The Firebrand

Kelly comes from a firefighter family. not only is hisbrother one, but their dad was, too, as was their grandfather. “We understand the risks involved, the potential to get hurt or killed on this job,” Kelly says. “But that’s traded off with the pride in what we’re doing, and the noble calling that it is…. And, God forbid, if you do get killed”—anger flashing in his voice here—”your sacrifice is respected by the citizens of this city.”

The rancor of the brawl Kelly’s now leading might itself stem from a different sense of obligation. “Firefighters, for the most part, expect a contract fight,” a second City Hall source says, noting that “ugly, nasty, terrible, bloody, spitting” disputes are a union hallmark. That last adjective references an episode in 2001, when one of the firefighters protesting at Mayor Menino’s State of the City address spat on his wife, Angela, as she and the mayor walked past the picket line and into Hancock Hall. Union members have also been known to stalk Menino as he goes from Christmas tree lighting to Christmas tree lighting, heckling him. At parades, while Menino marched, Local 718 members passed out pro-union stickers. Despite all this, the union has, more often than not, had its demands met come contract time. “There’s never been a rallying cry at City Hall to take on the fire department,” says Michael McCormack, a Boston lawyer and former city councilor. “There’s always been a respect for what they do, and a sense that you should give them a little more because of it.”

The scandals of the past 11 months have, of course, changed all that. After the autopsy results for Paul Cahill and Warren Payne, the firefighters killed in the Tai Ho blaze, were leaked, Menino moved to make drug and alcohol testing his top priority in contract talks. The union, in turn, promptly pulled out of a committee the mayor convened examining fire department reforms in December. The committee’s lone black firefighter refused to join the walkout, and the union threatened to expel him, which elicited charges of racism. In January—the same month the Globe first reported allegations that firefighters were gouging the city for fraudulent disability pensions—news surfaced that some firefighters had cheated on civil service exams. It went on. In March: A firefighter was charged with smoking marijuana in a department vehicle. In April: a second collared for allegedly buying OxyContin from a Southie drug dealer. In May: a third busted in a Blue Hill Avenue sex sting after allegedly offering an undercover police officer $29 for oral sex. Responding to this last bit of news, Kelly told the Globe, “I think that the pressures of working without a contract are beginning to manifest in the darnedest ways.”

But that assumes the job itself is taxing. Sam Tyler, president of the watchdog agency Boston Municipal Research Bureau, notes that many firefighters double up shifts: They’ll work two days and nights straight, then be off for the rest of the week. (Which further assumes these guys are working when they’re supposed to: More than one in five, to cite a recent example, called in sick on Memorial Day.) Firefighters prefer working two on and five off, Tyler says, because “most of them have other jobs.” While Kelly says jakes do this for the extra money, their contracts are not leaving them in poverty. In 2006, firefighters’ base pay averaged $71,247, easily besting police officers’ average base salary of $67,666—even after factoring in Quinn Bill benefits, which give pay bumps to cops who complete college degrees. Add in overtime, and firefighters’ total compensation averaged between roughly $85,000 and $120,000, figures that put Boston at the top of the top tier nationwide. No government agency assembles national statistics on firefighter pay, so a definitive ranking isn’t available. But Charlotte, a bigger union city with a smaller fire force, averages just under $50,000, with overtime. And most salaries in Baltimore, a union city with a slightly larger force, max out at around $60,000. To be paid $80,000 is “definitely high for us,” a Baltimore Fire Department spokesman says.

Last year the Boston Police Department faced an unfavorable negotiating environment similar to the fire department’s, with cops under investigation for drug trafficking and steroid abuse, and for partying with known prostitutes. The police union knew it couldn’t stage a vicious public fight, as it had in years past. So it traded enhanced drug testing, management reforms, and a modest 14 percent raise over four years for a loosening of the residency requirement that compels city employees to live in town, a policy the cops have long hated.

“The police didn’t push it,” Tyler says. “It was to their PR benefit not to be contentious.” By contrast, he says, “the firefighters are still
working off the old game plan,” i.e., the one that called for upstaging the mayor’s State of the City address in January. The following month they called a press conference to announce that the mayor didn’t seem to care if a liquefied natural gas tanker incinerated half of Boston while an underequipped fire department watched helplessly. They kept up the blitz in April, marching on the State House, demanding respect.

As he sits in the cramped Florian Hall conference room, Kelly says with a straight face that the union’s recent scandals have been twisted to serve a single purpose: “to bully us into an inferior contract,” so the city can save money. “The only time you read about alleged abuse and gaming of the system,” he says, “is when they’re trying to attack us, to put pressure on us at the bargaining table.” He says it happened in the 2001 contract negotiations, when the administration hit the union with a series of newspaper scoops about injured-leave abuse. Menino and staff did it again in 2004 by “leaking stories,” Kelly says, about sick leave. This time around, it’s the disability and pension fraud exclusives.

He contends the union’s reported opposition to drug and alcohol testing is a fabrication, too. “We’re not defending drug use,” Kelly says. “Think about the job we do. The guy on that hose had better have his shit together.” He goes on to complain, “Random drug testing became the absolute media-circus feeding frenzy. The mayor beat the crap out of us every chance. I’ve said no less than a hundred times, ‘We’re willing to negotiate random drug testing.’ They take that and spin it and say, ‘They want to get paid to do a drug test.'” Kelly recalls a recent conversation with Globe editorial board member Larry Harmon. “I go, ‘When is this shit gonna end?’ He says, ‘Ed, until you make a deal, the bad stories are gonna keep coming.'” (Harmon doesn’t remember the exchange, though he doesn’t deny it happened.)

Kelly also says the department’s board of inquiry report into the Tai Ho fire was rushed so it would be released before District Attorney Dan Conley finished his criminal investigation; because Conley’s inquiry was ongoing, the board itself didn’t have access to the firefighters’ autopsies. Fire Commissioner Fraser—a Menino appointee—then raised hell when the board’s report failed to address the dead firemen’s alleged intoxication. “That was another fucking media frenzy which was complete bullshit,” Kelly says. “The commissioner basically put the families through hell. I’m sure the commissioner was acting on orders from the mayor.” The District Attorney’s Office says the autopsy reports were available to the board, but that it never received a request for them.