When the firefighters union quit the special committee seeking to reform the Boston Fire Department this past week, it exhibited contempt for city residents and a reckless disregard for the safety of its own members.
A panel of outside experts sparked the walkout when it recommended the fire department adopt random drug and alcohol testing. This, of course, came in the wake of the deaths earlier this year of two firefighters in a West Roxbury blaze. Autopsies reportedly revealed that one firefighter had traces of cocaine in his system, the other had alcohol.
The union argues that adopting a policy for drug and alcohol testing is a contract concession for which it should receive consideration. In other words, the union is seeking to protect the rights of its members to be drunk or high on the job — and it expects to be paid to give up that “right.” Even by the consistently arrogant and unreasonable standards of the firefighters union, this is a new low.
However, it should come as no surprise. Boston has learned over time that the union has no shame. In fact, union leadership seems to be happiest when it is publicly flexing its political muscle.
As is too often the case, Boston finds itself in a bad corner. Contract renegotiation appears to be the only time the union is open to considering much-needed reforms — on testing, as well as other issues such as training, restructuring, and hiring of civilians to help with non-firefighting duties. Mayor Menino repeatedly has been told of the need for these reforms, but has not been able to win any of them during contract talks. Up until now, financial considerations had received top priority.
But in the aftermath of the two deaths in West Roxbury, mandatory testing has become a serious political issue for Menino — and a potentially dangerous one, too, since he has absolutely no leverage over the union and perhaps even less influence. Adding to the problem, Menino’s admirable hiring of an outsider to lead the department has angered the union, and left it unlikely to trust the commissioner’s implementation of any agreed-upon reforms.
Menino cannot afford to have the testing issue unresolved when he begins his expected campaign for re-election. His likely opponent, Boston city councilor Michael Flaherty, will almost certainly try to embarrass him in it. As vice chair of the Public Safety committee, Flaherty can make a strong push for hearings on the issue [See Correction below]. In addition, any major trade-offs that Menino promises the union (salaries, equipment upgrades, etc.) would need to be included in the budget, which the council reviews. Imagine this exchange: “Why are we taking $X million out of child services to bribe the firefighters into taking drug tests?”
This, unfortunately, is all too typical. The mayor rarely takes action unless he’s under sufficient political pressure to do so. It is a safe bet that if Menino does get the union to accept testing, satisfying some of those calling for more wide-spread reform, the rest of the much-needed reforms will go unaddressed — until the next disaster or tragedy.
A needed makeover
Even though Massachusetts is a state that consistently shortchanges public higher education, a welcome consensus appears to be building about the need to repair and rebuild the crumbling University of Massachusetts Boston campus.