Fire Contract Sets A New Course For Labor

By Charles Sercombe

One of the bright and shiny showcase trophies of former Emergency Financial Manager Louis Schimmel has now been unceremoniously tossed in the dumpster.

On Tuesday, the City Council sealed the deal on the Hamtramck firefighters’ new contract. One of the key changes in the contract was eliminating Schimmel’s two-tier benefit plan.

Under Schimmel’s last contract with the firefighters’ union, he insisted upon and won a reduced benefit package for new-hires. That change came at a cost to the city, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars paid to firefighters at that time in exchange for the new plan.

That agreement would later rub new-hires the wrong way, and City Manager Bill Cooper said it caused many of the new-hires to work a year or two and then take jobs with communities that offered better benefit packages.

“We were turning over young guys at a good clip,” Cooper said. “It was very difficult in giving the guys more training here and then see them go to other cities.”

The former system would extend health coverage to only the firefighters and not their families. The package also had lower quality offerings.

Cooper said that in exchange for giving all the firefighters the same benefit package, the union agreed to rework how much firefighters earn for holidays.

At the end of the negotiation, Cooper said, the city broke even.

But the important thing, he stressed, was that the turnover in the department will end. His viewpoint on labor dealings is obviously fundamentally different than Schimmel. Schimmel, it would seem, would welcome a high turnover in the department as a way to avoid additional retirement costs.

Cooper, on the other hand, wants younger firefighters to make their career in Hamtramck.

The union president for the firefighters, Bill Dickens, said the two-tier system alienated the new-hires and created division in the department. He said that with the risks and dangers firefighters face, it is only fair that their families have greater protection.

The firefighters received a five-year contract with a 4-percent salary increase in the first year and 3 percent for each remaining year.

The two police officer unions also recently received a new contract. Those two unions had been working for two years without a contract and received a four-year contract, with two years being retroactive. Their contract expires June 30 of 2011.

The police received a 3-percent pay increase for each year.

In the face of many communities demanding across-the-board pay cuts, Cooper said the salary increases amount to not much more than a “cost of living increase.”

In the police contract, Cooper said he could not convince the union to give management more flexibility in staffing arrangements – something former mayors and city managers have longed sought.

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