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Source: Kokomo Perspective

Kokomo firefighters working without a contract

Devin Zimmerman

On Jan. 1 Local Firefighters Union 396 shifted into unfamiliar territory. For the first time in history, the union is working without a labor contract.

This change comes as the latest in the conflict between the city administration and the union’s leadership. With Superior Court IV Judge George Hopkins ruling against the union in a civil suit, which in part sought to force arbitration between the city and union – as well as extend the union’s contract past the end of the year – the union’s previous contract has lapsed.

On Friday the union filed a joint request for clarification on the judge’s previous ruling. According to the union’s filing, “the parties are not in accord regarding the intent of the court’s ruling as it affects the entirety of the lawsuit. Specifically, the parties disagree as to whether the court, by its ruling, deems the entire lawsuit now completed and disposed of.”

According to local ordinance, the parties may reconvene to restart collective bargaining in March. That would leave a few months where the firefighters function under the city’s employee guidebook instead of their own contract. City officials said that change has no effect on how services are provided, but Frazier claims this is shaky ground.

“Do you really want the people who serve your city to have the uncertainty of not having a contract with our job being as stressful as it is?” said Frazier. “How does that serve the city of Kokomo? Do you want your employees being stressed out doing a stressful job? Is that a good thing? No, it’s not. It’s terrible. It’s terrible. That’s the whole crux of this. This doesn’t have to be the way it is.”

Frazier appeared before the board of works to read a public statement last week. However, the board referred him to the city’s human resources before he could complete his speech. Frazier later provided his statement to the media, and in it he wrote, “To put simply, we want the BOW to do what is fair by allowing a neutral party to arbitrate this matter.”

Mayor Greg Goodnight said the ball is in the union’s court in coming to the table for further bargaining ahead of March.

“They were told by a judge that they were wrong and their request was denied,” said Goodnight. “So really the ball is in their court. They are initiating everything. They are just being told by different groups that they are wrong. I guess I can’t speculate what their next move is.”

In an interview, Frazier voiced numerous frustrations with how the process of collective bargaining has played out with the city this year.

Frazier largely pointed to Goodnight as the reason collective bargaining was unsuccessful. He indicated that much time was spent negotiating points of the prospective contract just to have it shot down by the mayor. He said he believed the mayor had a personal issue with the department.

“We don’t know what [Goodnight’s] issue is with the fire department,” said Frazier. “He’s had an issue with us from day one. We don’t know what it is. Nobody knows. People in the public stop us and ask us when we’re out. When I’m at work people stop me and ask me, ‘Why does the mayor hate you guys?’ I don’t know. I have no idea. But it’s obvious to the public that that’s the case. We just don’t know.”

To this point Goodnight disagreed.

He pointed to the final offer made to the firefighters during collective bargaining as evidence of not having a personal issue with the department. In that offer, the union was offered two-percent raises and increases in longevity pay and clothing allowances. Instead, the mayor said Frazier is looking for someone to blame for his own shortcomings.

“I wasn’t in on negotiations, so I literally can’t speak to that,” said Goodnight. “But the issue is he failed in his job, and he’s looking for somebody to blame. He never gave his members the opportunity to vote on the contract. He never researched the ordinance, and therefore he didn’t take the time to understand the law. Therefore, he got an unfavorable ruling from Judge Hopkins. And he did a poor job of representing his members because he let the contract expire. He made three or four big mistakes. This is union president 101.”

In his interview, Frazier also took aim at Janie Young, the council member who served as the Kokomo Common Council’s representative during collective bargaining.

Frazier claimed Young wasn’t active in the collective bargaining process and even said she fell asleep during meetings.

“Councilwoman Janie young was falling asleep in our meetings. It’s absurd,” said Frazier. “She was falling asleep during our meetings. Our guys were complaining to me, ’How do we have a good negotiation when our council representative can’t stay awake during our meetings?’”

Young denied the allegation and instead took shots at Frazier.

“There’s no way that I would be falling asleep,” said Young. “You know what, that’s just a flat-out lie … If anything maybe he’s a little bit disturbed. Maybe they don’t really need him negotiating for them.”

Also, Young said that at some point she hopes both parties can come to a “mutual agreement” with collective bargaining, and she said she didn’t’ see anything she’d construe as “unfair” during the process.

“I really would like to see that we can come to some mutual understanding,” said Young. “Like the judge said, maybe now we can see what it is and where we go from here.”

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