LEWISTON — After more than three years of negotiations, the city and the union representing its firefighters have finally agreed on the terms of a new collective-bargaining agreement.
It had been so long since the previous contract expired June 30, 2014, that the Lewiston City Council voted to approve two agreements Tuesday night — one for the period between 2014 and June of this year, and one effective from July 1, 2017, through June 30, 2019.
The council approved both agreements unanimously, which offer firefighters a new health insurance plan, and an average of 1-2 percent cost-of-living adjustment annually, among other concessions.
City councilors said they hoped the contract agreement would erase any “ill will” that may be remaining between the city and its Fire Department following the three-year standstill.
“I hope the Fire Department sees that this council appreciates them,” Councilor Tim Lajoie said during the meeting. “We pushed the city (administration) in directions they didn’t want to go. I hope this buries any ill will, and restores the confidence the department has in this council.”
In a statement released earlier Tuesday, Union President Rick Cailler thanked the citizens of Lewiston for their “overwhelming support and encouragement” during the negotiation process.
“On a daily basis you offered reinforcement, gestures of goodwill and most of all understanding,” he said. “There is strength through adversity and solidarity.”
He added, “Ultimately, our promise to you will never change: We exist for all of you. Our ability to keep you safe will always be our No. 1 priority. We now look forward and beyond the past 3½ years of difficulties with the hope of a new era of cooperation. We are all stronger together. Thank you, Lewiston.”
The city hired a third-party facilitator earlier this year when negotiations with the International Association of Firefighters Local 785 had stalled. Both sides had said previously that the contract hang-ups included staffing, pay and benefits.
In March, City Administrator Ed Barrett said the two sides were close to an agreement, but it could take more time to craft suitable contract language. At that time, the council added $272,000 to the General Fund’s contingency account for “anticipated collective-bargaining contracts.”
In a statement Tuesday, Barrett said, “I’m pleased that the city and the association have reached the end of a long and difficult bargaining process. Throughout this process, both the city and the association accepted certain compromises in an effort to reach agreement. With an agreement in place and a new fire chief on board, I look forward to developing a stronger relationship between the city and the association and aggressively moving forward to strengthen and improve the services provided to our residents.”
Councilor Michael Lachance called the agreement “a momentous occasion.” Negotiations have been underway since he was in his first term on the council. He went on to call the new contract a “sigh of relief.”
Deputy City Administrator Denis D’Auteuil assumed the role of the city’s chief negotiator after Phil Nadeau retired in June, and councilors said Tuesday that D’Auteuil offered “a fresh perspective” on negotiations after coming on board.
“We are happy to have reached an agreement with the International Firefighter Association, and I look forward to building on the positive working relationship that we’ve begun over the past few months,” D’Auteuil said in a statement. “This agreement recognizes the important role that our Lewiston firefighters play in keeping our community safe.”
In early January, when the city was nearing the three-year mark of negotiations, the council hired Evan Weston, a professional mediator registered with the Maine Labor Relations Board, to conduct a new round of talks. Weston was paid $250 an hour.
Councilors Lajoie, Jim Lysen and Shane Bouchard were also active in the process, representing the City Council and sitting in on the negotiations.
Lajoie added Tuesday that the contract discussions were “spirited, amicable and tense” at times. But, he said, he was most impressed by Cailler’s dedication to the Fire Department.
“You are a tough negotiator,” he said to Cailler.
Notable features of the two new contracts are:
• Health Insurance changes from current POS C plan to PPO 500
• COLA (cost of living) adjustments: 7/1/14- 1.5%
7/1/15 – 1.5%
1/1/18 – 0.5%
• New cellphone stipend.
• New sick leave accumulation language related to employee’s separating from duty.
• Adjustment to Health Reimbursement Arrangement.
• Adjustment to Health Insurance Premium Caps.
• Recognizing the additional firefighters included in this year’s budget, minimum staffing levels increase from 16 Firefighters to 17 Firefighters.
• Adjustment to annual clothing stipend.
• New In-Service Retirement Program.
• Expanded Wellness Program and improved Aerobic Capacity Testing parameters.
• Additional vacation days for firefighters with over 25 years of service and new language on vacation deferment.