SWAMPSCOTT — A recent clash with the police union over staffing levels was just the latest in a series of disagreements between the town and the unions representing its public safety agencies, as the fire union remains without a contract and feels the town is not being honest with them.
“It’s been two years of pretty much just nonstop bullshit and lies,” said Fire Union Vice President Mike Salsgiver. “The town will come out and lie about everything they do … they tell the townspeople one thing when it’s a completely different thing.”
Despite that, Salsgiver said, the union has had two “very productive” bargaining sessions with Swampscott on a new contract in recent weeks. Union President Jim Snow said he believes the Fire Fighters Union Local 1459 is the only union in town without a contract.
At the crux of the fire union’s frustrations are what they believe are a series of miscommunications from the town.
“I just feel like they tell us one thing and they do another you know, and then we find out about it afterward and we’re like, ‘wow, this is just getting ridiculous,’” Salsgiver said.
Salsgiver said staffing is no longer a chief concern for the union as the department is fully staffed at the moment. Police Union officials, on the other hand, have been outspoken about the fact that they feel the department is “grossly understaffed,” with Union President Kevin Reen taking his concerns directly to the Select Board at a July 20 meeting.
At the meeting, Reen said current staffing levels represent “gross negligence” in regards to the safety of the town.
Town Administrator Sean Fitzgerald said he believes much of the strife between the town and the two unions stems from the decision to leave civil service and the change that has come along with it. Both departments were removed from civil service last year, enabling the town to shift to a brand new model for hiring that places a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, according to Fitzgerald.
“That type of change has been at the heart of some conflict, the way we hire, the way we recruit, the way we interview,” he said. “Change … can be stressful and challenging.”
Salsgiver and Reen both rejected the notion that their frustrations stemmed from change.
“It has nothing to do with civil service,” Salsgiver said. “It’s … what the town has done since we’ve [come] out of civil service.”
“We have no problem with change. It’s the way in which that change is delivered,” Reen said. “When both parties, including a union counsel and town counsel, agree to a policy and say that it’s going to be upheld and utilized within its best interest. We don’t feel that it’s being upheld.”
Since leaving civil service, the town has cut minimum manning language out of both the police and fire departments’ contracts, which Fitzgerald said was done in order to give departments increased flexibility on staffing.
“That type of change is significant,” he said.
Salsgiver cited the decision to cut minimum manning as one of the union’s key frustrations with the town.
The union’s frustrations extend beyond just town officials, Salsgiver said, citing what they feel as a “lack of leadership” from Fire Chief Graham Archer who “does whatever he wants.”
“We don’t feel like the chief has our back. Whatever the town tells him to do, he just does it. There’s no questioning,” Salsgiver said.
Salsgiver said he feels his union is in the same boat as the Police Union.
Reen said being a police officer or a firefighter is a job with change baked into it.
“One thing that I’ll say is that policing itself is forever changing. Nothing is constant in policing and I’m not in the fire service, but it’s probably similar in the public safety aspect,” he said.
Salsgiver encouraged Archer to become a more visible department at the firehouse.
“We’re like one big family … the kitchen table in the firehouse is like the sacred place. If the chief came in with a cup of coffee and told us ‘Hey, guys, this is what we coming up,’ we can be like, ‘okay,’” he said.
Despite their frustrations, Salsgiver said he feels the union is close to resolving their issues with the town after what Snow described as three years of the union being at odds with the town.
“We’re getting to where we should be … we’re having actual conversations that are productive,” he said.
Reen, on the other hand, said he was “not ready” to say where his union’s relationship with the town stood.
Fitzgerald said he is confident the town and the unions will be able to work through the disputes.
“We do have good people and we have the ability to work through these challenges,” he said.
In the long term the conflicts will improve Swampscott, Fitzgerald said.
“These are conflicts that will ultimately help us be better,” Fitzgerald said. “There aren’t many communities that are doing the type of incredible things that Swampscott is doing in terms of civil service and supporting these kinds of changes.”
Charlie McKenna can be reached at [email protected]