for comment. But, an Emanuel administration source spelled out the city’s philosophy on the condition of anonymity.

“The goal here is to challenge the layers of unaffordable provisions of the contract that have accumulated over the years and to look at this to see if there are ways of addressing some of these things that have been tacked on,” the city source said.

Inspector General Joe Ferguson has estimated that Chicago taxpayers could save $57 million-a-year by reducing — from five employees to four — the minimum number of employees required to staff every piece of fire apparatus.

Ferguson has further estimated that the city could save $52 million a year by eliminating the duty availability pay that compensates both police officers and firefighters for being on 24-hour call. For firefighters, the perk costs nearly $14.3 million a year.

The inspector general pegged the annual uniform allowance at anywhere from $1,250 to $1,500 per firefighter, depending on the shift.

The mayor also wants to reduce non-duty lay-up coverage from 12 months over a two-year period to 12 months over a four-year period. Non-duty lay-up coverage is full pay to firefighters recuperating from injuries suffered after being hurt on their days off.

Former union president Bill Kugelman estimated that the mayor’s proposed concessions would take $7,000 a year out of the average firefighters’ pocket.

“They’re taking the pay grades down. They’re eliminating clothing allowance. Holiday pay would go only to those who work the actual day. We fought for everybody to get it. … This is all anti-union stuff,” he said.

As for the mayor’s proposal to take the staffing level at double-houses from ten firefighters to nine, Kugelman said, “That was the main thing we went out on strike for in 1980 — for manning. And it’s proven itself” to be a safety requirement.

Chicago firefighters have been waiting for Emanuel to drop the other shoe ever since last fall.

That’s when the mayor made it clear he planned to take a hard line in contract talks — even though his own fire commissioner was “deathly against” closing fire houses or reducing the minimum staffing requirement on fire apparatus.

Four months later, Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff abruptly resigned, leaving firefighters without a champion. Hoff’s successor, Jose Santiago, has not ruled out station closings or manning reductions, saying he is “looking at every option.”

The scary thing for firefighters is that the mayor’s proposed contract concessions come on top of his plan to solve the city’s pension crisis, which would take even more money out of firefighters’ paychecks.

Emanuel’s plan calls for: a five percent increase in employee contributions; a 10-year freeze in cost-of-living increases for retirees; a five-year increase in the retirement age and a two-tiered pension system for new and old employees.

From The Chicago Sun-Times.

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