Police, firefighter unions plan to picket mayors' conference

The city's police and fire unions plan to picket a national convention of mayors to be held in Baltimore in June, in an effort to force a compromise with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake over furlough days and pension benefits.

Fraternal Order of Police President Robert F. Cherry said Monday that he was inviting police and fire unions from across the country to join the protest, which he hoped would spark a "national discussion about prioritizing public safety."

The police and firefighters unions have been sparring with Rawlings-Blake since last year, when she pushed through an overhaul of their pension system that saves the city money but cuts benefits. Tensions increased last month when city officials cut police officers' pay by nearly 2 percent over the next six months.

A spokesman for Rawlings-Blake said in an e-mailed statement that it would be "counterproductive to disrupt an event that will generate economic activity and tax revenue to support city services, including police and fire."

"It would be far more productive for the unions to use their energy to join the fight for tougher penalties for illegal, loaded gun possession," to keep police officers safe, said Ryan O'Doherty, referring to a bill crafted by Rawlings-Blake that was introduced in the state legislature Monday.

Cherry said he planned to draft unions across the country to press local officials to boycott the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which will be held for the first time in Baltimore.

Mayors who enter the convention "will be crossing an official picket line put up by a labor union," said Cherry.

The planned protest represents the latest tactic by the unions to highlight cuts to their pay and benefits. They have protested at fundraisers for City Council members and posted billboards accusing Rawlings-Blake and the council of having "turned their backs on police and firefighters."

The police and firefighters unions are scheduled to confront the city in federal court in March over the pension plan. The unions sued the city after Rawlings-Blake increased annual contributions from members and delayed the retirement age, among other changes estimated to save the city $400 million over five years.

The suit contends that officials knowingly underfunded the pension system for nearly a decade and that Rawlings-Blake's pension overhaul violates members' contracts.

Police and firefighters have received smaller paychecks since last month as a result of a 1.9 percent pay cut that will remain in effect until the end of June. Most city employees lost a similar amount of income because of furlough days. The police union rejected the city's contract offer and an arbitrator later ruled the members must give up the pay — but without the additional days off.

Police union members, who note that Rawlings-Blake often points to the city's declining crime rate, are also angry about the loss of tuition remission benefits, which remain available for other city workers.

Union leaders say Rawlings-Blake administration has refused to engage them in substantive discussions of their benefits; the mayor's office rebutts that claim.

"Our membership is out there every day doing their best for the City of Baltimore," said Bob Sledgeski, president of the firefighters union. "It's time for an open debate over this."



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