The inside story of how Providence settled its battle with the fire union

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Shortly after 7 a.m. on Christmas Eve in 2015, Providence firefighters’ union president Paul Doughty needed to get something off his chest. So he opened his Twitter feed and started typing.

“If @Jorge_Elorza does for the city what he’s done for the FD, we will be bankrupt, morally and fiscally, in no time,” Doughty wrote.

The message, retweeted 14 times that day, was one of hundreds Doughty has posted in the 20 months since Mayor Jorge Elorza announced his plan to overhaul the city’s fire department. Most of them had the same purpose: to show the members of Local 799 of the International Association of Firefighters he was prepared for a fight with City Hall.

But behind the scenes, Doughty and city officials kept the lines of communication open throughout much of the battle, quietly meeting for negotiations in coffee shops or the city’s law department even as the two sides attacked each other in public.

The five-year union contract approved by the City Council and separately by the union Thursday was the end result of those secretive meetings, with each side eventually agreeing to concessions at the urging of a fiery former chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court who made it clear that no one should want his former colleagues in the high court to settle the dispute.

This is the story of how the two sides got from that Christmas Eve tweet to an agreement that is expected to generate millions of dollars in savings for the city while also returning firefighters to a 42-hour average work week by 8 a.m. Sunday.

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At its core, the dispute between the city and the firefighters was similar to most labor disputes. On the management side, Elorza wanted to find structural savings in his budget. The union wanted to fight – or get paid for – any inconveniences created by the mayor’s quest to secure the savings.

For Elorza, the number was $5 million. Even before the Democratic mayor and his top aides took office in January 2015, one of the most glaring cost overruns in recent city budgets was the amount the fire department was spending on callback overtime. Between 2010 and 2015, the city averaged spending $8.2 million a year on that line item.

But cutting callback in Providence isn’t as simple as a warehouse manager asking employees to sacrifice overtime when times are tough. The union contract called for 94 firefighters to be on duty all day, every day – a provision known as minimum manning. Because there were only 100 firefighters on each of the department’s four platoons in May 2015, every time six firefighters on a platoon were injured, sick or on vacation, a member of another platoon was called back to work, earning time-and-a-half pay.

Elorza’s solution was to announce that he would use his management right to restructure the fire department from four platoons to three, a change he believed would beef up the overall numbers on each platoon and give the city more breathing room before he had to call back firefighters from other shifts due to absences. The change would require firefighters to go from working an average of 42 hours per week to an average of 56 hours.

Doughty was also highly critical of the way Elorza informed him of the plans to make changes. The two met for a beer the week before the announcement, but the mayor never mentioned moving to three platoons. Doughty claims he wasn’t aware the change would be made until the night before Elorza held a press conference in City Hall.

“That’s not the way overtime was designed to be used,” Elorza said at the time. He suggested the city could save $5 million annually beginning in the 2016-17 budget. But Doughty quickly warned that the changes would cost the city more than it was already spending.

For much of that summer, the two sides struggled to find common ground, making half-hearted attempts at negotiating a resolution before the three-platoon plan was implemented. When a deal couldn’t be reached, Elorza made the change unilaterally, giving firefighters an 8% increase to their pay for what they considered a 33% increase to their work week.

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The months that followed were ugly.

Elorza focused his criticism on the highest-paid members of the department, including one rescue captain who worked an average 84 hours per week for an entire year.  His public safety commissioner suggested a spike in injury claims following the shift change were an abuse of department policy.

Providence firefighter rally
Firefighters and their families rallied against the mayor in City Hall. (Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI 12)

And the mayor said overtime has been a “gravy train” for firefighters for too long.

The union gave it right back to Elorza. Doughty filed suit and a judge ordered the two sides to arbitration. Grievances piled up. The union picketed an event held by Elorza, and later threatened Hillary Clinton’s campaign with the same treatment. A threat to burn down the mayor’s Silver Lake home was posted in a Facebook group that was advocating for firefighters. (No one was charged.) A spokesperson for the mayor confirmed the city suddenly started receiving deliveries of gravy and Gravy Train dog food following Elorza’s comments.

But while the two sides’ public comments suggested they were both unwilling to budge, Providence city solicitor Jeffrey Dana privately reached out to Doughty to restart negotiations. They met for coffee a few times. At the same time, a mediator, former Judge Mark A. Pfeiffer, was encouraging the two sides to keep talking.

In an interview this week, Doughty called Dana’s evolution from background player in the initial shift change dispute to the leader on the city side a “turning point” in the negotiations.

Dana, a soft-spoken 45-year-old attorney who grew up in Smithfield and earned his undergraduate and law degrees from Tulane University, benefited from his outsider status in the dispute. Even though he was the city’s top attorney, it was Elorza and an outside attorney, Timothy C. Cavazza, who were leading the charge against the union.

With the mayor and Cavazza, “there was no trust at all,” Doughty said. Dana had previously advocated for the city to walk back a claim that the existing union contract was invalid, in part because he thought the accusation would derail any chance of a compromise.

“We knew we could at least talk to Jeff,” Doughty said.

***

As 2015 turned into 2016, the talking continued.

In a separate interview this week, Dana said the two sides agreed to keep the media at a distance when it came to negotiations. When reporters asked about the status, both sides refused to comment on the record. Members of the City Council occasionally complained they were being kept in the dark.

Early in the year, top aides convinced the mayor to stop stating that he wanted $5 million in structural savings from the firefighters, in part because it infuriated members of the union. Around the same time, Elorza said publicly for the first time that he was willing to return to four platoons as long as savings could be achieved.

Doughty said Elorza’s willingness to return to four platoons was a pivotal moment for the union.

 

 

Dozens of firefighters retired following the shift change, which resulted in many active employees getting called back for overtime on top of the new 56-hour work week. The schedule didn’t help. While many departments across the country work in three platoons, Providence’s schedule was unlike any other.

“The schedule was not sensible,” Dana said. “Nobody didn’t know that. Which is why we offered to make a change. But that’s not something we could do unilaterally.”

By late spring, the two sides began discussing a “global settlement,” which would include potential changes to the existing union contract, a new contract that would begin July 1, 2017, and a resolution to the dozens of grievances filed by union members following the shift change. Dana credits City Council President Luis Aponte for strongly advocating in favor of a larger deal.

Enter Frank Williams, the former chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court. Known for his brash tone, Williams has played a key role in resolving of some of Rhode Island’s high-profile labor disputes, including the final settlement over the state’s 2011 pension reform law.

Williams agreed to mediate the Providence battle and made it clear to both sides he wanted results.

“He can be loud, very loud,” Dana said. “But he was so involved. He would call at seven in the morning for updates.” Williams declined to comment prior to Thursday’s passage.)

***

Once Williams got involved, negotiations moved swiftly, according to both Dana and Doughty. The union also brought in former city director of administration Michael D’Amico, who Doughty said had credibility with both sides when it comes to city budget matters.

They agreed to come to terms on a contract first and then discuss the grievances later. That means 2017 will see the two sides continue to battle over how much the city must pay the firefighters in back wages for requiring them to work an average of 14 extra hours per week with just an 8% increase in pay.

Both sides agree the city will likely have to write a check to the firefighters, but they are far apart on the amount. Internal auditor Matt Clarkin has suggested the back pay tab could rise above $10 million. Dana said he believes the final amount will be significantly lower.

As for the contract, the five-year agreement approved Thursday reduces minimum manning from 94 firefighters to 88, but allows the department to return to four platoons and a 42-hour average work week.

Union members will receive small raises in each year of the deal, but future retirees will have to contribute toward their health care for the first time. Active employees will also have a dental co-share

The city has claimed total savings in the contract could be close to $20 million. Clarkin believes it’s closer to $9 million.

Some members of the City Council, including Finance Committee Chairman John Igliozzi, have criticized the deal for failing to require new employees to contribute more toward their pensions and wait longer to receive the benefit. Igliozzi has noted that the department is planning to hire 150 new firefighters in the coming years and all of them will be locked into the same deal as existing union members.

Members of Igliozzi’s committee declined to support the contract. Instead, they voted to forward it to the full City Council without a recommendation.

Dana acknowledged that the agreement isn’t perfect, noting that he wanted a lower minimum manning total as well as more changes to health care and longevity, but said he is confident the deal is “a win” for the city. He said the administration worked closely with “consultants and actuaries” on every facet of the deal to ensure savings could be achieved.

On the union side, Doughty is also claiming victory. He said the return to four platoons shows Mayor Elorza never should have made the changes in the first place.

He was back on Twitter Thursday morning with a more cheerful message for the mayor – at least for the moment.

“.@Jorge_Elorza Happy New Year,” he wrote.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan