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Firefighters reach agreement with city minus pension reform

The Chicago Firefighters Union has reached a tentative contract agreement wth the city that bolsters ambulance service and gives firefighters an 11-percent pay raise over five years but does not include pension or retiree health care reform.

“It’s a good deal for both sides,” said Tom Ryan, newly-re-elected president of the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2.

“It’s a long time coming. It was a tough negotiation. We’re gonna have the tools we need to do our job.”

Ryan refused to release details of the agreement, already approved by the union’s executive board, pending a few final details expected to be ironed out in time for a formal announcement on Thursday.

But, Ald. Nick Sposato (36th), a former Chicago firefighter, let the cat out of the bag. In a press release, he disclosed that rank-and-file firefighters will get an 11-percent pay raise over five years with no reduction in staffing levels that triggered the 1980 firefighters strike.

Sposato also revealed that all 15 of Chicago’s basic-life-support ambulances would be converted to advanced-life-support to ease a shortage of ALS ambulances. The city has agreed to hire 200 new paramedics to staff the new ALS ambulances by September, 2014, the alderman said.

“This conversion will include the addition of 12-lead EKG machines to the 15 newly upgraded ambulances. This upgrade will allow Chicago’s 75 ambulances to provide the most sophisticated level of care on every call,” Sposato was quoted as saying.

“During my 18 years as a Firefighter and my three years as an alderman, improving ambulance service has been a top priority for me. Last week, I introduced an ordinance calling for an investigation into response times due to the shortage of ALS ambulances. I couldn’t be happier that the City and Local 2 have reached an agreement that meets my concerns.”

The mayor is expected to cover at least some of the cost of retroactive pay raises owed to firefighters and paramedics with borrowed money.

Earlier this year, Emanuel convinced the City Council to double — from $500 million to $1 billion — a so-called “commercial paper” program used to tide the city over between major bond issues.

Chief Financial Officer Lois Scott said then that the short-term borrowing program would “ensure the city has liquidity for unseen needs such as retroactive salary payments and judgments.”

The wage portion of the new agreement is slightly higher than the two-percent-a-year awarded to Chicago Police sergeants and lieutenants.

But, that’s apparently where the similarity ends.

The sergeants’ and lieutenants’ contracts require those members to contribute two percent toward retiree health care that’s now free. The firefighters contract includes no retiree health care reforms, nor does it include pension reform that Emanuel desperately needs to bail out a firefighters pension fund with assets to cover just 25 percent of its liabilities, sources said.

The Emanuel administration released a statement without detail that called the agreement a “responsible approach, ensuring our employees are compensated for the critical services they provide our residents and that taxpayers are protected with a fair wage proposal.”

The decision to maintain staffing levels would be an about-face for the mayor.

Shortly after taking office, Emanuel made it clear he planned to take a hard line in contract talks — even though his own fire commissioner was “deathly against” closing fire houses or reducing the minimum staffing requirement on fire apparatus.

Four months later, then-Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff abruptly resigned, leaving firefighters without a champion.

The Chicago Sun-Times subsequently reported that Emanuel was a seeking a laundry list of cost-cutting concessions from Chicago firefighters that took aim at such treasured union perks as: holiday and duty availability pay; clothing allowance; pay grades; premium pay; non-duty lay-up coverage; the physical fitness incentive; and the seven percent premium paid to cross-trained firefighter paramedics.

The mayor’s plan did not include closing fire stations. But, it would alter the minimum manning requirement that triggered the bitter 1980 firefighters strike.

The current contract requires that every piece of fire apparatus be staffed by at least five employees. But, Emanuel’s plan called for all “double houses” that include both engines and trucks to be staffed by nine firefighters instead of ten.

At the time, Ryan characterized the cost-cutting contract concessions as “horrendous,” “insulting” and “ridiculous” and braced for a fight he has now avoided at the bargaining table.

The last firefighters contract was settled only after an independent arbitrator awarded Chicago Police officers a 10-percent pay raise over five years, their smallest increase in 30 years.