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Detroit fire union drops 50-year battle to keep seniority-only promotions

The city of Detroit and the union that represents firefighters have reached a tentative agreement to overhaul the fire department’s 128-year-old promotional system that mayors have tried to overturn for nearly half a century.

Since virtually the founding of the department in 1867, firefighters’ promotions have been governed by a strict seniority system in which new firefighters advance through the ranks only as fast as their colleagues with more years of service retire or leave the department.

Merit counts for nothing, and the DFD’s mayoral-appointed commissioners have almost no say in the selection of uniformed officers who run the department’s rigs, stations and districts day-to-day.

Under the agreement, starting next July 1 the mayor’s appointees will have vastly increased powers to make personnel decisions, and the culture of the department is sure to undergo a profound transformation as smart, ambitious firefighters begin to compete for high-ranking positions.

Seniority will account for only 45 percent of the yardstick for advancement in the new DFD; merit –- including work record and education – will make up much of the rest.

“It’s huge,” said Jeff Pegg, president of the Detroit Fire Fighters Association.

“It’s not what we want. There is nothing wrong with our seniority system. We believe seniority is the fairest system out there. It doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t pick and choose. It puts the most experienced people in leadership positions in the Detroit Fire Department.”

Mayor Mike Duggan participated in the negotiations and told the union members he was seeking the changes so the department would be run by “the best and the brightest,” according to Pegg. Duggan’s spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Bill Nowling, spokesman for Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, said he could not discuss the negotiations because they are in mediation. But he added:

“The emergency manager has consistently pushed for work rules and city processes that are modern, efficient and in line with those in place in other major cities.”

Hard-fought defense crumbles

The issue is a highly emotional one for the department. The union, which represents all uniformed personnel and some non-uniformed workers, has spent hundreds of thousands in legal costs fending off mayors’ attempts to disrupt the seniority system since the 1960s.

The union has defeated every challenge to seniority until now, when Public Act 436 appears to allow Orr to reject, modify or terminate labor agreements.

Pegg said the union entered into negotiations so it could have some influence on the outcome.

“I tell our members, you can have something we worked on or something they impose on us,” he said.

The DFD is the sole major department in the country in which only seniority counts toward promotions. Merit promotions, at least at some levels, also have long been the rule among big-city police, including the Detroit Police Department.

Mayors going back to Jerome Cavanagh have attempted to maneuver around the fire department’s seniority system through unilateral promotions, lawsuits and arbitration.

Seniority took on racial dimensions in the 1970s and ‘80s, when the fire department’s promotional rules slowed the progress of African Americans through the ranks and made the DFD the only city department to resist Mayor Coleman Young’s affirmative-action efforts for upper management.

Twice, in the mid-’70s, the union won court battles to block Young's attempts to appoint black chiefs of operations by skirting the seniority system. Young lost again on the issue in 1979 and 1985 when arbitrators sided with the union.

Detroiters even voted on the seniority system in 1981, when the Young administration put the issue on the ballot. Voters supported dumping seniority, but the proposal was later declared a non-binding referendum.

Under the current system, a recruit generally will remain in the primary rank of firefighter for at least 18 years before being promoted to sergeant, then spend several more years before becoming a lieutenant, then a few more before obtaining the rank of captain. Officers in those ranks command the department’s fire rigs and stations.

After a handful of additional years, captains – if they have yet to reach the mandatory retirement age of 60 – will reach battalion chief, the rank that supervises a district within the city and manages major fires within that area. The fire commissioner can choose the department’s three top chiefs from among the pool of battalion chiefs.

A faster way up

Under the new plan, firefighters will be able to apply to become a sergeant after eight years of service. Sergeants, lieutenants and captains must spend 30 months in their classification before applying to the next grade.

Applicants will take a written test, receive an evaluation of work and disciplinary history and undergo an interview. Each applicant for every rank must have completed specialized fire training, and captains applying to become battalion chiefs must have at least an associates’ degree. All applicants for promotions also will have to have emergency medical training.

Mayors and other city officials have criticized the seniority system as a breeding ground for mediocrity because there is no incentive for firefighters to improve themselves through education or other avenues.

The union has argued for years that the department has failed to provide training for its members and charged department executives botched managing the seniority system.

One of the ways the union has defeated attempts to scuttle the seniority system is the DFD’s reputation as one of the nation’s busiest and best departments.

In ruling against the city in 1985, the arbitrator wrote: “It is difficult to perceive that if the promotional system is as defective and inefficient as alleged by the city, the city could have enjoyed such a fine department.”

In the DFD, seniority plays roles beyond promotions. It also influences how fire fighters get assigned to their stations. In the current bargaining, the city is demanding the right for the commissioner to make station assignments, but that remains under negotiation.

Some firefighters said Monday they haven’t seen details of the tentative agreement and declined to comment on the record.

One veteran said he would pursue his education to ensure he could win promotions under the new system, but asked what Duggan and Orr see as the problem with the current system.

The department’s real problems are broken rigs, faulty equipment and too few firefighters, he said, noting the overhaul of seniority does nothing to address those issues.

Pegg, the union chief, acknowledged he has received some negative reaction, with a few members saying the union sold out.

Pegg said he tells members that under the city’s financial emergency, the seniority issue was a lose/lose more situation like the plan of adjustment – the bankruptcy blueprint to reduce pensions that city workers had to approve or face more drastic cuts.

If the union hadn’t participated in negotiations, he said, the city could have created a system that would be even more draconian.

Said Pegg: “I tell them you can put a gun to your head or to your foot.”

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