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” last week in an exclusive interview.
Gault, from Kensington, but who now lives in the Northeast, was head of Local 22 during disputes with Fire Department Commissioner Lloyd Ayers and the Mayor Michael Nutter administration over whether fire department commanders made mistakes in handling the fatal April 2012 blaze at Kensington’s vacant Buck Hosiery building.
The blaze claimed the lives of Lt. Robert Neary and firefighter Daniel Sweeney, and Gault in 2012 called their deaths “preventable.”
Now, with the union’s war against the Nutter administration 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.
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 last week. “We want to start mending relations with the city as well as the administration of the fire department.” ••
Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.