Baltimore firefighters give reluctant OK to contracts

Higher health care costs, no raises in 2-year deals

March 07, 2003|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's two firefighters unions approved yesterday two-year contracts with the city that provide no pay raises in the first year and nearly triple their health care costs as of Jan 1.

The reluctant ratification by the unions' 1,600 members provided a narrow victory for Mayor Martin O'Malley's argument that the city can no longer afford the escalating costs of providing what even union officials acknowledge are generous health benefits.

The agreements are the first to be settled in a year when all union contracts are set to expire June 30. City and union officials expect that yesterday's passage will pave the way for similar concessions from police and non-uniformed employees.

"The guys are angry because they do their jobs every day and they don't feel like they're appreciated," said Rick Schluderberg, president of the Baltimore City Firefighters Union Local 734, which represents the rank and file.

"This is not a good year to negotiate," he said.

Both Schluderberg's union and Fire Officers Union Local 964 approved the contracts by what they called slim margins -- 57 percent to 43 percent for the firefighters, and 59 percent to 41 percent for the officers.

"Some guys walked out shaking their heads, and some guys held their noses as they voted `yes,'" said Steve Fugate, president of the officers union.

The unions did win one battle. The city agreed to rescind a Fire Department policy in effect since October that rewards every other overtime shift with compensatory time instead of pay. Firefighters will drop their grievance on the issue, and the city will pay the back overtime -- more than $2 million -- starting in July.

Schluderberg and Fugate accepted the city's tentative offer Saturday at 12:30 a.m., after 14 hours of talks. During the session, the two union leaders became convinced the city could not afford a better proposal after they viewed a bleak fiscal report from the mayor's office that read, in part, that "the ever-present threat of fiscal insolvency still looms."

The report detailed a litany of bad news for Baltimore -- staggering population loss; the state's worst rate of employment growth, and one of the worst unemployment rates among the state's 24 jurisdictions. For the fiscal year beginning July 1, city budget officials project a $46 million deficit.

"I understand how hard it must have been for the memberships to accept these very difficult but necessary contracts," O'Malley said. "The people of Baltimore should be as appreciative as I am that the firefighters unions understood the financial challenges facing the city."

Both contracts offer identical terms. The city will provide no pay raises in the first year but will allow negotiations on that issue alone in the second year. The deal increases what firefighters contribute toward their health premiums from 5.8 percent to 15 percent, which still is less than the 20 percent the city had sought.

Union members also will have to contribute a co-payment for prescription drugs. Prices for 30-day supplies will be: $10 for generic drugs, $20 for brand-name medicine and $30 for preferred brands. Mail-order prices will offer a better deal by providing 90-day supplies for $5 more in each of those categories.

Visits to doctors, currently free to employees, also will require co-payments.

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