Last week, Pittsburgh firefighters agreed to a responsible five-year contract, one that lives within the city's fiscal limits and the bounds set by state financial overseers. As part of the deal, the firefighters union also gave a thumbs-up to random drug testing.
The new pact, which was approved 519-12 by members of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1 and signed Monday by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, gives employees modest pay increases through 2014 and requires them to kick in more to the city's anemic pension fund. While the details on drug testing still have to be worked out, the concern by labor and management was inspired by at least two notorious cases.
Vincent Manzella burglarized fire stations while his co-workers responded to false alarms called in by him. After he was caught, police said he did it to support his heroin addiction.
Although criminal charges were pending in June, the mayor couldn't fire him unilaterally or without the OK of a panel of firefighters. Mr. Manzella eventually resigned, but he was within his legal right to stay under the old contract.
Another firefighter, John Connors, pleaded guilty to a drug possession charge this year, but he got to keep his job because a trial board of firefighters said the city improperly demanded that he take a drug test. In short, the old contract made it nearly impossible to discipline substance abusers.
With the new contract, though, comes a new era of accountability. Local 1 President Joe King said, "No member in our union condones the illegal use of any kind of substance."
The language in the accord gives the city the right - with the union's blessing - to fire chronic drug abusers. Rules that ensure fairness while allowing one violation before an employee's termination made accepting the stricter terms palatable to the union.
This is eminently sensible. Protecting the public and law-abiding firefighters from criminal negligence should never take a backseat to job security for a handful of law breakers.
The firefighters union should be commended - not just for the sensible economic terms in the contract, but also for closing a giant loophole on substance abuse that threatened lives and undermined the public's trust.