WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Township Council approved two union contracts at its Nov. 12 meeting: an agreement with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees New Jersey Council 63, Local 3476, the union representing members of the Department of Public Works, and an agreement with the West Orange Fire Department Superior Officers Association Local 228. The DPW contract passed with a vote of 3-2, with council members Cindy Matute-Brown and Joe Krakoviak casting the opposing votes. The WOFD SOA contract passed with a vote of 3-1, with Matute-Brown again cast the opposing vote and Krakoviak abstaining because he said he did not receive the information about the contract in time to vote at the meeting.
The WOFD contract was a topic of heavy discussion at the meeting, with many West Orange police officers and members of police departments from surrounding towns asking the council not to approve the agreement. Like the DPW contract, the WOFD contract removes retiree health benefits for future hires. Current members of the department will retain their health benefits upon retirement. This has been a major sticking point in the police contract negotiations, with the police unions strongly opposing the cessation of health benefits upon retirement for new hires.
The WOPD is still in the midst of contract negotiations, and both unions within the WOPD want to move to the state health benefits plan, which has retiree health benefits, and which they say will save the township $4 million. However, the township administration has said that unless all unions agree to the state plan — which some have not — they can’t use it. At the meeting, WOFD Capt. Joe Matullo, president of SOA Local 228, said his union membership had several meetings with Mayor Robert Parisi and Business Administrator Jack Sayers about the contract.
“We’ve negotiated our best,” Matullo said at the meeting. “We brought back everything to our union membership and explained everything. We had the mayor and Mr. Sayers come to our meetings and explain everything in detail. We reached out to our attorney, and this has been going on for quite some time.”
According to Matullo, the union membership voted in February. Since then, there have been language changes to the contract that were significant enough that Matullo felt a second vote would be appropriate. The second time, the contract passed by a larger margin.
“This is on us, this has nothing to do with me,” Matullo said. “This wasn’t something that was taken lightly; this wasn’t something that was decided overnight. This was something that my union members decided to vote on and accept. They’re well aware of the details, they’re well aware of the raises that are included, they’re well aware of the benefits that we’re going to get and future hires are not going to get. They have voted on this and they have accepted it.”
The other WOFD union, FMBA Local 28, also agreed to a contract with the township earlier this year. It was not on the agenda at the meeting; Matullo said in a phone interview with the West Orange Chronicle on Nov. 18 that he’s not sure if it has been signed yet.
Despite Matullo’s position at the meeting, police officers urged the council to vote against the contract.
“These two contracts before you equate to your voting for a tax raise,” police Lt. Michael Cassidy, who is president of the WOPD SOA union, said at the meeting. “That’s what it is. You had the opportunity, we presented it, we made concessions to go back to the state health plan and save $4 million for the taxpayers. We’re willing to put that on the table. We’ve made that clear.”
Cassidy said the contract would have first responders choosing between themselves and future hires, which are referred to as “the unborn.”
“There’s diseases, there’s things that happen over the course of a career that don’t rear their ugly head until later on,” he continued, saying that often the most traumatic time in a first responder’s career is when they are faced with retirement. “You’re leaving them with the promise that if something happens, they have nothing. Their family will not be taken care of.”
Patrick Colligan, president of the New Jersey State PBA, said that turnover rates would rise in the department because officers would begin their careers in West Orange and then leave for departments providing retiree health benefits.
“The savings you think you’re going to get are not going to be realized for 30 years,” Colligan said at the meeting. “The expenses you’re going to incur are going to start the day the new hires start because your attrition rate if going to go through the roof. You’re going to pay for officers in a great community like West Orange and you’re going to watch them leave to every other township in this county and in this state that offers retirement health benefits.”
Derek Fogg, vice president of Clifton PBA Local 36, said 10 members of the Clifton Police Department have left for other departments during the course of the year as a result of a similar contract that was signed in that Passaic County town.
“That is what you’re headed to,” Fogg said at the meeting. “That is what’s going to happen if you sell out your unborn. West Orange will become a stepping stone city, I guarantee it. I am living that nightmare right now. You need to vote no, you need to go back to the bargaining table and you need to find the savings somewhere else. That savings 30 years from now is not going to help you now.”
Police officers weren’t the only ones who spoke about the fire contract at the meeting. Several residents did as well, including Brent Scott.
“As an African-American male who grew up in New Orleans and lived in New York City and Los Angeles, in places where the police have just horrible reputations, I’m very proud of the police and fire that I’ve encountered in West Orange. I’m actually comfortable enough to go up to them and introduce my two sons. I would never do that in other places where I’ve lived, so I’m proud of these men and women and I find it ironic that this council, by a slim majority or any majority would even think of giving them a contract that they’re so adamantly opposed to. I encourage you to listen to them.”
There were no members of the DPW who spoke at the meeting; Matullo was the only firefighter who made remarks. He acknowledged the police officers who were sitting in the audience.
“We always have your back, no matter what,” Matullo said. “Whatever outcome the council has in this, we always have your back. This is business here, but out there we always have your back. We’re not going to turn on you because you’re here trying to get this voted against us. Just be cognizant of the fact that our union voted on this not only once, but twice.”
He made a similar statement about the WOPD in a phone interview with the Chronicle on Nov. 18.
“They can do that whenever they want,” Matullo said. “That’s the great thing about this country: They can be there and say something. This was a long process, and everything was negotiated in good faith. This is what our union agreed to and accepted.”
Krakoviak, in voting on the DPW contract, said he agrees with the administration’s attempt to save money but not with its strategy.
“The administration is telling us over and over that we cannot go back into the state health benefits plan unless all the unions agree to it and they insist there’s at least one other union that refuses to go back into the state health benefits plan. I don’t know what to do about that issue,” he said at the meeting, adding ing that he is convinced by the potential turnover rate from the lack of retiree health benefits.
“I do salute the mayor’s goal, which is to try to reduce the health care costs for our town and our taxpayers, which are rising at just astronomical rates well above inflation. It’s putting an increasing burden on taxpayers, and I understand that, but I don’t think this is the way to do it.”
Councilwoman Michelle Casalino said she was torn in making her decision, but ultimately decided that she could not vote against a contract that had been approved by the union membership.
“It’s hard for me to go against a negotiation, and I’ve told many of you that are sitting out there tonight, ‘If you don’t feel comfortable, don’t come to us with a contract, because I’m going to have to vote yes for it.’ I’m going to say yes, because I respect the process,” Casalino said.
Councilwoman Susan McCartney and Council President Jerry Guarino agreed with Casalino.
“The bargaining unit has committed to a contract,” Guarino said. “They have committed to the conditions. I’m not one to go and say no to the bargaining unit of the Fire Department. Their membership took what they had, was given what they needed, and membership voted to accept the township’s offer. It’s hard for every one of us. We have friends and we have people we have great respect for that we need, but at the end of the day, it’s what the bargaining unit has negotiated for. I can’t neglect that.”
Matute-Brown, who was a member of the New Jersey Education Association, said at the meeting that she understands where the police union members are coming from. She said she wants to save money for the residents of West Orange, but is not willing to wait decades to see the results.
“I really have a hard time even taking off the labor union hat and looking at it through the lens of an elected member of this council that has a fiduciary responsibility to the residents of this town to look at the picture that is being drawn to say that in 20 years plus we will see a savings for our residents,” she said. “Obviously, I want that for our residents, but I’m not willing to wait 20 years.”
Matute-Brown does not believe that the township is unable to negotiate putting all the unions on the state health benefit plan.
“I’m hard-pressed to believe that you cannot make sure to negotiate every union enter the state health benefit plan,” she said. “It is my responsibility to ensure that I am making the vote that is in the best interest of everyone, residents included. I don’t feel that this is the way to go. But this is not an anti-union member vote. This is not an anti-fire SOA vote.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic