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Chicago Union Calls Contract Talks 'Insulting'

CHICAGO -- Nearly four months after losing the hero fire commissioner who championed their cause, Chicago firefighters finally know what cost-cutting concessions Mayor Rahm Emanuel is seeking when their contract expires on June 30.

In a plan the firefighters union calls "insulting" and "ridiculous," Emanuel is taking aim at such treasured union perks as holiday and duty availability pay; clothing allowances; pay grades; premium pay; the physical fitness incentive and the 7 percent premium paid to cross-trained firefighter paramedics.

One former union official estimated the proposed concessions could cost the average firefighter $7,000 a year.

Chicago firefighters in what's known as Class 1 currently receive an entry level salary of $50,490 for the first 12 months of service and $90,378 after 30 years.

The mayor's plan does not include closing fire stations. But it would alter the minimum manning requirement that triggered the bitter 1980 firefighters strike.

The current contract requires that every piece of fire apparatus be staffed by at least five employees. Emanuel's plan calls for all "double houses" that include both engines and trucks to be staffed by nine firefighters instead of 10.

Rookie probation would double - from nine months to 18 months.

And just eight months after denying plans to upgrade ambulance service, Emanuel wants to covert the city's 15 basic-life-support ambulances to advanced life support.

The plan would cost roughly $50,000 for each of the 15 BLS ambulances. It would leave the city with 75 ambulances capable of the most sophisticated level of care.

Chicago currently has 60 ALS ambulances, each staffed by two paramedics qualified to administer intravenous medication. ALS ambulances are stocked with drugs and equipped with heart monitoring devices. The 15 BLS ambulances are staffed by emergency medical technicians who undergo less training. They are only permitted to transport patients to hospitals.

Tom Ryan, president of the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2, did not return repeated phone calls. But he did not mince his words in a letter to the rank-and-file.

"We obviously refused to agree to any of these horrendous proposals and if what you are about to read makes you angry, it should. This looks to be a long and bitter battle," Ryan wrote.

"We will, of course, continue to vigorously fight these insulting, ridiculous proposals. There likely will come a time when all Local 2 members will need to join in voicing our disgust over these outrageous attacks on the wages, benefits and conditions we have fought for and earned throughout the years. The city is testing our resolve. The battle has begun!"

Attorney Jim Franczek, the city's chief labor negotiator, could not be reached for comment. But an Emanuel administration source spelled out the city's philosophy on the condition of anonymity.

"The goal here is to challenge the layers of unaffordable provisions of the contract that have accumulated over the years and to look at this to see if there are ways of addressing some of these things that have been tacked on," the city source said.

Inspector General Joe Ferguson has estimated taxpayers could save $57 million a year by reducing - from five employees to four - the number of employees required to staff every piece of fire apparatus.

Ferguson also estimated the city could save $52 million a year by eliminating duty availability pay that compensates police officers and firefighters for being on 24-hour call.

The mayor also wants to reduce non-duty lay-up coverage from 12 months over a two-year period to 12 months over four years. Non-duty lay-up coverage is full pay to firefighters recuperating from injuries suffered after being hurt on days off.

Former union president Bill Kugelman estimated that the mayor's proposed concessions would take $7,000 a year out of the average firefighters' pocket.

"They're taking the pay grades down. They're eliminating clothing allowance. Holiday pay would go only to those who work the actual day. We fought for everybody to get it. . . . This is all anti-union stuff," he said.


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