The Firebrand

By Paul McMorrow | Boston Magazine |


That contract talks have stalled is all the two sides agree on. Everything else from both parties reeks of mendacity. Take the drug screening issue: The city says Kelly’s union won’t talk about drug and alcohol testing, outside of demanding money for doing it. The union says in exchange for testing, it only wants a wellness program—which the Menino administration says basically amounts to paying firefighters to stay in shape. When Boston magazine relayed administration talking points to the union, they were angrily denounced as lies. When union claims were brought to City Hall, they were met with little more than laughter. Each camp insists the other refuses to talk.

Naturally, politics and personal ambition lurk just below the surface. The firefighters are perpetually in competition with the cops, with each trying to score the sweeter deal. Whoever settles their contract first establishes the baseline that the other must best. And because the fire department doesn’t have the Quinn Bill, it’s that much harder to get a better package. But the fire union has always managed exactly that—until now.

Kelly says he feels no pressure about living up to expectations because it’s not about the money; it’s about respect. His brother Sean, in his capacity as union officer, notably hedged when asked whether the firefighters would accept the same terms the police agreed to: drug testing, a more lenient residency mandate, and a 14 percent raise over four years. A City Hall source says Kelly’s union "looked at the patrolmen’s package, decided they wanted more, and rejected the dollar-for-dollar proposal. Then the West Roxbury fire happened." The higher the stakes have gotten, the more Kelly has dug in. "They needed to do better than the cops without drug testing," the source says. "If they get the same as the cops and they give away drug testing, they will have failed, from an internal standard."

The union doesn’t like Menino, and Menino doesn’t like the union; this doesn’t help matters. "The mayor has a love-hate relationship with the fire department," says a City Hall source with knowledge of the negotiations. "He’s never forgiven them" for spitting on his wife in 2001. Still, despite Kelly’s antics, Menino has met with him three times since the Tai Ho fire: twice in Menino’s office, and once in the historic Parkman House in Beacon Hill. Kelly says it was during this last meeting that he agreed to all the city’s reforms in exchange for the wellness program. But the city says the union merely used the meetings to try to delay mediation proceedings. Menino felt betrayed. And he’s not a man who looks kindly upon betrayal.

"They have this romantic attachment to meeting the mayor at the Parkman House," says a City Hall insider. "Ed has this fantasy about hundreds of firefighters chanting in the streets outside." Until that climactic tête-à-tête happens, city officials say, Kelly will be happy to continue delaying contract talks. The endgame is to align those negotiations with Menino’s campaign for a historic fifth term in office, and threaten to spoil Menino’s victory lap if he doesn’t settle on the union’s terms.

It isn’t as if Menino is enjoying himself here. "The city doesn’t want to continue" the back-and-forth, says McCormack, the former city councilor. But it won’t concede drug testing; it won’t pay firefighters to pee in a cup. "It would not be fair," Menino spokeswoman Dot Joyce says. "And it’s simply not right."
And it isn’t as if the jakes are enjoying this, either. Emotions are raw. Should-be heroes feel humiliated. The most likely resolution—binding arbitration—is at a judge’s discretion; it will probably be months before such a decision is reached.

"It’s wearing people down," says Karen Miller, head of the Boston Society of Vulcans, the black and Hispanic firefighters’ organization. "There isn’t the excitement and joy there used to be, because they feel like everybody hates them."

This, Paris definitely understands. "One day, I walked into Dunkin’ Donuts. Two people are sitting there, and I just felt it—they were looking at me, Fuckin’, what’s this kid, a phony? What is he? Drinking? It sucks, to tell you the truth. It hurts." Kelly adds, "You can’t undo the damage that’s been done to our image. Morale is terrible. You talk to guys, and they’re embarrassed to wear a fire department shirt because they don’t want some guy to heckle them. ‘Oh, what? What? Why don’t you go do a drug?’ Or, ‘What are you, faking an injury or something?’"

But the thing is, Kelly’s members don’t fault him for the demoralizing shots they’ve taken, and they don’t fault him for fighting on. In May, Kelly won reelection as president. He ran unopposed and pulled more votes than any candidate ever had. The week before, he was elected as an officer in the statewide firefighters union. These victories, though, did little to buoy his outlook on Local 718′s prospects. And perhaps this is what the union wants: the endlessly aggrieved president, his hackles always raised.

When asked how things will play out if the almost inevitable arbitration goes wrong, Kelly replies, "I don’t see our department being any better….We’re gonna be the same dysfunctional, fucked-up department we were when we began negotiating in 2006, with shitty equipment, shitty facilities, inadequate training facilities." It’s not for lack of trying, he says, wearily. "I’ve told our side of the story, but it hasn’t resonated. It’s been out-and-out twisted. I’ve been on NECN, Fox 25, Tom Finneran, anybody who’ll listen to us. I’m trying. I don’t know what else I can do, other than knock on doors.

"I hope guys haven’t lost their passion," he continues. "I find myself being bitter sometimes, saying, ‘Screw these people if they don’t….’" Kelly trails off. Looks around the tiny room he’s in. Then he launches into a story about a fire he fought a decade ago. It was in Southie. Summertime. Took the guys most of the night to fight the blaze. Kelly got back to the station around 7:30 a.m. and, exhausted and still covered in soot, sprawled on a bench in front of the firehouse. People were walking by, coming from the commuter rail, he recalls, and a fellow jake told him, "Don’t lay down out front here. You’ll make us look bad." "I said, ‘Isn’t it enough I’ll die for these motherfuckers, they can’t let me sit in the sun and take a deep breath?’" But Kelly went back inside anyway. Even today, he seems to resent having done that.