Wilmington firefighters overwhelmingly voted to reject the city's "best and final" offer for a new contract Thursday.
Local 1590 union president Joe Leonetti Jr. told WDEL firefighters' "best and final" offer included maintaining their 24 hours on, 72 hours off schedule that they've had for years.
"The city of Wilmington won't even negotiate with us [on the] 24/72 [shift]. They're only offering the 24/48. So, with that they're offering, the city will lead you to believe that they're giving us a 24 percent increase in our salaries--which on paper is what it looks like--but we're working 312 more hours a year, so we're simply just being paid for the hours we're working. It's not really a raise."
Firefighters have been without a contract since 2016. At the end of the new, proposed seven-year contract, Leonetti said the city's final offer included a 5 percent increase in their hourly rate.
"Two percent is what they've given every other union. We still work a 42-hour work-week and are only paid for 40 [hours], so we bumped the last two years of our raises to 2.5 percent to try to offset those two hours that we give back every week," he explained.
"Every other union has four- or five-year deals with higher hourly increases, and we just want to be treated fair, and that didn't happen."
The mayor's office has maintained it does not need union approval to change firefighters' shift and instructed firefighters the day before Thanksgiving that the 24/48 schedule change would go into effect on July 1, 2020. Leonetti begged to differ, but said had the city's best and final offer included a vow to end rolling bypass and not to layoff any firefighters, union members would have likely been amenable to the shift change.
"They couldn't do that--so we're just led to believe that they're still going to institute rolling bypass, and they're going to layoff firefighters and cut more firefighters to make this contract work, and that's just not good enough," said Leonetti. "Our morale is pretty low at the moment."
Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki has said about the negotiations --prior to this last vote--that he's committed to ending rolling bypass, but doesn't support "ironclad agreements" because they could lead to operational issues. Leonetti said he gets that, but cuts need to be fair across the city departments.
"We are understanding with that. If the city falls into financial ruin, or if something happens, we would be sympathetic and take our hit. But historically, the fire department is always where the hits are taken. We lost 16 people when the mayor first took [office]," he said. "If something happens, where you have to cut...if every department takes it--including the mayor's office--we could understand that we could take a cut too, but we're not going to let you cut fire department, 16, or 20, or 24 more guys when every department takes a one or two person hit. It's just not fair. It's not safe."
Purzycki responded after the vote:
“Local 1590 is well aware that the contract they rejected would have essentially eliminated the need for the rolling bypass. The union and the Administration both wanted this to happen, and it’s disappointing that the union passed on an opportunity to get it done," he said in a statement to WDEL.
With final offers in and no agreement in sight, both parties now head to binding interest arbitration later this month, where they'll each plead their case at a hearing before the Public Employee Relations Board (PERB), which will pick one deal or the other by mid-April.
"There's no mixing them at this point. It will be one or the other," he said. "The [city's] last best and final has nothing to do with rolling bypass--that was our problem."
But Leonetti said he's not sure that offer would even be acceptable to members now.
"I think the damage has been done. And we've fought. Every time we sat together that's all I asked for, and I think now if they're pushed into a corner to do it, I don't know if it's going to have the same effect as if they offered it to us yesterday."
PERB's decision could also impact unions statewide.
"The employer could come in and change the subject, or add working hours, without any repercussions," he said.
Leonetti wasn't hopeful, but both sides could still agree on a deal--on their own--before then. If either party disagrees with PERB's decision, the case could go to the Court of Chancery.
"I don't know where it's going to go from here," said Leonetti. "I'd love to come to a resolution and make something amicable, but I think we're too far apart. I think we're just tired of being bullied. They're forcing this on us one way or another so I think we said we'll stand up, and we'll have it forced upon us instead of just taking it with a smile on our face."