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 wkenny@bsmphilly.com