Portland firefighters continue fight against layoffs

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PORTLAND — Members of the local firefighters union, unhappy with recent layoffs in their department, are now disputing how administrators chose who to fire.

City Manager Joe Gray, meanwhile, says the union is making false statements about contract negotiations and the timing of the layoffs.

The International Association of Firefighters Local 740, which represents about 240 Portland firefighters, has requested an arbitrator be brought in, according to union President Winston McGill. The union had tried to get a temporary restraining order through the courts to block the layoffs of nine members of the department until arbitration could happen, but the request was denied. 

On Wednesday, they planned to rally on the steps of City Hall, at 4 p.m., to protest the layoffs.

The city laid off firefighters at the beginning of July because the union declined to forgo a wage freeze in 2010. Other city employee unions agreed to the cost-of-living freeze at the request of Joe Gray, as part of the 2010 budget.

The union, which was negotiating a new contract with the city earlier this year, said the city should have made firefighters aware of the wage freeze, instead of negotiating and approving a contract, and then asking them to forgo the cost of living pay increase.

But, in a letter to firefighters sent Monday, Gray takes issue with the union’s claim he negotiated in bad faith. Gray says he warned city union leaders that layoffs were a possibility as far back as February, and had asked unions to make other concessions. 

“I am deeply troubled by the inaccuracies of this statement and I feel I need to set the record straight in order to move forward together,” Gray wrote.

In an advertisement running in this week’s edition of The Forecaster, the union alleges that a “senior city official” told two union leaders in April that “It was easier to get you to sign a contract, and then ask for the money back than to negotiate with you.”

“That never happened,” said City Spokeswoman Nicole Clegg.

The union offered the city ideas for cost saving measures to avoid the wage freeze and layoffs, but all were rejected, according to the union.

According to Gray, the city worked with fire union officials to come to compromise in which firefighters would accept a 1.5 percent cost of living wage, rather than 2.5 percent, and agree to a reduction in holiday pay. 

The union rejected that offer June 27, according to Gray.

The union’s previous contract expired in July 2007 and it took the city and union until April 2009 to agree on new terms. Gray in his letter says the city repeatedly asked the union to come to the table during that time, and that the union refused, until Feb. 2008.

The city based the layoffs on seniority and skill level, but McGill said their contract calls for layoffs based on seniority unless the services provided by the fire department will be affected negatively. Some firefighters have more paramedic training than others, and a majority of the fire department’s calls are emergency medical related. 

McGill said firefighters with Haz-Mat training and fire boat training were laid off, along with a former firefighter of the year. He argued that skill levels did not need to come into play unless several more layoffs were ordered.

Arbitration is an alternative to resolving disputes through the court system. A third party, the arbitrator, who is usually an attorney, hears the dispute and then issues a binding decision.

In the advertisement, the union also said that it agreed to a 2.5 percent raise in return for dropping more than 150 grievances and changing the personnel reduction policy. When the union requested the city reopen negotiations in April, after the city sent a letter to employees asking for the pay freezes,  the union says the city denied the request.

Gray in his letter said he asked all union officials in March to consider furlough days, wage freezes and changes to health insurance to avoid layoffs. 

The firefighter layoffs resulted in staff at Riverton Station being reduced from four to three. According to Fire Chief Fred LaMontagne, the department must adhere to the “two in/two out” rule, meaning if two fire fighters are inside a burning building, two need to be outside. 

While all the other engines in Portland have only three staff at a time, the Riverton Station is farther out. And, in the unlikely case that there are multiple calls at the Riverton, Stevens Avenue and Allen Avenue stations, back-up for a fire would have to come from Bramhall Square or Ocean Avenue, which are not as close to Riverton.

The fire department experienced the elimination of 14 positions in 2008, amid a city wide round of layoffs and consolidation.

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or kbucklin@theforecaster.net