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Source: Kokomo Tribune

UAW membership among those at rally in favor of Kokomo firefighters' union

Frazier, fire union prez, focuses on health care benefits at Common Council meeting

By George Myers

A months-long dispute between city officials and the Kokomo firefighters’ union took its most contentious and public turn Monday night, when about 200 people, most wearing red shirts meant to symbolize union solidarity, gathered at City Hall to protest the city’s handling of contract negotiations.

Many in the crowd, assembling in support of the Professional Firefighters of Kokomo Local 396, held signs either criticizing Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight - “Goodnight Is A Liar!” read one sign – or displaying the encouragement of United Auto Workers locals prior to Monday night’s Common Council meeting.

The city and Local 396, negotiating a new contract since June 7, have yet to reach an agreement, meaning Kokomo firefighters are operating without a contract for the first time.

And that doesn’t sit well with many who attended Monday night’s rally.

“Whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican, sometimes you’ve just got to be union first,” said UAW 685 President Rick Ward, explaining that Local 369 President Chris Frazier contacted him and asked for support, which was followed by text messages to UAW members.

“It’s a show of support. We didn’t come up here to disrupt anything, but we want these firefighters to know that we support them. … I don’t understand all the details of their negotiations, but I do know we’re here for them.”

Adding to that mentality was UAW Local 1166 member Barent Wells, an employee at the Kokomo Casting Plant, and rally attendee Pat Gammans, who held the “Liar” sign.

“Very honestly, it just seems like they’re not getting a good shake or a good deal from this mayor,” said Gammans. “This track record of this mayor goes back 10 years … so this is a long string of things the entire population of Howard County has kind of watched.”

“You absolutely want to support your fellow union members,” added Wells, who also criticized the city’s handling of KFD retirees’ health insurance.

The rally, planned last week, came after the union on Sunday afternoon rejected a contract offer from city officials. The offer, according to a document left on the chairs of City Hall Council Chambers prior to the council meeting, included a 6 percent raise over three years and a $300 increase in longevity pay.

Also included were a “no layoff” guarantee and an increase in retiree health care benefits from a $550 per month stipend to a reimbursement of up to $900 per month for health insurance.

The flyer, printed with a city of Kokomo seal and directing people to a website showing the full proposal, stated that Sunday was the first time Frazier allowed 396 members to vote – a claim Frazier called “a lie” – though the city first presented an offer on Oct. 11.

City officials also said Monday firefighters have received a 9.5 percent raise under Goodnight’s administration, more than other city employees during the same time – a flyer distributed by 396 members disputed that number – and compared local firefighters’ wages and benefits favorably to area cities.

Union officials, though, said the Kokomo Fire Department has since 2009 lost 32 firefighters and annexed 27 percent more area into city limits.

But Local 396 President Chris Frazier and others in attendance say the issue isn’t about raises – Frazier says his union would accept a zero-zero-zero raise structure over the next three years – but is instead about health insurance benefits.

Right now, fire union officials are “asking for parity with the police department on retirees’ health insurance and active health insurance,” said Frazier. He said increased premiums have eaten up any raises given to local firefighters, especially those who live outside of Kokomo.

“If I have a firefighter who doesn’t live in the city, he’s paying $2,600 more than I am because I live in the city,” he told the council. “He’s paying $2,000 more than a retired police officer. We don’t feel that that’s fair.”

Additionally, Frazier said retired firefighters on the Affordable Care Act are given stipends that are not enough to pay for insurance premiums, because “the ACA is just climbing, climbing, climbing.”

“It makes no sense to put our retirees on that system and have them get into a position where they may in 10 months be in a situation where their insurance isn’t even available to them,” he said. “Plus, we feel these are people who sacrificed their health for 20, 30 years of their life to serve this city.

“Whether that was going into smoke-filled houses or being around toxic chemicals or just the abuse and wear-and-tear that firefighting has on their bodies, all of those things add up.”

Frazier said he has presented to city officials an idea that, by putting retirees back on the city plan, would pay for itself within two years.

One person, however, to confront union members Monday was Common Council President Bob Hayes, who opened Monday’s meeting by saying contract negotiations are not the responsibility of the council, which only votes on an annual salary ordinance.

“I don’t appreciate the attempt to use this body and forum for grandstanding. And this is not bargaining in good faith, which should be the foundation of any proper negotiation,” he said, later laying out in detail the terms of the offer most recently denied by union members.

Also discussed amongst those crowded at City Hall was how the KFD will operate without a contract.

While more details are expected to emerge at Wednesday’s Board of Public Works and Safety meeting, Kokomo Corporation Counsel Beth Copeland gave a couple examples Monday of how things could change for local firefighters until a new contract is established.

Copeland told RTV6 last week firefighters “just aren’t entitled to certain things they once were.”

She said Monday that includes a shift in sick leave policy.

Firefighters previously had up to 180 days off at 100 percent pay for a non-work-related injury. Now, under the City HR Policy Manual, firefighters will be given the same benefits as other noncontractual employees: 85 percent of their pay for a time dependent on years of service.

She also said firefighters, without a contract, are not entitled to grievances.

Firefighters have had their salaries approved for 2018 at the 2017 totals of $51,244 for firefighters; $52,782 for chauffeurs; and $56,881 for captain.

Issues between city and union officials first became public on Nov. 1, when the firefighters’ union filed a grievance against the city of Kokomo relating specifically to the city’s denial of a request for arbitration.

The grievance, first disclosed by Frazier, stated, “the city has failed and refused to engage in collective bargaining in good faith.” The grievance, which was denied by the Board of Public Works and Safety, also denounced the city’s denial to go to arbitration.

Then, in early December, Local 396 filed a civil suit in Howard Superior Court IV, requesting Judge George Hopkins prohibit the city from terminating the existing fire contract at the end of the year and "until such time that the matter can be arbitrated."

Later that month, Hopkins denied the union’s sweeping request for preliminary injunction; he later called the issue of an arbitration order “moot” in a written clarification.

City ordinance lays out a 45-day negotiating window during which arbitration can be requested. The two sides began contract negotiations on June 7, but the union did not submit a written intent to bring the matter to arbitration until Oct. 6.

Ultimately, Hopkins ruled that neither party requested arbitration within the 45-day window following the first meeting, and never had any formal discussions about extending or waiving deadlines.

The ruling states Local 396 “did not request arbitration in either a timely manner or in compliance with the ordinance. … The plaintiff failed to show any irreparable harm that would result if the contract expires after December 31, 2017. A court cannot base a decision on speculation or the possibility of further remote injury.”

Also generating conversation Monday was the resignation of former Kokomo Fire Chief Pat O’Neill from the Kokomo Board of Public Works and Safety.

O’Neill, who could not be reached for comment, will remain employed as the city’s director of airport and aviation.
George Myers can be reached at 765-454-8585, by email at george.myers@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @gmyerskt.

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