WILKES-BARRE – The city firefighters' union disputed the administration's account of failed negotiations involving concessions to bring back 11 laid-off firemen.
Both sides agreed a $1,500 annual payment to each member of the fire department as a result of arbitration was an issue. However, they disagreed on nearly everything else.
The firefighters were let go on Dec. 1 to make up for a city revenue shortfall and have not been called back even though their wages and benefits were budgeted this year in Mayor Tom Leighton's $44.9 million spending plan that included a 25-mill property tax increase.
It's in the budget, but not within our account, said Drew McLaughlin, the city's administrative coordinator.
He acknowledged Wednesday the same can be said for the city's other unions, including the Laborers' International Union of North America Local 1310 of which he is a member.
Property tax bills will be going out soon, and the incoming revenue could put money in the city's accounts to pay for the firefighters, he said.
They will be brought back at some point, McLaughlin said, adding they could be working if the unions agreed to the concessions sought by the mayor.
Four Department of Public Works employees furloughed at the same time as the firefighters were called back before the end of last year.
The firefighters and city officials met last Thursday for 2½ hours with little accomplished, said Greg Freitas, vice president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 104. During the meeting we told the mayor we didn't want to be lumped in with the other unions, Freitas explained.
The mayor offered to bring back the firefighters if the police and firefighters gave up the $1,500 annual payments to their members in 2013 and the Teamsters Local 401 and LIUNA Local 1301 agreed to forgo the 3-percent raises that are part of their collective bargaining agreements. With the concessions in hand, the mayor would not lay off any firefighters between Jan. 28 of this year and March 1, 2014.
Freitas said he and firefighters' union President Mike Bilski decided we would take it to a vote and wait and see what the police and laborers' unions would do.
But the other unions tabled the vote, said Freitas. The firefighters, in turn, sealed the vote taken Monday because we didn't want to cause any problems with the other unions, he explained.
In a press release issued Tuesday afternoon, the city said the police and laborers' unions postponed their votes until after the firefighters voted. The mayor added he was extremely disappointed on the lack of concessions to rehire the firefighters. The city had a contractual obligation to pay the $1,500 to the firefighters and police by Tuesday.
The firefighters' vote still can be tallied so the city can get the ball rolling with the other unions, McLaughlin said.
However, said Freitas, all this could have been avoided if the mayor was willing to accept the concession on the $1,500 made by the firefighters' union before the layoffs.
But McLaughlin said the union's other demands of no layoffs for the duration of its four-year contract and no concession on the annual 3-percent pay raise was unacceptable. They offered a one-time concession with a four-year benefit, he said. The city could not commit to that.
Freitas added the union asked for the no-layoff clause, knowing it wouldn't get it. Like I have been saying all along, he said, we would have voted on this before the firefighters were laid off by the mayor, but he refused to give us anything.
Also, McLaughlin said there is no conflict of interest on his part as a union member relaying information to the public from the administration about the negotiations.