Firemen picket at City Hall

NASHUA – While a strike is out of the question, firefighters hope to drive home a twofold message with an informational picket line outside City Hall.

One is that they feel the game changed on them after the union and board of fire commissioners negotiated a contract in good faith. The other is that they believe the mayor is off base for citing the example of a few new firefighters getting a double-step bump in pay as partial justification for vetoing their contract.”We just want a fair deal. We just want the deal the city offered and we accepted,” said Tom Lingley, a 26-year veteran firefighter who picketed outside City Hall on Wednesday morning with more than 50 fellow union members.

Many carried signs that read, “Pride and professionalism even without a contract.”

“Our families are struggling to get by, just like every other family out there,” Lingley said.

The pickets were in response to Mayor Donnalee Lozeau’s veto of the firefighters contract that aldermen approved last week.

While the veto was disappointing, it wasn’t unexpected, said Tim Soucy, president of Local 789 of the International Association of Firefighters.

“This was in the planning stage for quite a while,” Soucy said of the picket.

“We didn’t want to wait until the last minute.”

The last time a union picketed outside City Hall was in spring, when teachers protested after Lozeau vetoed a cost item in the contract. Then, the threat of a strike hung over negotiations, putting parents, students and school officials on edge.

That’s not the case with the firefighters.

“We can’t strike,” Soucy said. “That isn’t something we would think about doing.”

Of all the reasons that Lozeau cited in a letter announcing her veto, the one that seemed particularly to rub union members the wrong way was her statement that “a minority of firefighters would receive overall increases exceeding 10 percent, including some annual increases of 17 to 23 percent.”

Those large increases apply to new firefighters who complete their nine-month probationary period and quickly jump to a second-year step, Soucy said.

“That’s part of the pay matrix. That’s part of the grid,” he said. “These guys don’t get that every year. It’s a one-time bump.”

The union has filed a grievance against the city for denying that bump to 11 firefighters who completed their probation and were denied the step increase after the previous contract had expired and while a new one was being negotiated, Soucy said.

“They should have gotten the step increase two years ago,” he said.

“She’s using that as a tool to deny the contract. That money will get paid,” said George Walker, a 21-year veteran of the fire department.

Walker objected that the fire commission and union negotiated in good faith for 27 months only to have the mayor reject the settlement.

“All of a sudden, we get to the mayor’s level, and the game changes. The rules change after 27 months,” he said.

The $87 million contract would cover 168 firefighters and extend retroactively from fiscal year 2007 through fiscal year 2011. For those years, it would give firefighters average raises of zero percent, 4.70 percent, 5.68 percent, 5.72 percent and 4.69 percent, respectively.

City firefighters have been working for two years under the terms of an expired contract.

It would take 10 votes of the 15-member board of aldermen to override the mayor’s veto. Many aldermen expect any effort to do that would fall at least one vote shy.

Gary Lamb, a 28-year veteran of the department, was surprised the mayor vetoed the contract after aldermen approved it by an 8-6 vote, with one member absent.

“Once we got that, we figured everybody was coming on board,” Lamb said.

While the union and fire commission go back to the drawing board, firefighters will continue to do their job to protect citizens, Soucy and other firefighters said.

“We’ve had quite a few fires in Nashua recently,” Lamb noted. “The guys have done a great job protecting the city.”