My first substantive conversation with Jimmy Boyle came shortly after Labor Day 35 years ago at a point when most city union leaders were just brushing the summer sand off their vacation clothes in preparation for getting serious about reaching wage contracts to replace the ones that had expired July 1.
Mr. Boyle had been the conspicuous exception. After being elected president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association a year earlier, he declared in March 1984 that he would remove the union from the coalition that also included police and correction unions in which it had been negotiating since the 1975 fiscal crisis, and was determined to get the first contract of the next round of bargaining and do it before his old one expired.
This had raised a few eyebrows among his fellow labor leaders for a couple of reasons. One was that the uniformed unions had generally waited for District Council 37, the largest municipal union, to reach a deal at terms that they would then look to exceed. The other was that Mr. Boyle was stepping on the very sensitive toes of Phil Caruso, the president of the then-Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, by suggesting that not only didn’t he need to bargain in tandem with him but that he was capable of making a deal for the UFA that would be the envy of the rest of the city labor movement.
Put His Cards on the Table in Mid-Hand
More than three months after his union’s contract had expired, Mr. Boyle was adjusting to the realities of city bargaining, but not exactly conforming to them. He told me that the city was “unofficially” ready to make a two-year deal providing 5-percent annual raises. And while his own “official” demand was for a raise-and-fringe-benefit package worth 19 ½ percent over two years, “unofficially” he was ready to shake hands if city Labor Relations Director Bob Linn offered him 15 percent.
The most-astonishing thing about this statement was that he didn’t insist it be off the record. When I told him I would be calling Mr. Linn to get his reaction to that “unofficial” position, Mr. Boyle said that was fine.
Mr. Linn, who like most negotiators believed in playing his cards close to the vest and not allowing reporters any peeks—even off the record—was midway between amused and aghast in his response. “I think that’s ridiculous,” he said of the UFA leader’s claim about the “unofficial” city bargaining position. “I don’t know what indications there were or where he’s getting them from.”
Victor Gotbaum, DC 37’s longtime executive director, shrugged when told of Mr. Boyle’s remarks, calling him “one of the most-decent human beings I’ve ever met. He deals straight from the top of the deck.”
As Mr. Boyle would subsequently discover, that made him an exception within the universe of municipal labor negotiators on both sides of the table. But he continued plugging away, and offering updates as he went, until in January 1985 he reached terms with Mr. Linn on the first contract of the bargaining round. It was the most-complex deal negotiated in at least a decade, and a longer one than the two sides had been contemplating.
The wage hikes averaged slightly more than 5 percent over three years, but the main attractions involved fringe benefits, from the city assuming a bigger share of pension contributions for employees in order to boost Firefighters’ take-home pay, to premium pay for all weekend shifts. To offset those and other added costs, however, Mr. Boyle had to freeze starting salaries for the final two years of the contract and stretch out the pay plan so that new Firefighters would have to work five years before reaching top pay, compared to the longtime standard of three years.
Key elements of the deal could not have been replicated by unions representing sanitation workers and correction officers, and Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association President Phil Seelig joined Mr. Caruso in attacking the value of the package as inadequate.
More-neutral parties praised the contract’s innovations, including a $1.3-million fund to provide specialty pay to part of the union’s membership and a significant increase in annuity benefits. But PBA and COBA officials openly campaigned against its ratification, and internal opposition on the UFA board—which included several holdovers from the slate of former President Nick Mancuso—added to the doubts in the minds of union delegates. Less than a month after Mr. Boyle shook hands on the deal, delegates rejected it by a vote of 327 to 50.
‘Thought He Was Messiah’
One UFA board member, Joseph Bonanno, rubbed Mr. Boyle’s nose in it, declaring, “He thought he was the Messiah. Well, he found out today.”
Other, more-tactful members of the UFA board who opposed Mr. Boyle’s deal argued that its creation of a two-tier pay schedule would have created friction between those already on the job and future hires who would have lost thousands of dollars from the stretch-out of the progression to maximum salary.
By mid-June, a uniformed coalition led by the PBA that also included the Uniformed Fire Officers Association reached a deal on three 6-percent raises that didn’t offer the fringe-benefit gains of Mr. Boyle’s rejected pact but didn’t contain its concessions, either. That ended whatever slim chance he had of being re-elected: less than two weeks later, a ballot count showed Mr. Mancuso had reversed the outcome of their face-off two years earlier, winning by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.
Mr. Boyle said in an interview that he believed his opponents on the board and at other unions had distorted the terms of the contract, but acknowledged that he had “challenged the Firefighters too much” by breaking away from the uniformed coalition and negotiating terms that needed explaining for them to understand that in the long run, even future Firefighters would be better off.
He then added, “I can’t change my personality. I’ll never be a hardnosed guy.”
With that self-description, he offered an explanation for a fundamental paradox of his long involvement with the UFA and the Fire Department prior to his death Oct. 27 at 80 after a long battle with cancer.
Mr. Boyle would regain the union presidency in 1990, when Mr. Mancuso retired rather than seek another term after his own problem in getting UFA delegates to approve a controversial contract.
That one involved matching a 1988 PBA deal negotiated by Mr. Caruso that featured both significant fringe-benefit gains and a salary freeze and pay-scale stretch. Unlike the UFA board members who said they opposed Mr. Boyle’s 1985 pact because it would sow dissension in the ranks, the PBA leader said upon reaching that contract that he had not opposed the rejected fire pact based on trade-union principles but because there wasn’t enough money in the city’s offer to the UFA to make it worth screwing the unborn.
Delegates Balked Again
The PBA terms proved difficult for Mr. Mancuso to match because Mr. Linn, citing the higher attrition rate for Police Officers compared to Firefighters, insisted that the UFA make greater concessions to even out the costs to the city of major increases in longevity benefits. He did what he could to limit the pain, but the deal produced an old, familiar result: rejection by UFA delegates—less because of its impact on future hires than that they didn’t believe they should have to give up more than cops. The contract wound up in arbitration, where city officials were able to uphold the pattern set under the PBA deal while also having two key benefits stripped from Firefighters: a guarantee on staffing and a written description of what tasks they were required to do. The latter loss remains felt to this day because it left the UFA with little leverage when midway through the 1990s, the Giuliani administration had Firefighters take on medical duties for just an additional $1,400 differential.
Mr. Boyle, given a second chance at running the union, offered indications he had become more pragmatic, among them installing a keg of beer in the City Hall parking lot during one budget negotiation while trying to line up City Council support for matters of interest to the UFA. But he encountered the same problem as Mr. Mancuso on a contract, which was then voted down by union delegates. His future as UFA president became clear at a meeting in October 1992, when members cursed out Mr. Boyle, not realizing that the terms he brought back were better than those they would eventually wind up with in another damaging arbitration that cost Firefighters their $1,000 annual uniform allowance.
Being excoriated by rival board members was to be expected; hearing the nasty invective from his rank and file as he was shouted down several times while pleading for unity was harder to endure.
But something remarkable happened that evening. There was a going-away party for Donna Lynne, a veteran official at the Office of Labor Relations who was leaving to run a health consortium. The surprise guest was Mr. Boyle.
Admirable in Defeat
As I subsequently wrote in my labor column in the New York Post, “No one would have blamed him if, having been publicly flogged by his membership, he had ducked the party and suffered his wounds in solitude. But that would have been unthinkable for Boyle: showing up was a matter of paying his respects to someone who did her job with skill and class.
“It was also a reminder that those with heroic aspirations can be tripped up by their flaws, and yet give you something to admire about them even when they fail.”
His appearance offered a glimpse into how a two-time, one-term president of the UFA could be described by Dennis Smith—the firefighter-turned-author who previously chronicled his life in an engine company in the South Bronx during the “war years” of the 1960s and 1970s—in a book about firefighters during 9/11 and its aftermath, “Report From Ground Zero,” as “the most-beloved man within the New York Fire Department Family.”
Notwithstanding Mr. Boyle’s decency and generosity of spirit, that title came with a price. His son Michael had grown more interested in the Fire Department after Jimmy won his second term with the UFA, becoming heavily involved in union political activity in City Council races in 1991 and then, when his father decided not to seek another term in 1993, playing a key role in Tom Von Essen’s campaign to succeed him. Following Mr. Von Essen’s election that June, Michael served as the union’s liaison to Rudy Giuliani’s mayoral campaign that fall.
He subsequently took the Firefighter exam, getting perfect scores on both the written and the physical, and was hired by the Fire Department in early 1996. He suffered burns at the first fire he went to with Engine Co. 33 in Greenwich Village, but his father later recalled, “He wouldn’t go sick and he didn’t give the [hose] line up; he stayed there until they put out the fire.”
A photograph taken during Michael’s early years in the job showed him standing at the top of a ladder that leaned against a roof, his helmet pushed back enough to display the smile of a man having the time of his life in the job. He had finished a night tour on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, changed into civilian clothes along with his colleague and best friend from childhood, David Arce, and called Jimmy about 8:35 a.m. to tell him they were about to go work in the get-out-the-vote effort of his cousin, Matt Farrell, who was seeking the Democratic primary nomination for a Queens City Council seat.
Word Came, They Responded
Before they left, word came in of the first plane striking the World Trade Center, and Michael and his friend, who was known as Buddha for his calm manner, with no time to change back into their uniforms, jumped on the Engine 33 rig and took the ride downtown.
Jimmy Boyle, who was working in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, made his way on foot across the Brooklyn Bridge and over to the Trade Center, arriving just as the North Tower collapsed. The implosion knocked him off his feet, but he made his way through the thick cloud of dust and spent much of the day trying to offer assistance, learning as the hours passed that his son Jimmy, an NYPD Sergeant, was also searching for survivors, but getting no word about Michael.
About 10 a.m. the following morning, Mr. Boyle called me to say his son was missing. After going into downtown Brooklyn to see what I could from the promenade in Brooklyn Heights, the smell from the carnage impossible to escape clear down to Carroll Gardens, I drove to his house in Westbury late that afternoon, part of a vigil of relatives and friends waiting for word about Michael Boyle.
At one point Jimmy left the house early in the evening to attend the wake of a friend’s son, something he said offered some escape from his anxiety. He was staggered by reports that as many as 300 firefighters might be dead, and how shaken Mr. Von Essen, by then Mr. Giuliani’s Fire Commissioner, seemed about the sheer number of missing ones and the deaths of First Deputy Commissioner Bill Feehan and Chief of Department Pete Ganci, both of whom Mr. Boyle had dealt with extensively over the years.
He went upstairs to get a couple of Fire Department t-shirts for my sons, who were 11 and 7 at the time, then sat at the dining-room table lamenting the bad timing that had left Michael a relatively short distance from the Trade Center when the first plane hit, wondering why he hadn’t been quicker about leaving to work in his cousin’s campaign.
“If only he’d been off by then,” he said.
“He was,” his daughter reminded him.
A Long Good-Bye
It was not until the following Labor Day that Jimmy finished cleaning out Michael’s locker in the firehouse on Great Jones St. He spoke then of how close those who responded from Engine 33 had come to exiting 1 World Trade Center, saying that Engine 24 firefighters “got out OK, and ‘33’ let them go on the stairway just before them.”
Referring to the casualties at that point in 2002, he talked not only of the 340 firefighters, one Emergency Medical Technician, one civilian FDNY employee and FDNY Chaplain Mychal Judge, but also three former firefighters who were working in other jobs in the Trade Center when the terrorists struck.
As UFA president, part of the job had been getting the late-night phone calls that would send him driving off for hospital vigils or to sit with grieving families, paying respects and offering consolation while making sure the union did everything possible to assist them. In his post-retirement role in the Brooklyn DA’s Office, where he by then was Director of Operations, Mr. Boyle had no official responsibility for ministering to the families, but doing what he could for them while going to a wearying number of wakes and funerals in an unusually short period of time to some degree offered a respite from his own pain at the loss of a child.
“I have my moments,” he said then of the impact of his own family’s loss. “I can’t believe how much Michael meant to me and how proud of him I am. But my strength is, I have a way to help other people, and that seems to take my mind off my grief.”
He brushed off the finding of the consulting firm McKinsey regarding the confusion at the Trade Center and the number of firefighters who had responded without their turnout coats, bunker gear and other protective clothing. “My son was one of the 60 off-duty firefighters who weren’t supposed to be there,” Jimmy said. “But they weren’t being irresponsible. They were doing God’s work that day.”
He spoke of the faith his wife Barbara had that “there was a reason for what happened and that wherever he is, he’s happy.”
An Ongoing Dialogue
As for his own feelings on that subject, he said, “Very spiritual people talk to me, and I’m trying to figure out what the next life is. But I have Michael’s picture next to my bed, and I tell him every night how much I miss him.”
He left the DA’s Office later that month and became Associate Director of the Fire Service Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where he established a fire-cadet program. He remained a constant presence at Fire Department events, from the annual 9/11 services to Fire Memorial Day to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, although a move to a Rochester suburb to be close to one of his daughters and her husband and their children, along with health issues in recent years, somewhat forced him to cut back on those activities.
Two weeks before his death, when I checked in after a month of not hearing from him, he apologized for not calling but said he hadn’t been doing so well. He was having difficulty walking, was losing weight but had no appetite, he thought he had developed Bell’s palsy, and it hurt him to talk. When I tried to cut the conversation short after five minutes to spare him some discomfort, he brushed me off, seeking my opinion on familiar subjects from the Yankees’ playoff chances to horse-racing to life in the city. He asked how my sons—who in a tribute to his foresight in providing extra-large FDNY clothing, were still wearing the T-shirts he had long ago given them well into their 20s—were doing.
A week later, when I called again, his daughter Mary told me that the cancer had spread to his brain. When Jimmy got on the phone, there was a pessimism in his voice that seemed foreign as he spoke about his situation. Then he turned the conversation to more-convivial subjects and asked me what was going on with contract bargaining. Not much that I knew of, I told him.
‘What About the PSC Deal?’
“Well, whadaya think of the PSC settlement?” he asked.
“I didn’t know there was one,” I said.
The Professional Staff Congress had reached contract terms three days earlier, Jimmy told me. He was still a union member from his days teaching at John Jay, and he had gotten the notification from its president, Barbara Bowen.
It would be our last conversation; when I called the following Saturday, he was too weak to speak on the phone, and he passed the following morning. In a way, it was a fitting farewell: a reminder that this brave, generous, compassionate man never lost his enthusiasm for what was going on in the universes he inhabited, and even at the end was connected enough to be better informed than someone still gathering news for a living.