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Chicago Firefighters Union warns of contentious staffing issues ahead

The union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot signed a contract Friday and face a new round of negotiations in the spring.

Jim Tracy, president of Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2, speaks about support for first responders amid the coronavirus pandemic during a news  conference at Chicago Police Department headquarters, March 31, 2020.
Jim Tracy, president of Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2, warned Friday of tough negotiations ahead with the city.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

The president of the Chicago Firefighters Union said he and Mayor Lori Lightfoot are “miles apart” from a long-term contract and made the case to maintain staffing levels on fire apparatus even though the city faces a $1.2 billion budget shortfall.

Jim Tracy joined the mayor at Engine 70, 6014 N. Clark St., on Friday to sign a contract that gives rank-and-rile firefighters and paramedics a 10% pay raise over four years, all but 2.5% of it retroactive. In exchange, the city gets higher health care contributions, saving $10 million.

Tracy injected a heavy dose of reality into the contract-signing ceremony when he talked about the contentious staffing issues that will be central to the next round of negotiations just six months away.

“Unfortunately, we’re gonna be back at this same game again in March. We’ve got six months of reprieve. ... We are still miles apart on certain issues,” Tracy said.

Tracy noted it’s been 40 years since the 1980 firefighters strike that saw then-Local 2 President Frank Muscare go to jail in the fight for a rule that requires every piece of fire apparatus to be staffed by at least five employees.

“Everybody who put up with all that was incredible to get us our benefits that we enjoy now, and we will continue to enjoy in the future, including manning and making sure that we have enough men and women on every fire engine and every fire truck in the city,” Tracy said.

“It can’t be done by two or three people. It has to be by five persons — period. We cannot do our job without it.”

Lightfoot did not respond to Tracy’s plea to maintain staffing levels. But she warned “everyone has to contribute to the sacrifices that are gonna be made as a result of the massive budget deficit that we have for next year.”

Those sacrifices might include eliminating some or all of the 847 sworn Chicago police officer vacancies, the mayor said.

“When you’re staring down the barrel of a $1.2 billion deficit for next year on top of an $800 million shortfall for this year, we’ve gotta look at a variety of options. … Of course we’re looking at vacancies. The taxpayers would expect us to look at every tool in our tool box. … A lot of tough, hard painful choices are gonna have to be made,” she said.

Earlier this week, Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara stormed away from a long-awaited negotiating session after the mayor’s team offered his members the same 10% pay raise over four years that firefighters got but tacked on 17 pages, including 40 disciplinary reforms.

Catanzara plans to make a financial-only counteroffer and demand an up-or-down vote by the City Council. Those aldermen who oppose the FOP’s offer will find themselves facing opponents recruited and bankrolled by the police union, he said.

Lightfoot said Friday she doesn’t “have a lot of good things to say” about Catanzara, with whom she has had a stormy relationship. But she “cares deeply” about the police rank and file.

“It’s over 1,100 days since the police contract expired. … And he should get at the table and be serious about getting a deal done. But a deal done with the FOP has to include accountability and reform measures. If he’s not serious about that, we’re gonna quickly find ourselves at an impasse,” Lightfoot said.

“The ball is decidedly in the court of the FOP.”