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Source: Kokomo Perspective

City, firefighters continue to spar

By Devin Zimmerman

Months into a dispute between the local firefighter union and the city, tensions reached a climax during last week’s Kokomo Common Council meeting.

Garbed in red to show support for the Professional Firefighters of Kokomo Local 396, hundreds bearing signs decrying the city and Mayor Greg Goodnight flocked to City Hall. The crowd gathered to hear Local 396 President Chris Frazier speak both outside City Hall and in an address to the Common Council.

While last week represented a climax to the contract showdown between the city and firefighters, tensions haven’t eased. The fight between the firefighters, who are working without a contract, and the city continues with both sides pointing fingers.

During his address to the council, Frazier appealed to the union’s membership, claiming the council only had been privy to half of the story concerning negotiations.

The previous day, the firefighters and city had convened to discuss another contract proposal offered by the city. According to the city, that proposal included two-percent raises in each year of the three-year contract, a $300 increase in longevity pay, group health insurance for actives would remain unchanged, and retirees’ monthly stipend for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act would be bumped from $550 to $900. The union voted down the proposal.

The firefighters’ primary goal, said Frazier, was to improve their insurance options with the city, and he detailed a counter offer he said the union made.

“Our proposal to the city was this; we would take no raise for three years, zero. This is not about the raise. All we were asking for in our contract was that we have parity with the police department with active and retirees insurance. Those are the two things we want. That is the most important thing that our body wants … We made that clear during negotiations that that is the most important thing, health insurance.

“We got to a point where we thought we had maybe worked out something because we presented a deal to the city that shows how, by putting our retirees back on the city’s plan, it will pay for itself within the next two years. The negotiation team with the city agreed with us that, ‘Yes, your numbers are correct.’ We will be able to absorb this cost within two years based on retirees leaving, and the city is not looking to hire any new firefighters, per our conversations in negotiation. The retirees’ health insurance, we presented a plan that shows it will pay for itself.”

The mayor later disagreed with Frazier’s description of negotiations, in which the union president said retiree health insurance was a primary focus.

“This was different than what they’ve said all through negotiations … They came to the bargaining table with 88 proposals,” said Goodnight. “So that’s not true that it’s just about parity with the police concerning retiree healthcare. That’s not true because he came to the table with not one important issue but with 88 important issues. So that’s not true. He’s changing his story on that.”

According to prior reporting, in 2014 the city shifted to offering Local 396 retirees a stipend, at the time fearing extra incurred debt would affect the city’s ability to bond and obtain a good interest rate. At the time, it was reported the city also intended to approach AFSCME Local 2185 and the Fraternal Order of Police with proposals to make a similar shift for their retirees. Those changes never occurred with the other unions, but Goodnight said that’s because those unions prioritized retiree health insurance in subsequent negotiations.

“Here’s the difference. Four years ago Chris Frazier was part of the bargaining committee, and he accepted a proposal. The union voted overwhelmingly to get away from the city’s healthcare plan and buy on the private market,” said Goodnight. “In exchange for that they took 6.5-percent raises over a three-year period and accepted a $550 per month stipend for all retired firefighters. He’s the one that gave this up. He took the 6.5-percent raise to get 6.5-percent raises for himself and others. I didn’t unilaterally impose this.”

During his presentation to the council, Frazier also took issue with the fact that the insurance deductible for firefighters varies depending upon if a firefighter lives within city limits. Those living outside the limits pay a higher deductible, 18 percent versus 10 percent.

“I feel like you guys have the ability to make this happen,” said Frazier to the council. “In 2005 we went through this same situation, and the council was able to approve the money and say, ‘Yes, we do have the money. Mr. Mayor we can make this happen. The money is there. There’s no reason we can’t make this happen.’”

The council did not directly respond to Frazier after he spoke, but prior to that President Bob Hayes said he didn’t appreciate the “the attempt to use this body and forum for grandstanding.”

In attendance during the rally at city hall were members of UAW 1166 and 685.

UAW 685 President Rick Ward said the area’s largest union stood in solidarity with the firefighters.

“We have members whose family members are firefighters and policemen,” said Ward. “Nothing has changed since 9/11. They’re all heroes, and we support them. We didn’t come down here to disrupt anything, but it’s a message that this community supports our firefighters.”

Ongoing conflict

The battle between the union and city administration again elevated during a Board of Public Works meeting the next Wednesday, where the board approved the city’s HR Policy Manual for all non-contractual employees, which includes the firefighters union since their contract expired at the beginning of the year.

Frazier called certain changes that followed the implementation of the HR Policy Manual union busting.

The union president said the policies dictating sick and vacation days had changed for the worse. He also noted that the new policies gave the axe to personal time and the ability to trade shifts with other firefighters, making the department’s 24-hour shifts much harder to manage in the case of a personal emergency.

“It’s union busting,” said Frazier. “It is 100 percent union busting. They are trying to pressure us into accepting the terms of the deal they offered instead of going through the process of negotiating, arbitration.”

The union pointed the finger at Goodnight, claiming the mayor had done an about-face on the pro-union ideals he espoused when he first was elected mayor. Frazier even displayed former campaign materials dispersed by Goodnight in 2007 wherein he appealed to the department.

“It’s exactly the same thing that happened in 2005 when [Goodnight] fought for us. He fought against Mayor (Matt) McKillip, and he used that as a platform to get Mayor McKillip beat in that election. That’s how [Goodnight] was able to become the mayor of Kokomo. He used those situations to get McKillip beat, about how he was a union-busting guy. He did not honor the process of arbitration. He did not treat us fairly during negotiation. All of these things he used to get into that job, he has turned around and used on us 10-times fold. McKillip never did anything like [Goodnight] does to us.”

When asked about the claims of union busting, Goodnight pointed to Frazier. He claimed Frazier was to blame for the union’s predicament. He pointed to both Judge George Hopkin’s ruling against the union’s civil suit, which the firefighters launched, as evidence of that.

“The person that has done the most to bust the firefighter union is Chris Frazier,” said Goodnight. “He has done more than I could ever do. First of all, either he didn’t read or he didn’t understand the city ordinance from 1975. Therefore, he allowed the contract to expire. He allowed it to expire. I didn’t. He did. As a former union president, if the contract expires you better have a plan. Whether to go out on strike, whether to continue to negotiate without a contract, or your other plan is to possibly be locked out in the private sector. He has done more to bust that union than I could ever do or the city council could ever do.”

Goodnight said the path forward is to admit mistakes have been made.

“Here’s what needs to happen. Chris Frazier needs to man up and admit he’s made multiple mistakes in this process,” said Goodnight. “As a former union president I can point some of them out. He never took the time to understand the legal aspects of the ordinance. He allowed his contract to expire. Up until just the other day, he never allowed his membership to vote on any of the proposals. And he took a bad case to court and put all his eggs on the court system when he had a bad argument to begin with. He has made mistake after mistake after mistake, and he needs to take responsibility and own up to it.”

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