Changing of the guard: Andy Thomas, 50, was sworn in as president of Local 22 of the International Association of Fire Fighters on June 8. MARIA S. YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO
Throughout much of its interminable contract fight with the Nutter administration, Philadelphia’s firefighters and paramedics union had a self-described “wartime consigliere” as president. When members realized that the war was going nowhere, they chose a diplomat to replace him.
Now that members are working with a functioning contract for the first time in six years, they’ve chosen yet another type of leader, a veteran hazardous materials unit supervisor and pension guru with little interest in the public arena and even less in the news media.
Yet, Andy Thomas, the newly elected president of Local 22 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, shares at least one similarity with his two most recent predecessors — Bill Gault and Joe Schulle — in that Thomas still sees plenty of lingering, vital issues to resolve with City Hall.
“We want to be a strong voice for the membership in working with the administration,” Thomas said. “The immediate thing is to work with the incoming administration in stopping brownouts and rotations. We don’t think rotating our members every three or four years is good for the department.”
Local 22 isn’t the only thing that’s changed since mid-2009, when one union contract expired and the long impasse with an obstinate administration effectively began. Arbitrators awarded a new contract, but the administration refused to honor it, citing the city’s inability to pay for it. Instead, the administration challenged the award in court.
Local 22 members were still working under pre-2009 terms in September 2013 when the Nutter administration declared that the city’s financial conditions had improved and that it would finally accept the new terms.
At the same time, the administration and union were in arbitration for another new contract. That process concluded last January with a four-year package that will continue through June 30, 2017.
Local 22 members have also seen the decade-long tenure of polarizing Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers come to an end upon Ayers’ retirement last July. Derrick Sawyer is the new commissioner. And Nutter is due to leave office next January, too, with a decidedly pro-firefighter candidate, Democrat nominee Jim Kenney, poised to replace him. Kenney will face Republican Melissa Murray Bailey in November’s general election, but Bailey’s party is heavily outnumbered.
“I had some dealings with him when he was on City Council. I think he’s well-versed in the issues in the fire department and when the time comes he will address them,” Thomas said of Kenney. “It does give us optimism, but we understand he will be under some constraints in his position and from City Council.”
Thomas, 50, was sworn in as Local 22 president on June 8. Kenney presided over the ceremony. The new union board also includes First Vice President Eddie Marks, Second Vice President Mike Bresnan, Recording Secretary Jack Eltman and Treasurer Dan Oakes. The trustees are Tom Kane (chairman), Jerry Kots and Ray Vozzelli, while sergeants-at-arms are Walter Faber and Chuck McQuilkin.
Thomas defeated former union vice president Tim McShea for the top spot. Local 22 has about 4,000 members, split about equally between active-duty members and retirees. Thomas garnered support from both factions and credited his work with actives and retirees as a pension adviser. He has represented the union for three years as a trustee on the city’s Board of Pensions and was an assistant pension rep for four years before that.
“I’ve worked with the younger guys coming in on the new pension plan and worked with retirees. I’ve helped all members of the department and when anyone comes with a pension question, I’m well-versed,” he said.
A St. John Neumann High School graduate and U.S. Coast Guard veteran, Thomas lives in Roxborough and studies management consulting and contracts at St. Joseph’s University. He credited Schulle with advocating for union members on various fronts, including the brownout and transfer policies, as well as trying to reform safety, healthcare and discipline in the department. Schulle, a battalion chief, served a single two-year term as union leader and chose not to seek re-election so as to spend more time with his family.
“I liked the stuff Joe was doing moving forward and want to continue it,” Thomas said.
The new president wants new policies protecting members from hazardous materials and improving their access to timely medical care and counseling. He will press the administration to replace its aging fire trucks, especially some that are more than two decades old and have logged more than 200,000 miles.
In addition, the union continues to fight the administration’s unceremonious demotion of 14 fire department supervisors in September 2013, mere months after they had been promoted pursuant to a court order. Thomas was one of those 14, having been made captain, then bumped back down to lieutenant.
The genesis of that litigation was the administration’s failure to use an existing list of promotion candidates to fill vacant supervisory positions within the fire department. The union sued to force promotions. A court agreed, and the administration obliged. But the administration won an appeal, arguing successfully that it was the administration’s prerogative to fill the vacancies.
ldquo;We still have grievances,” Thomas said. “If we get policies in place that make sure everybody is treated uniformly and fairly going forward, it’ll work out.”
Just don’t expect to see a lot of the new Local 22 president in the news media.
“I delegate and I’m very informed and I’m very guarded,” he said. “I’m just a good member looking out for myself and the membership. I’m not in it for headlines.” ••