The stark new world of Detroit under an emergency manager became clear for Detroit’s firefighters this week when the city told them they would get a new contract July 1.
And, for the first time in 80 years, there will be no negotiations.
“They are using the new Emergency Manager Law to purposely avoid bargaining with us and, instead, force new terms of employment on us,” the executive board of the Detroit Fire Fighters Association told its members in an email.
“Please be aware of our situation and operate accordingly.”
Dan McNamara, the longtime union president, said city representatives refused to be specific. He said changes could be imposed on work rules, conditions, pay, health benefits, safety, pensions and the department’s unique seniority system.
“This is important,” McNamara said. “This is historic.”
The 930-member fire union, organized in 1933, has fought over the years to keep seniority, in which longevity is the only criteria for moving up in the ranks, from firefighter to sergeant to lieutenant to captain to battalion chief.
The fire commissioner, a mayoral appointee, can appoint the chief of department and two deputy chiefs.
Virtually all big-city fire departments use tests and other criteria for promotion. The union defends its seniority system as protecting Detroit’s promotion process from politics and ensuring supervisors have adequate experience. Critics have said the system breeds mediocrity and makes managing the department more difficult.
Firefighters, who have taken a 10 percent pay cut and reductions in pensions and health coverage, earn $47,000 after five years on the job. Battalion chiefs make about $82,000, McNamara said.
The department is one of the busiest in the nation, but the city downsized it in 2012, reducing the number of rigs on duty every day from about 60 to 45 or fewer. The result has been longer response times: on some alarms, for example, units based in Midtown are dispatched to the far east or west sides of the city, areas they rarely serviced before the cutbacks.
McNamara said about 40 percent of department members are eligible to retire.
“That’s what the city has to worry about,” he said.
Like other critics, McNamara finds the imposition of an emergency manager a remarkable development for citizens in a democracy.
“I thought I lived in America,” he said. “How can this happen?