Fire, Police Union Chiefs Spar Over Contracts

Paul Bass PhotoA vote on a new police contract sparked a spat between the heads of New Haven’s cop and fire unions—with one labor leader accusing the other of disloyalty.

The sparks flew as police rank-and-file police officers prepared to vote all day Wednesday on a tentative new five-year contract their union has struck with City Hall.

Fire union President James Kottage (at center in photo above) went on the airwaves Tuesday morning on 960 AM WELI with Vinnie Penn to warn cops about the deal.

“This is possibly the worst negotiated public safety contract in the state,” Kottage declared in a subsequent Independent interview.

“Their benefits have been eviscerated,” Kottage said.

Police union President Louis Cavaliere Jr. responded by accusing Kottage of trying to mislead cops in order to strengthen the fire department’s own hand at the bargaining table with the city and lure cops into “the foxhole” with the firefighters after abandoning them during a previous fight with City Hall.

Click here and here to read the tentative police deal and a summary.

The police and fire unions have been attempting to negotiate new contracts to replace those that expired on July 1, 2011. Kottage said if approved, the police contract would set a bad precedent for the fire union, which is heading into binding arbitration to settle its own contract.

“The mayor made it clear to our president that firefighters who risk their lives for the city would only get what the cops agreed to,” added his vice-president, Frank Ricci.

Kottage warned against rising medical costs: the cost of one plan, Blue Care 1, would rise from 12 percent to 30 percent of a cop’s salary.

Melissa Bailey PhotoPolice union president Louis Cavaliere, Jr. (second from right in photo), offered different math. It’s actually a 7 percent increase, not an 18 percent increase, he said—as long as you switch to a new version of the Blue Care plan the city is offering. The only changes in that plan, compared to the old Blue Care plan: copays are $15 than $5. And out-of-state non-emergency doctor visits aren’t covered, Cavaliere said.

The city has been arguing that the medical and pension costs of its union contracts are unsustainable over the long run, imperiling New Haven’s finances. So it has been seeking—and in some cases winning—new terms as it negotiates new contracts. 

Union leaders have to make a call: Strike a deal with compromises. Or resist any changes (like, in the police case, requiring future cops to wait 25 years rather than 20 before retiring) then take the whole contract to arbitration, a winner-take-all proposition. Historically unions have fared well in arbitration. The city now feels it has a strong case to make that its financial situation is too dire to be able to afford historicallly generous medical and pension terms. Cavaliere decided to strike the best deal he could get without arbitration; Kottage at this point has decided to roll the dice with arbitration.

Kottage denounced “divisive” clauses in the police union’s proposed contract that would divide the membership up into different tiers. And, he warned, the contract would take away medical coverage of the children of future retirees. The contract also includes a “retiree medical contribution”: cops would have to pay 1.25 percent of their salaries into a retiree health care fund.

Under the new contract, cops would get a 9 percent raise over five years. New hires (after this police class) would have to wait 25 years to retire, instead of 20.

Cavaliere has defended the contract as “fair” and far better than what the union could have obtained if contract negotiation went to arbitration. He dismissed Kottage’s critiques.

“I don’t understand why he’s so concerned about what the police department is doing,” Cavaliere said. “If they’re not worried about going to arbitration, why do they care about us?”

“They just need another man in the foxhole,” Cavaliere continued. “Where were they when they mayor laid off 16 police officers? They shook his hand and endorsed him.”

“Where was they loyalty [then]? They didn’t give a shit about us.”

Cavaliere was referring to an ironic fact: The fire union, which has reached an impasse in negotiations, endorsed Mayor John DeStefano for reelection in 2011. The police union didn’t.

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posted by: New Haven Fire Fighters on February 6, 2013  10:31am

Cavaliere continued. “Where were they (the fire union) when they mayor laid off 16 police officers?

Firefighters were on the front line. Instead of empty rhetoric Fire Fighters went to the street, worked the polls, phone banks, went door to door and backed Aldermen Brain Wingate. We helped remove President of the Board of Aldermen Carl Goldfield, D-29 who lead the charge to lay off city police.

The fire union is always ready to have a dialog with the police as both of our membership risks their lives for the citizens we protect.

posted by: Solid45 on February 6, 2013  10:51am

Way to go Louis, the NHFD look like idiots shaking the Mayor’s hand and endorsing him and he did nothing for them.  Keep it up Louis, Cottage needs to worry about the fire department, who now are embarassed for endorsing the Mayor.  Shame on you.

posted by: streever on February 6, 2013  12:23pm

I’m not trying to pick a fight (honest!) but right before you worked the streets to get rid of Goldfield/et all, why did your union support the Mayor?

I had a man who lives in North Branford, I think, an older fire fighter, standing in Ward 10 at the school telling people that Kerekes made a proposal to fire fire fighters, so we should all vote DeStefano.

(For the record, that fire fighter was wrong: Kerekes prepared a report at DeStefano’s request. DeStefano’s request included “potential budget savings” in closing a fire station: it was not Kerekes proposal at all, but rather, DeStefano’s.)

I’m really not trying to contradict what you’ve just said: I accept it. I’m just genuinely curious as to the difference in support. Can you shed some light on this for people? Was it an internal disagreement at the fire station? In the union? etc….

Thank you for all you do for us!

posted by: Theresa on February 6, 2013  2:48pm

The cities alleged dire straits financially is not caused by the police and firefighters. It is Destefano funding his pet projects and creating useless 100k a year job positions in his administration for friends. Thank goodness he is out of here in a year so the healing and pink slips can begin. Hopefully the police union membership votes no on this offer because it really is bad and the union leadership is worse.

posted by: Noteworthy on February 6, 2013  6:50pm

The union response is as disingenuous as it is sad. The cop shop got a good deal, better in fact than it should have. It is doubtful their new contract will in fact, save taxpayers much money. Even with higher co-pays and monthly insurance costs, the NHFD family rate is a gift that those of us in the private sector, making the same or less money, easily pay three times a higher rate; have $2500 annual co-pays and limitless increases and annual changes. The constant carping and whining about contracts is tiresome, old and repetitive. In reality, this city doesn’t have the money and the contract that both the fire, police and other labor unions enjoy including the principals, are confiscatory and overly generous. This is the result of an unholy alliance between the historically weak BOA who approve these contracts after the fact; and Mayor DeStefano who bought your allegiance with the sweat and sacrifice from our high property taxes, fees and fines. You should be grateful, not greedy.