LAWRENCE —- An appreciation dinner for first-responders involved in the Sept. 13, 2018 Merrimack Valley gas disaster has been cancelled by Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera after Lawrence firefighters said they would picket and boycott the event this week.

Hundreds of first-responders were invited to the dinner Thursday night at the Relief's In at 1 Market St.

"This was about saying, 'Thank you. It's been a year. We couldn't have done it without you,'" said Rivera. 

However, Rivera noted, "No one is going to cross a picket line." 

At a meeting Sept. 4, Lawrence firefighters in the Local 146 fire union voted to picket and boycott the family-style dinner as they go into their second year without a contract with the city.

Fire Capt. Eric Zahn, union president, said the union is also being prevented from holding a promotion exam, which is at no cost to the city, and expected to take cuts to a variety of benefits including vacation time, unused sick time buyback, academic compensation and longevity incentives. 

"We'd be losing money at the end of the day," Zahn said. 

There are roughly 140 union members. Approximately 50 were present at the union meeting and voted "unanimously on the floor" to picket and boycott the dinner, Zahn said. 

"If you appreciate public safety, you'd be treating us with some manner of respect," Zahn said of Rivera in an interview with The Eagle-Tribune on Monday morning.

On Sept. 13, 2018, an over-pressurized gas line caused dozens of fires and explosions in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover. Police officers, state troopers, firefighters and ambulance workers from all over the state responded to the Merrimack Valley to aid with the disaster. 

Zahn said other fire departments who responded to Lawrence during the disaster last year were notified and in support of the union's plans along with the leadership of the state's fire union, the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts.

"We would appreciate the support of all our union brothers and sisters throughout the PFFM," reads a letter sent by the Lawrence firefighters union. 

Now, a year after the gas disaster, Zahn said Lawrence firefighters "are happy to see people's lives getting back to normal." However, the issues they are facing contractually "came to a head and in a show of solidarity members voted to do this." 

Rivera said he supports the Lawrence Fire Department and has provided firefighters with new fire trucks, better working conditions and enhanced safety measures.

Gov. Charlie Baker was expected to attend the appreciation dinner which was going to be paid for using funds from Columbia Gas, the natural gas utility provider, he said.

Rivera said he's not willing to battle or criticize the union in the press. However, he did suggest the firefighters' union needs a change in leadership.

"I am doubling down on efforts to fix the communication here," said Rivera, noting a negotiation session with the firefighters' union is scheduled for next week. 

The mayor said he is willing to directly negotiate with the union one-on-one and without each side's attorneys present.

Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.

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