Gault talks about what led to his defeat

Bill Gault, pres­id­ent of the city fire­fight­ers uni­on, made an im­pas­sioned speech out­side City Hall Wed­nes­day. (Brad Lar­ris­on)

Bill Gault would some­times bor­row from The God­fath­er to il­lus­trate the chal­lenges con­front­ing him as the elec­ted pres­id­ent of Phil­adelphia’s fire­fight­ers uni­on, which is in the midst of a four-year con­tract dis­pute with the city.

Gault, who served a dec­ade on the ex­ec­ut­ive board of Loc­al 22 of the In­ter­na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Fire Fight­ers be­fore win­ning the pres­id­ency in 2009, de­scribed him­self as “a war­time con­sigliere.”

“Then I be­came a war­time pres­id­ent,” he said on Monday in an ex­clus­ive in­ter­view with the North­east Times.

But now, with the uni­on’s war against the ad­min­is­tra­tion of May­or Mi­chael Nut­ter mired in a stale­mate of law­suits and ant­ag­on­ism, Loc­al 22 mem­bers are lin­ing up be­hind a dif­fer­ent lead­er. Bat­talion Chief Joe Schulle de­feated Gault in a month-long elec­tion that con­cluded last week. Schulle, 42, garnered 1,736 votes to Gault’s 1,209. About three-fourths of the uni­on’s 4,000 act­ive and re­tired mem­bers cast bal­lots, with the 1,900 act­ive mem­bers vot­ing heav­ily in Schulle’s fa­vor.

Gault, 55, viewed the out­come not as a re­jec­tion of his own out­spoken and of­ten con­front­a­tion­al meth­ods, but rather as a state­ment of gen­er­al dis­sat­is­fac­tion among Loc­al 22 mem­bers that their uni­on has been un­able to com­pel Nut­ter to im­ple­ment two fa­vor­able ar­bit­ra­tion awards, the latest of which was is­sued last Ju­ly and has been up­held by an ap­peals court.

“My mem­bers are frus­trated. You’ve got to see the writ­ing on the wall. They haven’t had a raise in four years,” said Gault, who will va­cate his uni­on post on Ju­ly 1 and re­turn to a fire­house as a lieu­ten­ant.

“I think the frus­tra­tion level has peaked,” he said.

Among act­ive mem­bers, the vote went in Schulle’s fa­vor, 1,351 to 183, ac­cord­ing to a fire de­part­ment source. The res­ults were pub­lished last Wed­nes­day in a mem­bers only sec­tion of the uni­on Web site.

“Right now, half of the [act­ive] de­part­ment has less than sev­en or eight years on the job. They’re not used to wait­ing this long for a raise,” Gault said.

Ten of­fices were up for grabs in the bi-an­nu­al uni­on elec­tion. The so-called Team Schulle chal­lenged for sev­en seats, but won just three. Pro-Gault in­cum­bents won the oth­er sev­en, in­clud­ing both vice pres­id­ent seats and treas­urer. Re­cord­ing sec­ret­ary was the lone un­con­tested race.

Gault will have served two two-year terms, a ten­ure noted for the pres­id­ent’s nu­mer­ous pub­lic dis­plays of an­im­os­ity to­ward Nut­ter and his ad­min­is­tra­tion. At the ded­ic­a­tion of a new fire­house in Ta­cony in June 2011, uni­on mem­bers pick­eted the event and heckled the may­or. Dur­ing sev­er­al protests out­side City Hall, uni­on mem­bers waved posters de­pict­ing Nut­ter as a clown and as a pris­on in­mate, while Gault hurled some­times pro­fan­ity-laced verbal barbs at the may­or.

What Gault may have lacked in soph­ist­ic­a­tion, he counter-bal­anced with pas­sion.

“I’m from Kens­ing­ton, baby. I don’t have a mas­ter’s de­gree. I didn’t go to St. Joe’s Prep or La Salle. I’m proud of what I’ve ac­com­plished,” said Gault, who joined the de­part­ment in 1984 and now lives in the North­east.

Schulle, also a North­east res­id­ent, joined the de­part­ment in 1992 and com­mands the 4th Bat­talion at Fourth and Arch streets. The U.S. Air Force vet­er­an tried to con­vince mem­bers that a change in lead­er­ship could help break the con­tract im­passe.

“Our plat­form was to re-es­tab­lish the line of com­mu­nic­a­tion with the city and fire de­part­ment of­fi­cials that has been severed over the last few years,” Schulle said in an in­ter­view Tues­day. “We want to start mend­ing re­la­tions with the city as well as the ad­min­is­tra­tion of the fire de­part­ment.”

The city has filed a second ap­peal of the 2012 ar­bit­ra­tion award in Com­mon­wealth Court, with tens of mil­lions of dol­lars in back wages and be­ne­fits at stake. The ad­min­is­tra­tion has said it can­not af­ford to pay the con­tract, which would cost the city more than $200 mil­lion to im­ple­ment. The uni­on claims that the cost is about $60 mil­lion over the four fisc­al years covered by the award.

Mean­while, the sides are about to em­bark on a new round of ar­bit­ra­tion over the fire­fight­ers’ next con­tract. Schulle be­lieves that uni­on mem­bers don’t want to see his­tory re­peat it­self.

“We’ve been without a con­tract for four years. We won a good con­tract [in 2012] that Pres­id­ent Gault helped ne­go­ti­ate, but the city nev­er honored it. Some­body has to take re­spons­ib­il­ity for that and it was Pres­id­ent Gault,” Schulle said.

As news of Schulle’s vic­tory spread among Loc­al 22 mem­bers and the pub­lic, the Nut­ter Ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nounced on Thursday that it would set aside $31 mil­lion from the city’s gen­er­al fund should it lose its pending ap­peal. A Nut­ter spokes­man re­portedly denied that the uni­on elec­tion res­ults in­flu­enced the fund­ing.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial ex­plained that pro­jec­ted tax rev­en­ues were high­er than ex­pec­ted in a re­cent quarterly re­port, so the may­or de­cided to set some of the ex­tra money aside to cov­er po­ten­tial fire­fight­er con­tract costs.

Gault doesn’t con­sider it a sign that the ad­min­is­tra­tion is soften­ing on fire­fight­ers.

“I would hope so, but I don’t think so,” Gault said. “I know [Nut­ter] said he found 31 mil­lion the day after the elec­tion.”

Schulle said he wants to speak dir­ectly with ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials be­fore of­fer­ing his own as­sess­ment of re­la­tions. He in­tends to em­ploy  a dif­fer­ent style than his pre­de­cessor.

“Clearly [uni­on mem­bers] be­came dis­sat­is­fied with the way our mes­sage was be­ing sent to the pub­lic and the may­or,” Schulle said. “The way we put that mes­sage out will be dif­fer­ent.” ••  

Re­port­er Wil­li­am Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or 

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