As the New Haven Board of Aldermen voted this week to approve a new police contract with the city, firefighters continue to languish without an equivalent agreement. The police officers, after having been contract-less since 2011, struck a deal with the city on Feb. 6 that James “Jimmy” Kottage, president of the local firefighters’ union, called “pathetic.” As his union, Local 825 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, prepares to enter arbitration with the city on March 21, WEEKEND chatted with Kottage about his background, the state of union organizing in New Haven and his beef with the Feb. 6 police contract.
Q. You currently serve as president of Local 825. How long have you held that position and what did you do before you assumed that role?
A. I’ve lived in or around New Haven for approximately 35-40 years. My family was brought up in the city. I was a firefighter for 18 years before becoming president of the union. Very early on, I got involved in the police and fire pension fund. A few years later, I became secretary treasurer for the union, which is basically the number-two guy in the union. I held that position for about eight to 10 years. Then when Patrick Egan became the assistant chief on the management side, I moved up to being president in 2010. I’ve been elected for two more terms since.
Q. So Patrick Egan was the Local 825 president for 10 years before being appointed by the Board of Fire Commissioners to an open assistant chief position. Do you see yourself making a similar sort of shift at some point? Would you ever consider going from union to management-side?
A. If I were offered a position like that, I would not take it. I wouldn’t even think about it. It takes a really unique sort of personality to go from the labor side to the management side and still think you can treat your members fairly. It just causes way too many problems. What Patrick did was selfish. It was a selfish move that’s good for the individual and his family but, as for the membership that he represented, it’s not a good move, and it’s really disheartening.
Q. Can you describe what it’s been like to work with Egan on opposing sides?
A. It’s been a nightmare. When it comes to discipline and day-to-day operations, it’s been a complete nightmare. He’s been very difficult throughout contract negotiations and even basic policy stuff. There’s only one way to do business with Patrick Egan — and it’s Patrick Egan’s way. There are so many issues that we have made no progress on resolving because Pat is not willing to meet us halfway. From discipline to promotions to operational policies, he hasn’t been willing to compromise at all. He blocks every avenue I’ve tried to go down.
Q. On the topic of union leadership, can you speak at all to the racial composition of the executive board? Given the large number of black and Hispanic firefighters, why do you think there has never been a non-white union president in New Haven?
A. The members of the union are elected by a body of firefighters that consists of whites, blacks, Hispanics, what have you. The union leadership should obviously be able to represent everybody. As to the racial makeup, there is some diversity on our executive board and we certainly have a diverse group of union members. I was challenged in December 2012 for president by Darrell Brooks, who is black. I don’t think that race played any role in the election. I ended up winning, and I will stand by my record that I represent everybody, independent of race. To my recollection, I don’t believe there has ever been a black president of Local 825.
Q. You’ve been in the news recently for coming out in opposition to the police contract the NHPD struck in February. What is the nature of your opposition to the contract?
A. I believe that the city was able to accomplish a divide and conquer tactic in making this deal with the policemen. They gave better benefits to senior guys who would vote yes for the contracts and they eviscerated benefits for guys in the middle of the pack and for the new guys coming on. They’re all split up now. The city got exactly what it wanted and is now saving all this money on the backs of its employees. The danger of this contract goes beyond the city, though. The contract was bad for public safety throughout the state, because it will be used as a model in other negotiations. It’s a terrible contract for public safety because when other organizations end up in arbitration, this contract can be used against them as a comparable.
Q. The NHPD contract is a five-year agreement between the city and the 413 unionized officers who have been working without a contract since 2011. It includes a number of planned wage increases but also drastic changes to pension and health benefits. Can you describe some of these changes? What exactly about the contract do you find troubling?
A. What the city has been allowed to do is put in all these different tiers for different policemen. They’ve divided up guys who have a lot of time on the job versus guys that have about 20 years versus guys that have less than 15. They completely divided the membership. And they’re eviscerating benefits that they’ve collectively bargained for over the last 50 years. They’re destroying some of the health and pension benefits that are absolutely critical to their own wellbeing. A new cop coming into New Haven might be better off with a 401(k) and collecting social security than signing onto the fire benefit plan.
Q. The city filed a complaint with the state Board of Labor Relations on Feb. 5 accusing you of obstructing its settlement agreement with the police officers. Why was this action taken against you? What have you done to oppose the contract?
A. What I’ve done is voiced my First Amendment right to freedom of speech. I said a year ago, before the contract was done, that it would be a horrible agreement. I stand by that today. It’s a horrible, pathetic contract. I tried to get the cops to vote it down and tried to share these concerns with the police union president. I don’t believe the cops have been educated on exactly what they’re losing. On one of the healthcare plans, they’re going from a 12 percent cost-share that would cost about $2,800 per year and it’s rising to a 30 percent cost-share that will cost $7,900 per year. For a newly hired police officer, this is devastating. When he retires, his children will have no medical benefits. For somebody that’s putting his life on the line every day he comes to work, to take away his children’s benefits is just horrible.
Q. And what about your own contract negotiations?
A. The firefighters have not had a contract for 20 months. We’re now going into binding arbitration. That’s not by my choice. Our first meeting is March 21, and it will be about the ‘ability to pay’ argument from the city. The city is saying they can’t pay for firefighters and their benefits and that’s why they need these concessions, or cuts to our benefits. Our old contract formally expired on June 30, 2011. There has been a huge delay on the city’s part since then because they hired a new labor director who ended up resigning. We’ve only had one meeting so far with the city’s new attorney, Marjan Mashhabi.
Q. How’s it looking? What are the prospects of a mutually beneficial settlement?
A. The mayor gave me a number for millions of dollars in concessions, and I have come back with still some of those concessions and he has said what I offered is off the table. We know there have to be concessions. We know that. We know that the benefits we receive today from our prior contract need to be adjusted due to the city’s financial situation. I just hope we can find common ground. The union is more than willing to work with the city to make some concessions and to adjust certain parts of the contract. But it appears we’re heading to arbitration and will have a third party decide where the concessions and cuts will come from. That’s what state statute says. We’ll see who will be on the list of arbitrators.
Q. You — and Local 825 as a whole — endorsed Mayor John DeStefano Jr. in his 2011 election campaign. Why is that? Would you endorse him again today?
A. I still totally support the decision to endorse the mayor in the last election. He was the best candidate running for the city. I would hope that the mayor would still like to keep a good relationship with the fire fighters and to work with us in getting a contract. But that’s his choice.
Q. And what about the 2013 mayoral race? Do you have a preference among the emerging candidates?
A. We’re not ready to make an endorsement. We’re wide open. We’ll be listening to and speaking with all of the candidates. No matter what happens, we’ll be involved with the mayoral as well as the aldermanic races.
Q. Board of Aldermen President Jorge Perez, who is heavily backed by labor forces in the city, said he might run. Would you support him?
A. It’s too early to tell. I’ve always supported Perez in the past, and he has always been a good supporter of the firefighters. Whether he’s going to run? That’s his choice.