Suspicious Minds Spur Early Exit Of UFA Head to Run Fire Pension Fund

steve-cassidy-ufa-fdny

The announcement that Steve Cassidy was stepping down as president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association after 14-plus years as president to become Executive Director of the newly-independent Fire Pension Fund produced a flashback to a more-tumultuous era in the union that lasted for far longer than the period in which he provided an unaccustomed stability.

Bum-Rushed by Board

The dramatic change in roles for him was announced Sept. 17 by Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro, who said Mr. Cassidy would not assume his position until Nov. 1, giving him time to wind down affairs at the UFA and assist James Slevin, the longtime union vice president who will fill out his term, with the transition.

Two days later, the backlash within the union had grown strong enough that the UFA board voted 9-1—with Mr. Slevin the only dissenter—to have Mr. Cassidy leave office immediately.

“I think it’s related to next year’s election,” the departed UFA leader said during a Sept. 21 interview, alluding to a sense, based on angry messages on FDNY Rant, a website populated largely by active and retired Firefighters, that the union’s volatile past was beginning to bust a few cobwebs.

Several postings on FDNY Rant included the charge that Mr. Cassidy had viola­ted what became known as the union’s “turncoat provision,” which was passed two dec­ades ago in an angry reaction to then-President Tom Von Essen leaving that job to become Fire Commissioner under Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Mr. Von Essen’s internal critics charged that he was being rewarded for having the rank and file take on emergency medical duties for additional compensation that they claim­­ed was inadequate given the added responsibility.

Many of those critics had fiercely resisted having Firefighters assume those duties at any price however, while Mr. Von Essen had been insisting for months before Mr. Giuliani offered him the job that the continuing decline in structural fires made it essential that his members take on such duties to dissuade future Mayors from using a decline in fire activity to justify closing firehouses, as former Mayor David Dinkins had done.

Detached From FDNY

Regardless of the merits of the argument, the turncoat provision barred union officials from going to work for the city in most capacities for three years after stepping down from their duties. The fact that the Fire Pension Fund has been separated from the Fire Department under a portion of the UFA contract last year that makes it an independent entity—something that had previously been done for the four other city retirement systems—means that Mr. Cassidy is not working for the city and therefore not in violation of the union prohibition.

Neither that distinction nor his qualifications for the job after 14-plus years as a member of the fund’s board who immersed himself in the details of both the disability-pension process and the system’s financial management mollified some critics on FDNY Rant. One of the more-reasonable ones posted this reaction: “No doubt Steve has a skill set for this sort of thing but image is everything, and I don’t believe this creates a great image here.”

One defender of the move, who identified himself as mao13, responded that “perception means nothing as far as the future of the pension board goes. More importantly, in my opinion, we have the chance to do more good for the membership going this route. Our best pension experts will now move out of metro tech [FDNY headquarters] and be more available for the membership.”

That prompted this retort from another critic of the move: “Hey Mao you must have been thirsty, you should have left some Kool Aid for the rest of us!!!”

‘Conspiracy to Screw Us’

And someone posting as nycffbrotherhood stated, “How can anyone with a brain think that any of this is not a convoluted conspiracy to screw the uniformed members.”

What made the negative reactions so stunning—if not all that surprising, given the UFA’s history during the final three decades of the 20th century—was that just nine days before Mr. Cassidy’s job-change roiled the waters, he delivered a major breakthrough for younger Firefighters when Governor Cuomo signed into law an upgraded disability benefit for Firefighters hired after 2009. It entitled them to the same tax-free pension equaling 75 percent of final average salary that more-senior colleagues have long enjoyed, in return for an additional 2-percent salary contribution to the pension fund.

It was in announcing Mr. Cassidy’s new job that Mr. Nigro for the first time offered insight into part of the reason that the administration had reduced the contribution from the additional 3-percent of salary that was agreed to 13 months ago. Because the $2.3 million in annual administrative costs for the fund are being transferred from the Fire Department to the system itself under the concept of “corpus funding”—which allows those costs for all five city retirement systems to be paid out of the funds’ reserves—the FDNY savings helped reduce members’ tabs.

They Don’t Wanna Hear It

But some posters on FDNY Rant claimed those members, who previously were entitled to just 50 percent of final average salary, with reductions if they also received Social Security disability pay and outright elimination of the benefit if they found other employment, had gotten a bad deal. One wrote, “New guys are going to be paying for their ‘hard won’ benefits for the rest of their careers while [Mr. Cassidy] lands a cushy job for selling them out.”

Until then, the prime objection to the UFA’s disability deal had come from the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which complained that the de Blasio administration had not offered its members something similarly generous once the lower disability rate for cops was taken into consideration. The city’s insistence that post-2009 hires among Police Officers pay an extra 1.5 percent of their salary to get the “75-percent” disability benefit angered PBA President Patrick J. Lynch, who said his rank and file’s significantly lower disability rate should have meant an added payment of just 0.4 percent of salary. All members of both unions have a base contribution rate of 3 percent of salary toward their pensions, meaning the newer Firefighters are putting 5 percent of their pay towards their retirements.

Mr. Cassidy brushed off the charges that he had placed his own interests ahead of those of his members, and done so in violation of UFA rules. “I am not working for the City of New York,” he said. “I am being paid by the Fire Pension Fund,” no­ting that he did not yet know what his salary would be. “I did not violate the [union] constitution and I know this is an important job.”

But, he said of his critics, “It’s hard to argue with people who have their minds made up anyway.”

NYPD Precedent

There is a precedent for his job-change: in 2007, Lieutenants Benevolent Association President Tony Garvey left that position after 16 years in office to become Executive Director of the Police Pension Fund. Like Mr. Cassidy, he was well-versed in the workings of his agency’s pension system after long service on its board, and he was appointed to the job by then-Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly. The commissioners of the two departments have the power to appoint the heads of their respective pension funds as long as their choice is a member of the uniformed service; if that person comes from outside the service, he or she must be approved by a majority of the fund’s board members.

“When Tony Garvey took that job, nobody complained among the police unions,” Mr. Cassidy said. “And Firefighters are going to find they’ve got an ally” with him running the fire system.

Despite differences they had a short time earlier on contract strategy, Mr. Garvey’s appointment had drawn no criticism by his PBA counterpart, Mr. Lynch. And Mr. Cassidy’s selection drew praise from the head of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, Jake Lemonda.

“Certainly I believe he’s qualified for the job,” he said in a phone interview. He added that he was “somewhat surprised” by the blowback the move had attracted from internal critics and the haste with which the UFA board pushed Mr. Cassidy out the door.

‘Need a History Lesson’

Referring to claims that the appointment was a reward for the UFA leader’s not pushing for better contract terms than he received as part of the deal that won the city’s support for the disability-benefit upgrade, Mr. Lemonda said, “The conspiracy theorists should learn the history of all the labor negotiations, and they might change their opinions.”

Eight months before the UFA contract was reached, a coalition of uniformed unions that included the UFOA and the four police unions besides the PBA had agreed to seven-year contracts providing 11 percent in raises, terms that were slightly better than those agreed to by civilian unions and the de Blasio administration for the same duration. “It’s very difficult to break a pattern once it’s established, and in my opinion Steve did a very good job for his membership, securing the pattern, getting the city to support the disability [upgrade] and getting manning back into his contract,” Mr. Lemonda said.

He was referring to another provision of the UFA pact that increased from four to five the number of Firefighters that would be assigned to 20 engine companies through­out the five boroughs, with that staffing level to be guaranteed for the future. This was a significant recoupment for the UFA because five years earlier, the city’s Board of Collective Bargaining had ruled that the Bloomberg administration was within its rights when it eliminated the fifth Firefighter at 60 engine companies citywide.

 ‘Fairly Significant’ Gain

James F. Hanley, who back then was the city’s Labor Commissioner and had been involved in heated battles with the UFA covering four mayoral administrations starting with that of the late Ed Koch, said of the restored engine staffing, “It was a fairly significant thing and [the city] didn’t have to bargain on staffing because that had been settled by the BCB.”

When the other gains made by Mr. Cassidy aside from matching the uniform­ed pattern were factored in, he continued, “He negotiated a good contract. I would have agreed to it in a minute—it was a good deal for the union and for management.”

The fact that sentiment on FDNY Rant was running so strongly counter to the assessments of Mr. Lemonda and Mr. Hanley, and had apparently infected UFA board members as well, served as a reminder of the turbulent history of the union during a past era in which it was unusual for its presidents to be re-elected, but not uncommon for them to be voted out of office because of unhappiness over a contract, only to gain another term once their successor also brought back a wage deal that disappointed segments of the rank and file.

Musical-Chairs Era

The turbulence arguably peaked during a four-year period covering the final year of the Koch administration and the first three years of Mr. Dinkins’s term in office. In 1989 UFA President Nick Mancuso, placed at a disadvantage by a PBA contract whose structure essentially punished Firefighters for having a lower turnover rate than cops, was forced to make additional givebacks. Knowing this angered many members, he urged delegates to ratify the deal anyway, explaining that if they didn’t and the contract went to arbitration, the union could lose key benefits pertaining to minimum staffing, the trading of days off, and the limit to what duties members could be asked to perform.

They voted down the terms anyway, with several arguing that the city would not seek those givebacks because it benefited from certain aspects of them. They were wrong on two of three counts: in the arbitration, the union lost its staffing guarantees and had removed from its contract the description of job duties that would have given it more bargaining power when Mr. Giuliani several years later sought to have Firefighters respond to medical emergencies.

In the union election that followed, Jimmy Boyle gain­ed a second term in office after being unseated by Mr. Mancuso five years earlier. Mr. Boyle, just as he had during his first term, negotiated a complex-but-innovative deal, and it, too, was rejected by delegates. As they walked out of Terrace on the Park in Queens, a couple of those delegates were asked if they weren’t concerned that they could lose more key job rights in arbitration. They responded that as a result of the previous contract, there was nothing meaningful left to be taken away from them.

Lost Uniform Allowance

That prediction didn’t hold up either: the arbitrator took away the $1,000 annual uniform allowance, a good portion of which members didn’t spend on buying new uniforms, and replaced it with a quartermaster system. It was­n’t until Mr. Giuliani became Mayor and sought to ingratiate himself with Firefighters that the uniform allowance was restored.

After that contract defeat, even as Mr. Boyle’s critics on the UFA board gloated over how it had cost him any chance of being re-elected (he opted not to seek another term), one more-neutral board member uttered what might have been the union mantra in those days of disposable presidents, asking, “Why do we always shoot ourselves in the foot?”

Mr. Cassidy last fall delayed a scheduled delegate vote on the wage contract after strong sentiment was expressed by some that they were worried that the PBA would do better in arbitration than the UFA had at the bargaining table. In mid-November, their fears proved unfounded when an arbitrator gave cops just two one-percent raises, matching the uniformed-union pattern for the first part of their longer deals, and at the end of the month 69 percent of the UFA delegates voted to recommend ratification.

A Narrow Margin

Even so, in late December, only a slight majority of the union’s members voted in favor of the deal, which passed by a margin of 176 votes out of more than 6,000 cast. No­ting that every contract he had negotiated had been strongly supported by his executive board—in stark contrast with the internal bickering by board members under Mr. Mancuso and Mr. Boyle—Mr. Cassidy said Sept. 21, “Maybe in the last five years or so, the expectations have changed in terms of young Firefighters. I don’t know if those expectations are ever going to be met in a contract.”

Which may explain why, when he opted to make what he considered a logical transition in which he could continue to assist UFA members minus the pressure that goes with heading the union, it spurred a cottage industry of suspicions that were impervious to the realities of the situation.

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