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Firefighters find themselves a long way from 9/11 as they struggle to negotiate new contract

ST. PETERSBURG — Nearly 10 years after riding a groundswell of goodwill from Sept. 11, firefighters are lurching into a new political reality less receptive to their demands as workers.

In New York, 800 firefighters marched the streets this month to protest the city's planned cuts. In North Las Vegas, 40 firefighters were told this week they were being let go. In Detroit, firefighters have launched an elaborate public relations campaign to rally support in the wake of announced cuts.

While St. Petersburg has so far avoided mass layoffs, its firefighters have been locked in a stalemate over their contract since last year. City administrators threw up their hands in April, declaring the negotiations had reached an impasse. The case will be heard in July by an arbitrator, unless the sides instead agree to let the City Council decide the contract terms.

Whatever happens, it's clear that Local 747 is struggling to maintain its perch atop the city's political pecking order during a stripped-down era of austerity.

"This is not the time of wine and roses," said City Council member Herb Polson of the pressure firefighters face nationwide. "Everyone appreciates what they do, but there comes a point when everyone needs to share the burden that is being felt worldwide."

The union's 277 members don't need reminders of the tough economic times. Last year, six fire and rescue positions were eliminated. Next year's proposed reductions include the elimination of $271,460 in overtime and the elimination of several positions that are now vacant. Only about 30 percent of firefighters would receive raises.

And under Mayor Bill Foster, whom the fire union didn't endorse, their political clout pales compared to the police.

Police, who backed Foster, won concessions on a looser chase policy and more take-home cars. Three police officers were shot and killed earlier this year, and the police budget is sailing through with few proposed cuts.

"They lost three officers, and everyone is real sad for them," said fire Chief Jim Large. "It's kind of like what 9/11 was for us when we were untouchable."

Large said residents don't need to worry yet about declining service. The department could face sizable cuts in 2013 if the county reduces the city's share of tax revenue earmarked for emergency medical services, but he said he's not even close to considering periodic closures of fire stations.

"If it ever came to that, I'd be on the phone with the mayor," Large said.

Still, firefighters probably can't help but notice the ease in which the police union negotiated its contract last year. Afterward, police representatives lauded Foster, saying he worked with them, not against them.

At the same time, Foster criticized fire union negotiators for not agreeing to two contract terms he wanted: random drug testing and mandatory medical exams.

Union president Winthrop Newton said his members don't object to those terms and that Foster is intentionally misrepresenting their position.

Firefighters already get tested for drugs if their supervisor suspects they are impaired, Newton said. If they are suspected and forced to take a drug test, they can admit to their supervisor that they need help and get treatment without fear of suspension. City negotiators want to remove that forgiveness provision, making employees responsible for seeking treatment before a supervisor approaches them.

Newton said the union doesn't want to give that up without something in return. He said the current drug policy works just fine. An incident in 2009, where a bag of powder cocaine was found in the laundry at Station 8 is irrelevant because no testing would have prevented that, he said.

Tampa doesn't allow its 600 union members to be randomly drug-tested, nor does Clearwater or New Port Richey.

But St. Petersburg administrators want firefighters to have the same random drug testing as St. Petersburg police, said Chris Guella, the city's labor relations and compensation manager.

The other sticking point, mandatory medical exams, is more about protecting private information from snooping by supervisors than it is about shielding out-of-shape firefighters, Newton said. An arbitrator in 2009 ruled in favor of the union's resistance to the tests. The arbitrator concluded that the medical provider at the time, BayCare Occupational Health, was forcing firefighters to sign waivers that absolved it of any liability if employee records were shared.

Guella said the city's new carrier, Life Scan, doesn't do that. Newton disagrees. He said firefighters still must sign a waiver that limits their privacy.

"The city wants that control; I have no idea why," Newton said. "This isn't about money. This whole thing boils down to worker rights."

Newton, however, said the union would cede these two points if city negotiators agreed to shortening their work week from 52 hours to 48 hours. A different bargaining unit of 17 fire department supervisors received that benefit, and Newton said his union of the rank-and-file members should be treated the same. Guella said that just isn't possible. The city would have to hire at least 20 firefighters to fill in, costing about $1.5 million.

"We could do it with the supervisors because there were fewer of them, it was easier to absorb," Guella said. "We can't do that with the rank-and-file without it costing the city."

Both parties have agreed to let a Port Charlotte arbitrator listen to the case on July 12. His decision won't be binding, however. And both sides can decide before then to let the City Council vote on new contract terms.

For firefighters, that's still a friendly bunch. Only Council member Steve Kornell has not received a union endorsement.

But most council members said they need to catch up on the status of negotiations before they know how they'll vote.

"I don't want to be unreasonable," said Bill Dudley, who personally knows many members of the fire union. "We must do what's best for the city."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at mvansickler@sptimes.com.

Firefighters find themselves a long way from 9/11 as they struggle to negotiate new contract 06/17/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 18, 2011 12:26am]

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