(March 15, 2019) When the Ocean City firefighters union ratified its new three-year contract Thursday morning, its arrival 15 days past the March 1 negotiating deadline with city government was of little consequence.
The two-week delay was a matter of detail work and not the bitter recriminations and allegations of unfair labor practices that led the International Association of Firefighters Local 4269 and City Hall into a year-long impasse over the proposed 2016 agreement.
The new contract is the product of tough, but civil negotiations that will award firefighters pay increases over its three-year term and replace a shift schedule union members disliked intensely with a program of four 24-hour and six 12-hour shifts each week.
The new schedule, which will become effective later in the spring, represents a compromise between the union-favored 24 hours on and 72 hours off the department had for years and the system instituted in October 2017 of two 10-hour day shifts and two 14-hour night shifts, followed by four days off.
The union accepted that arrangement in February 2017, after declaring an impasse a year earlier.
But because the city charter prohibits a strike by public safety personnel and without the ability to force the talks into arbitration, union leadership concluded it had no other options.
This time around, the possibility of going to binding interest arbitration was in the background of negotiations between the two parties, as voters gave that right to career firefighters last November after the union petitioned it to referendum.
“Collective bargaining with binding arbitration is a time consuming, expensive and challenging process,” Mayor Rick Meehan said.
“However, I believe we have negotiated a responsible agreement, reached through compromise by both parties that address the principle objectives of both the IAFF and the town.
“This agreement recognizes the importance of the career path of our firefighters and paramedics and funds steps in each of the three years of this agreement. It also addresses the safety issues the council has while at the same time allowing some flexibility in the schedule that the IAFF was looking for.
“We have a great deal of respect for the members of the IAFF, and the bargaining team that represented the union throughout this process, and look forward to continuing this relationship through the term of this agreement and beyond.”
Union President Ryan Whittington was similarly respectful of the city’s bargaining representatives, saying the talks were on point and free of rancor throughout.
“The IAFF is pleased to have reached a deal,” he said shortly after ratification took place. “The negotiations took a tremendous amount of work from both sides over more than six weeks. Both sides put in the time and the energy necessary to work through difficult issues, and the parties communicated better and were more motivated to reach a deal than in past negotiations.
“The process worked, in no small part, because the recent binding interest arbitration charter helped moved the parties towards a resolution of their own,” he said.
The agreement will take effect on July 1, Whittington said, adding that certain provisions, such as the new shift schedule, will go into effect before the season begins. As for the change in the shift schedule, Whittington said it should result in more stable staffing, particularly for weekends.
“The change also better accommodates the staffing flexibility necessary for the town. The change reflects a compromise by the IAFF, which hopes for further improvement in the future,” he said.
Also pleased with the conduct of the talks was City Manager Doug Miller, who complimented the “IAFF team's high level of professionalism throughout negotiations.”
“A great deal of work went into this process from both sides and we are happy that the town was able to provide a solid offer to the membership and that the union accepted it.”