The recently negotiated contract with City of Buffalo firefighters was, indeed, a long time coming. Some would say, too long. But it’s finally done and the overall result is good for the city and its taxpayers and more than fair for firefighters during a weak economy.
The 15-year agreement gives firefighters their first negotiated raises since 2002, and includes greater health care contributions from new employees, a residency requirement and new work rules that should save money.
But even more profound is that the contract is finally done. It took a long time – two city administrations and changes at the top of the fire union ladder. It wasn’t pretty.
Back a little more than a decade ago, when the last contract was negotiated, firefighters were doing all right, just as their police brethren were. In fact, they felt in lockstep with police until former Mayor Anthony M. Masiello negotiated a deal with police officers, who received a $5,000 increase and the first of four annual raises.
But that was before 2003, when state law created the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority. The city “control board” imposed a citywide wage freeze that suspended the police increases. That freeze still stands today. Firefighters believed back then that they deserved parity with police. But police had gone to one-officer patrol cars. Firefighters wanted to give a little to get a lot.
They lost their battle to maintain that precious parity with police officers in 2005, when an arbitration panel ended a tradition that dated back at least 30 years. And then, just hours after that decision was released, the control board blocked the retroactive raises that were part of the ruling, saying that the existing wage freeze imposed by the board superseded the arbitration ruling.
Firefighters protested. And protested. They protested into the next City Hall administration.
But just like Oliver Twist, they found out there wasn’t any “more.”
New hires will contribute to their health care throughout their careers. The cosmetic rider has been eliminated and firefighters hired after Jan. 1, 2012, will have to live within city limits. Of 655 current employees, as of March 30, approximately 68 employees contribute toward their health insurance, and that is only for the next year or two until they reach four years of service. Then the same population of 655 is entitled to free health insurance in retirement. That’s obviously a good deal for them and not so great for the city.
This has been a long slog. Firefighters represent the first large union to leave the negotiating table with a contract, even if they’re still grousing about having wanted more. But there isn’t any “more.” Police and the other unions should come to the same conclusion.