Strength of the union

Ed Marks will take over as president of Local 22 of the International Association of Firefighters, the first retiree ever to do so.

Hello, Mr. President: Ed Marks, a fire department retiree who most recently served as first vice president of Local 22 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, was recently elected president of Philadelphia’s firefighters and paramedics union. LOGAN KRUM / TIMES PHOTO

Although Philadelphia’s firefighters and paramedics union made one big change at the top of its executive board during its recently completed bi-annual election, the new president insists the 4,600-member union will stay its course in seeking wage increases, benefits protections and safety improvements in ongoing contract arbitration with the city.

Ed Marks, a fire department retiree who most recently served as first vice president of Local 22 of the International Association of Firefighters, ousted one-term incumbent Andy Thomas and Rich Lewandowski in the three-way, month-long presidential race that concluded on May 15.

Marks has been transitioning into the president’s role since then and will officially take office on July 1 as part of a 10-member board that features seven holdovers, two first-timers and one former member who is returning to the body. One of the newcomers is trustee Diane Pellecchia, who will become the first woman board member in the local’s 99-year history.

Marks, 67, a Kensington native and North Catholic graduate who lives in East Torresdale, chose 61-year union member John J. “Moon” Reilly to preside over a ceremonial swearing-in on June 6. The union meeting was one of the last activities held in the Local 22 hall at Fifth and Willow streets prior to its closure for a multi-million-dollar renovation.

Marks becomes the first retiree to hold the local’s top post. All prior presidents have been active members of the fire department.

“I think the bottom line is I was never really set for retirement. I’m not a sit-still guy,” Marks said during an interview before the swearing-in. “I’ve gotta stay active.”

Marks served 38 years in the department and retired in 2013 as a battalion chief. He served as a rank-and-file firefighter in South Philly, then transferred to a station in West Philly upon his promotion to lieutenant. As a captain, he worked mostly from North Philly firehouses. When he became a battalion chief, he first served as deputy director of training at the Fire Academy in the Northeast. He spent the final eight years of his career commanding Battalions 8 and 10 in North Philly and Kensington.

“I’ve always been involved in the union. I did 38 years in the fire department, and you can probably count on one hand how many union meetings I missed,” he said. “I sat on committees, sat on boards. I was selected as one of the directors of the Home Association (that manages the union hall). So I’ve always been involved.”

Marks declined to delve into the internal politics that set up the contested election this year, but longevity has not been a trait of Local 22 presidents in recent times. Four men including Marks have been elected to the job since 2009. By comparison, the city’s 15,000-member police union has had the same president, John McNesby, since 2007.

About half of the Local 22 members (2,341) cast ballots in this year’s presidential election.

In 2009, Bill Gault was elected president. He served two terms while his fiery public rhetoric seemed to fuel a feud with the administration of then-Mayor Nutter, leading to contract negotiation stalemates and a series of legal battles on a variety of labor issues. Joe Schulle defeated Gault in the 2013 union election.

“Billy had a tough job. He was president of this union for four years and they were four of the toughest years, even in the years that I spent (in the fire department),” Marks said. “You had an administration that fought you at every turn, so it was tough.”

Gault returned to fire suppression duties as a lieutenant for Ladder 20 in Holmesburg. Schulle, a battalion chief, brought new diplomacy to the position and helped resolve the longstanding contractual fight, but decided not to run for a second term in 2015.

“He took a promotional exam and came out №1 on the list. Joe’s a very intelligent guy,” Marks said. “Now he’s serving in the highest civil service rank we have as deputy chief. I think that’s something for his career, as a young guy, that was a good move for him.”

Local 22 members also appreciate having someone with strong union experience in such a high ranking position within the administration.

In 2015, pension expert Andy Thomas defeated former union vice president Tim McShea to replace Schulle. Thomas’ tenure saw the arrival of a new mayor in Jim Kenney, who appointed Adam Thiel as fire commissioner — the first non-Philadelphian to hold the job in the city’s history — while ending controversial Nutter policies such as neighborhood firehouse brownouts and mandatory transfers for rank-and-file firefighters.

Thomas finished third in this year’s union election, however. Mike Bresnan moved up from second vice president to first VP, while Chuck McQuilkin moved from sergeant at arms to second VP. Danny Oakes and Jack Eltman stayed as treasurer and recording secretary, respectively.

“Our relationship with the city administration is head and shoulders above what it was before,” Marks said. “I refer to (Kenney) as a fire department-friendly mayor and he has done a lot since he came on. … He got us a new commissioner. He went outside the department because he felt it was time for some new initiatives, new ideas.”

Marks wants to build on the momentum of the last union board. The current labor contract expires on June 30. The city and union are just entering arbitration. Typically, that process does not conclude before the previous contract expires, but Local 22 members will keep working, and the new contract will be applied retroactively.

Wages are always a top priority in such matters, but health care and pensions have taken precedence. The union has emphasized a new health prevention and maintenance program for its members and expects to be rewarded with reduced costs within the city’s self-insured health coverage model. And like other municipal unions in Philadelphia and other major cities, Local 22 is fighting to protect its members’ pensions in the face of funding shortages.

“The things we’re really serious about are health care, №1, pension, №2, and salary, №3,” Marks said. “And there are other things we’re looking for as far as safety equipment operating on the fireground. That’s basically what I’ve been telling the members.”

The Local 22 leaders have also been touting a revamped union hall with expanded office space for its health plan staff and new conference rooms. The hall will have a refurbished lounge for up to 150 people, but will scale back its full-service kitchen. The work will cost between $2.5 million and $3 million.

“Basically, we’re getting out of the catering business and back into the union business,” Marks said. ••

William Kenny can be reached at 215–354–3031 or wkenny@bsmphilly.com. Follow the Times on Twitter @NETimesOfficial.