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Source: Kokomo Perspective

City and firefighter negotiations at impasse

Devin Zimmerman  Nov 21, 2017

After about five months of contract negotiations between the city of Kokomo and Kokomo Professional Firefighters Local 396, the dispute between the administration and the local hasn’t cooled.

At the beginning of the month, the local’s leadership filed a grievance against the city relating to a denial by the administration to take contract negotiations to arbitration. Filed with the Board of Public Works, the grievance claimed the city “failed and refused to engage in collective bargaining in good faith” and was filed after the two parties went well beyond the 45-day negotiating period allotted in the city ordinance before arbitration can be requested. The Board of Works yet has to rule on the matter.

The negotiations between the local and the city have represented an arduous task, beginning June 7 and lasting up until Oct. 11, and a myriad of issues have resulted in the difficulties experienced by both sides.

Most recently, both groups took their dispute into the public realm, with each circulating letters detailing negotiation-related qualms. The firefighter union circulated a letter seeking public support from other local unions during a recent union event. The city responded by sending letters to Local 396 membership, claiming the union’s leadership had not been honest with its membership about what the city offered the union.

The union’s letter claimed “that after clear and repeated attempts to negotiate in good faith with the city, our union is being denied our right to arbitrate after declaring an impasse in contentious contract negotiations … Moreover, the city administration has declared that they will not mutually agree to extend our current contract past Dec. 31, so that we may attempt to find relief. This puts our union in a precarious position that would cause irreparable harm (to) our members and their families.”

The letter highlights the following concerns the union holds with what’s viewed to be the city’s final offer: replacing full-time professional union firefighters with part-time employees that would not receive benefits or equal pay, retirement health insurance for firefighters, reasonable health insurance premiums for employees that do not live in the city, removal of seniority-based bid rights, and removal of the union’s no layoff clause.

Local 396 President Chris Frazier took particular issue with a proposal that he said surfaced after the union requested changed health insurance for retirees. He said, after the proposal was floated, it was found that about 10 firefighters would retire in the next year if retiree benefits were improved. As a result, he said the city administration proposed hiring part-time firefighters to supplement the local’s work force. According to him, the proposal entailed the workforce dropping to 75 full-time firefighters, and then that would be supplemented by the hiring of 25 to 35 part-time firefighters. That would be down from the 89 full-time firefighters on staff now.

“They can’t explain who these people are going to be, where they will come from … They get no benefits and a lesser wage. Basically, what he’s trying to do is take a union shop and turn it into a non-union shop by having part-timers,” said Frazier.

“The biggest problem with that, for us, is the numbers mean we would have to have a person who is a part-time firefighter with very little (experience) on them in every truck in the city, pretty much. It’ll pretty much get us to the point where we’ll have the back-end guy on every truck as a part timer or pretty close.”

The union’s leadership went so far as to claim that the part-time workers could be sent to mow the parks or take on other duties in between emergency calls.

The city, however, claims the firefighter union’s leadership isn’t being honest with its membership, and the letter sent to union members represented a chance for them to actually see what’s been offered by the city.

The letter, penned by city attorney Beth Copeland, claimed “there was no real desire on the union’s part to reach an agreement.”

According to the letter, after five months of negotiations and once the union wanted to seek arbitration, the city made a “last, best, and final offer” to Frazier.

This offer, according to the letter, included: a 2-percent raise increase in each year of the contract, $200 increase in longevity pay, group health insurance for active members would remain the same except for a change to allow the city to negotiate for better deductibles, group health insurance for retirees would remain the same, vacations would be modified to allow three employees off at a time, a removal of the union’s no layoff clause, and all other tentative agreements would take effect, “almost all of which revolved around union proposals including an increase in clothing allowance and funeral leave.”

The city claimed this proposal was rejected by Frazier in its letter.

“In a final conversation, the terms of this contract settlement opportunity were outright rejected by Union President Chris Frazier,” read the letter. “He said the union would not agree to such terms without a 15-percent raise (five percent in each of the three years.) We do not believe the city’s final suggested compromise was ever presented to the members for a vote.”

Furthermore, Copeland claimed the matter involving part-time firefighters wasn’t included in the final offer and that the union’s representation of the matter wasn’t accurate. Even though the idea is off the table, the city administration claimed the proposal was to hire part-time employees on a temporary basis to supplement the workforce with up to 10 projected to retire if the retiree benefits were changed. This would only last until full-time firefighters could be trained, claimed the city.

Copeland claimed the final offer made to Frazier was proposed in a sidebar with the union president by the attorney the city hired to assist with negotiations. This offer, she said, was made in the presence of the union’s attorney as well and meant to be a valid offer. However, she claimed that’s when Frazier turned down the offer without presenting it to the rest of his membership. A big difference between the final offer and what is being presented to the union membership, said Copeland, is the two-percent raise. A one-percent raise is being presented to the membership as the city’s offer.

“President Frazier had a responsibility to act in the best interests of his entire membership,” said Copeland. “By doing so, it is the city’s belief that he should have presented the city’s final offer that was made to him, to the entire membership to decide whether or not it was something they wanted or did not want. By not doing that, he put his own interests above those of his members.”

Frazier, however, rejects the city’s presentation of that situation. He said he never countered the final with a demand for a 15-percent raise and claimed the city’s offer wasn’t valid.

“When you pull somebody in negotiations out of a room and have a side discussion with them, like, ‘What if I could do this for you?’ That doesn’t mean anything,” said Frazier. “That is an underhanded tactic. There’s no reason. Why wouldn’t he say it in the room with the rest of our negotiating team?”

Unless the firefighter union takes the city’s offer to a vote, the matter likely will head to litigation. The Board of Works is expected to issue a response to the union’s grievance soon.

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