Sometimes, when things get really convoluted, the smartest thing to do is to hit the reset button.
Philadelphia’s firefighters did just that last week when they chose Battalion Chief Joe Schulle to be the next leader of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 22. In doing so, they denied president Bill Gault his bid for re-election.
It’s apparent from the voting results that those staffing the city’s firehouses had abandoned him in droves.
Who could blame them? They have been working without a contract or pay raises since 2009, the same year that Gault was elected to the top union spot.
In his exclusive interview with the Times, Gault acknowledged that the “frustration level” had peaked among the rank and file.
His successor, Schulle, said after the election that it was “time to attack things at a new angle.”
For better or worse, Gault has been in a pitched battle with Mayor Michael Nutter over the contract, brownouts, furloughs and other issues near and dear to the firefighters’ hearts. The mayor has repeatedly failed to honor binding arbitration awards for a new contract, saying the city couldn’t afford them, and has kept the issue held up in the courts.
After Gault’s defeat, the mayor wasted no time issuing a statement saying his administration was looking forward to “establishing and maintaining an open and respectful relationship” with the new union leadership.
Then he put money where his mouth was, saying that $31 million would be set aside to pay whatever is owed the firefighters when the contract dispute is resolved.
All of this leads us to believe that the dispute between the firebrand union leader and the ultra-stubborn mayor had become a personal battle. We hope Schulle will start with a clean slate and find a willingness on the mayor’s part to settle this dispute quickly.
But first, Schulle will have to win over the union officers that his slate of seven candidates failed to unseat. He would do well to make sure he and the board holdovers lock arms before going into the fray with the mayor.
As Gault heads back to the firehouse, he is to be applauded for his hard work on behalf of the union at a time of severe economic hardship. As we watched him go toe-to-toe with the mayor, we sometimes questioned his methods, but never his passion for trying to get the best deal he could for his fellow firefighters. ••