Cianci Got Unions To Hold The Line


Journal-Bulletin Staff Writer

Friday September 20, 1991


It was sunny and warm in Baltimore on Sept. 7 and Sept. 8 - a perfect weekend for a charity softball tournament, which is what Stephen Day, president of the Providence firefighters union, was planning to enjoy.

But Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr. had other plans for Day. Providence teachers were on strike. Union and management were locked in tense contract talks. Cianci needed help.

He called Baltimore.

"Listen Steve," Cianci told Day, "I've got a fire in Providence. I want you to come back and put out the fire."

Day, whose union supported Cianci in the last election, knew what his friend meant. But there was a slight problem: Day's plane ticket home was for Sunday night. Cianci wanted him in his office Sunday afternoon to tell the city that firefighters had agreed to give up a week of vacation this year in a contract concession to save the city money.

Cianci was not about to let airline reservations get in his way. He pressed Day. He cajoled. He taunted: "Are you a true fireman?"

Day hung up the phone and called the airline.

On Sunday afternoon, he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Cianci as the mayor announced that the union had agreed to give up vacation, although the union actually had not voted.

Day said the agreement was not good for firefighters, but, he added, "we can't forget our friends."

Day was a true fireman.

And Cianci, during months of negotiations with the city's four major unions in which he got three across-the-board wage freezes and the vacation giveback, was a true politician as he weathered his first major test in office.

He pleaded bankruptcy to union officials. He begged for help. He expressed love for the city. He leaned on union presidents, using them against each other and ultimately convincing them there was no money for a wage increase.

Cianci is feeling victorious. On Wednesday night, when the police union overwhelming approved a one-year contract with no pay increase, his efforts ended.

"You know what I got out of this?" Cianci said. "I got paid back."

But even though salaries for members of three unions are frozen. other employee expenses are not.

Cianci agreed to help pay for a wellness program for Local 1033 of the Laborers' International Union aimed at cutting health-care costs through health education and safety programs.

Cianci increased the number of patrolmen and sergeants on the street, which will create promotions and could lead to overtime pay or new jobs to meet the staffing requirements.

Cianci has vowed to hire 160 new firefighters by February 1993.

The union received a 4 percent pay raise this year under a contract signed with former Mayor Joseph R. Paolino Jr. in 1990, but it gave up vacation time to offset the $630,000 cost of the raise.

"If we have a man like him in office, the week will pay dividends beyond repair," Day said. "Isn't it really worth it to keep this guy in office?"

Critics have questioned whether firefighters will make up for lost vacation days by taking sick days.

Friendly relations with the teachers, police, firemen and laborers, all of who endorsed Cianci last year, was just one element of a formula that produced pay freezes.

The weak local economy lowered expectations. The layoff of 600 state employees raised fears. The anger of many Rhode Islanders over higher taxes and reduced services turned public opinion against government workers.

Cianci's strategy was simple: Negotiate one contract at a time and use each one as leverage for the next. This meant starting with the easiest - the laborers - and ending with the hardest, the Providence Teachers Union.

With the laborers, who perform clerical, blue-collar and professional jobs, the stage was set early in the year when Local 1033 members at the Civic Center agreed to a pay freeze with the Civic Center Authority. The union then approached the city and seemed ready to negotiate for the rest of the membership.

Frank Corrente, the city's director of administration, relied on his old friendship with union leaders Joseph Virgilio, 1033 president, and Arthur E. Coia, its general secretary-treasurer emeritus.

"They have complete trust in what I say, and that's been developed over a period of years," Corrente said. "I clearly explained to them that there was no money in the budget for raises."

Negotiations took a total of 2 1/2 hours, Corrente said. "We all understood immediately."

There were just two sticking points. The city wanted to cut off retirement health benefits for new employees. The union wanted a guarantee of no layoffs, having seen Civic Center employees lose jobs.

The union won in both cases, though, administration officials say, it was unlikely the city would have laid off union members who didn't work at the Civic Center.

The contract also contained a parity provision guaranteeing that if any other union, except for the firefighters, got a raise, the laborers would get the same.

Negotiations turned tougher with Lodge 3 of the Fraternal Order of Police. The city struck a nerve by seeking co-payment on health insurance and other benefit cuts.

"It's unconscionable for us to consider paying any of that ourselves," union president Richard "Rodney" Patterson said. "We had no intention of moving on that. But it kind of tells you where you're going."

As city officials were talking to police, they were also talking to firefighters. A balancing act was going on. More than any other unions, police and firefighters look to each other for parity. They expect not just the same raises but the same salaries. Neither union wanted to move before the other.

Corrente walked the tightrope. He assured Patterson that the firefighters would give up vacation. "He took my word," Corrente said.

On Friday, Sept. 6, Patterson and Cianci announced a tentative agreement. Two days later, Cianci made the same announcement with Day.

The timing and purpose of the announcements, with the teachers on strike, was obvious. Day was not planning to announce anything until after his union had voted, and he acknowledges, "The guys were not happy with hearing it announced in the press." In fact, he was doubtful enough that his members would go for the deal that he bet Cianci $10 the agreement would be rejected.

The firefighters were now under pressure to accept the "tentative agreement." Cianci had used pressure tactics with them before, at one point telling them that a survey showed they were the most respected city employees, and suggesting how they could stay that way.

Only the teachers remained, but that was no easy task. While police, firefighters and laborers compare themselves to each other, teachers compare themselves to other teachers.

Providence teachers' base salaries were near the bottom in the state, and Marcia Reback, union president, was seeking a three-year contract with raises in the second and third years.

Reback said the union struck because, unlike other unions, it was being asked to give something up; namely, the guarantee that substitute teachers who work 135 days in a year are automatically the first people hired on a permanent basis.

The administration wanted to keep a percentage of slots open for minorities. Reback said Cianci told her, "I want you to give me something to make me look good."

In an interview yesterday, Cianci said for the first time that the strike was about money, and that the minority-hiring issue was a diversion because a strike over money would be less popular than a strike over what the union called a quota system.

The strike ended when the union accepted a wage freeze and the city agreed to hire all so-called "long-term" substitute teachers who were eligible for permanent jobs before beginning an affirmative-action program.

As Reback wrapped up the agreement and began to walk out of Cianci's office, Corrente sidled up to her, kissed her on the cheek and said, "I want to thank you very much.".

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