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61% of Palm Coast’s Blue-Collar Workers Unionize, Citing City’s Inattention to Grievances

| July 28, 2014

Palm Coast's 140 blue collar workers run the city's water and sewer plants, and its streets, stormwater and fleets departments.  (© FlaglerLive)

Palm Coast’s 140 blue collar workers run the city’s water and sewer plants, and its streets, stormwater and fleets departments. (© FlaglerLive)

A decisive majority of the 140 blue-collar workers in Palm Coast’s utilities department—the city’s largest—voted last week to unionize, making them the second city department to do so. The city’s 50-some firefighters unionized in 2010 but are currently at an impasse over contract negotiations.

The vote was 67-42, giving union supporters a 61 percent majority. Last year, a vote to unionize failed by four votes. The new union, Local 630 of the Jacksonville-based Northeast Florida Public Employees, covers workers in the city’s public works, utilities, streets, stormwater and fleet divisions. The union does not become official until Aug. 6, and can be contested until then.


The union vote doesn’t mean that all 140 blue-collar workers in the city must join: only those who wish to join are required to pay the monthly $40 dues (though there are no initiation fees or working assessments), but all workers will be covered by the negotiated contract, once it’s in place. Non-dues paying workers may, like union members, file grievances, but the union is not required to represent them, as it is when a union member files a grievance. (See Florida’s right-to-work law here.)

“Employees don’t approach a union about organizing unless they feel there’s issues with an employer,” Andy Bemis, the business manager with Local 630, said. “Employees that are taken care of typically don’t approach a union.”

Richard Adams, who heads all public works departments in the city, said he could not explain the origin of the move toward unionization. “There really hasn’t been a whole lot of discussion as to why, at least not to me,” he said. “I guess some people feel there might be some benefit to it, to be organized as a group as opposed to individuals.”

The move to unionize is the result of an accumulation of issues for workers over the years, Don Hess, who organized the effort, said. Hess, 65, just retired after seven years as a Utilities Tech II worker, and many years before that in heavy industry, though usually in management.

“We’re concerned, we work here, we want the cit to be viable and successful, the same as a business,” Hess said. But there are issues. Hess cited examples such as employees passed over for promotion, a reduction in benefits—such as the elimination of what were once $3,500 flex cards for employees who didn’t have family health insurance coverage—the absence of raises several years on end (though that was the case across most local governments in the aftermath of the Great Recession), the arbitrary nature of small merit raises this year, and more attention paid to efficiency than safety. For example, instead of having two men on call duty—one for the sewer operation, one for the water operation, which Hess said require two different specialties and safety training—the city combined the two responsibilities into one, with an hour and a half worth of training for employees.

None of us felt comfortable with this,” Hess said. “It’s those kinds of things that added up to frustration by the men, no matter how many meetings we had with management, it just fell on deaf ears.” Hess also cited a workplace culture where management does not welcome workers’ questions, seeing them as a challenge, and that retribution for straying from the company line has been a problem. As an example, he cited Lenny Grocki, who four years ago countered a city order to change boots he’d painted pink to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and drew media attention, putting the city on the defensive.

Hess said Grocki has paid the price since. “Lenny was overlooked and passed over,” Hess said. “They deny it’s the boots incident, but that poor guy, he’s the hardest working man and the most sincere man in the workforce. We know what the problem was.”

The union is not aiming for big changes, but for stability, Hess said, starting with a contract. “We want a three-year contract to work by, the same as Mr. Landon has,” Hess said. “No matter how bad the economy goes, Mr. Landon’s contract stays the same. It’s the same thing the men want.”

Hess and Adams had a 150-minute conversation after the vote, Hess said.

“We don’t anticipate it will affect the operation,” Adams said in an interview Thursday. “I really don’t have any issue with it either way.”

“That’s all well and good,” Hess said. “That’s a starting point. We have no interest in changing operations. Give us a contract. Don’t change things on us every October. Let us know and sit down and say this is what I know I have coming next year.”

He said the city has set revenues that preclude a union from commanding such things as raises, notable changes in benefits or any added layer in job security. “It’s interesting, but I’m not really sure what they hope to gain,” Adams said. “We really don’t anticipate a whole lot of changes as a result of it.”

Bemis said the city will inevitably portray the unionization as bringing no changes, but the majority vote would not have taken place without some dissatisfaction in working conditions, which the contract negotiations, when they do take place, will seek to address, including a matter of favoritism that Bemis said workers speak of. “We just want across the board to treat everybody fairly, treat everybody equally,” he said.

Hess describes annual visits by Landon, the city manager, to the various city departments to speak brightly of the city’s achievements and the city’s economy, such as new restaurants. “In the meantime, we’re sitting there and thinking, yeah, but I can’t afford to take my family to those restaurants, and I work for you, Mr. Landon.”

“Last year when we tried to organize,” Hess said, “Mr. Landon had satellite meetings we call them, where he talked to groups of 50, 60 men and women, he would talk about the fine things the city has done for the employees, and what a union won’t do. ‘Take a look at the firefighters. Where are they now with the union?’” Landon said, according to Hess. “Well,” Hess said, “I’m sitting there knowing that you guys aren’t bargaining in good faith with the firefighters’ union.”

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27 Responses for “61% of Palm Coast’s Blue-Collar Workers Unionize, Citing City’s Inattention to Grievances”

  1. Informed says:

    Good thing it’s election time. Out with the old in with the new!

  2. Freddy says:

    I am not pro union but I cannot blame these employees from joining one. Landon and the city council has really done a poor job at looking for the interest of this city. Can’t wait for the next election.

  3. confidential says:

    Unions were the entities that ended workers from being slaves and gave them rights! No all unions are perfect as actually nothing is, but are sure needed!
    And I agree….while Landon mentioning restaurants as being improvements that those workers can’t afford…and I will add Town Center costing tax payers millions for a CRA that does not contribute to our tax base, its referendum defeated City Hall and now the mammoth unneeded Palm Coast Parkway widening for what ,to end in the Hammock Dunes bottle neck bridge? Nope… to benefit the Palm Harbor aka City Island Shopping to fatten up and make Landon’s resume more important.
    Sick and tired of seeing also the neglect of landscaping maintenance all around the city except the perfectly manicured Town Center leading roads. We pay the taxes and TC CRA that does not contribute to our tax base gets the benefits while we tax payers paying the bills endure the blight.
    I can see our city workers point and their need to unionize. Maybe we the residents need to unionize also to receive the services we pay for with our taxes. Using our reserves city and utilities for unintended purposes to benefit developers, is what undermines the services.

  4. karma says:

    So, if all 140 workers pay their $40.00 a month for one year, that equals $67,200 a year to the union. The union will have a new flex card and pay raises this year thanks to you employees. #PAYDAY

  5. bluefish says:

    Yet another reason to vote OUT the current elected officials!! Agreed Freddy….this is definitely all their fault!

  6. Bob Scholer says:

    Good for all of YOU as all of you need to be treated and not get passed over in a Promotion because You are a POLITICIANS GO FOR. Everybody Please get out and VOTE ALL THE Incumbens Out

  7. Steve Wolfe says:

    Adams had no idea this was coming, yet his people have had issues with communication for years—–oh, I get it. Sorry. My bad.

    So who does Adams report to? Jim Landon? Hmm….

  8. m&m says:

    That’s why when I a new hot water heater installed two guys showed up and didn’t even look at it..

  9. OMG says:

    yep the unions worked so well for the Northeast… Look at the shape those cities are in… congradulations the NE attitude has finally hit Palm Coast..

    And oh by the way I come from a union family and when it boils down. The union only cares about the dues and the wealth of the leaders…

  10. Franklin's Tower says:

    Yes! Out with the old and in with the new! I would have to think that the city manager’s draconian, imperious rule has a bit to do with this. You plant ice and you harvest wind.

  11. Ian says:

    Way to go guys. As a former blue collar member of public works I am very happy to see you get unionized.

  12. Jack Howell says:

    Good for those city employees. This could have been prevented had Landon, Netts and the City Council provided Leadership. Unfortunately, Landon et al, can’t even spell the leadership yet define it!

  13. Florida James says:

    BRAVO!!!!!!!!! “They” gave you no choice.

  14. rickg says:

    Glad to see these people get union representation. If more workers, both public and private industry, would unionize it would promote the middle class and keep work places safer.

    • Johnny Taxpayer says:

      Are we to believe the Public Works department for the City of Palm Coast is some how an unsafe work environment?

  15. m&m says:

    They also pay no attention to the citizens either. They are in a world of their own and put themselves above everyone while they wallow in their egos..

  16. confidential says:

    Unions were the entities that ended workers from being slaves and gave them rights! No all unions are perfect as actually nothing is, but are sure needed!
    And I agree….while Landon mentioning restaurants as being improvements that those workers can’t afford…and I will add Town Center costing tax payers millions for a CRA that does not contribute to our tax base, its referendum defeated City Hall and now the mammoth unneeded Palm Coast Parkway widening for what ,to end in the Hammock Dunes bottle neck bridge? Nope… to benefit the Palm Harbor aka City Island Shopping to fatten up and make Landon’s resume more important.
    Sick and tired of seeing also the neglect of landscaping maintenance all around the city except the perfectly manicured Town Center leading roads. We pay the taxes and TC CRA that does not contribute to our tax base gets the benefits while we tax payers paying the bills endure the blight.
    I can see our city workers point and their need to unionize. Maybe we the residents need to unionize also to receive the services we pay for with our taxes. Using our reserves city and utilities for unintended purposes to benefit developers, is what undermines our services and the fair pay of our utility or any city employee.

  17. Mike says:

    If they do not clean house of the current management starting with Landon then I have lost the last ounce of respect for our City Council. This is crazy, you let a union in? time to oust the piss poor preformers from their cushy city jobs.

  18. i can't help but wonder says:

    With union protection will they move even slower than they now do?

  19. Seminole Pride says:

    Unions are depleting our industries, cities, and states in America. Just look at most of the cities in the Rust Belt, that have become practically ghost towns, and eye sores. It will cost tax payers more tax dollars. They are anti democracy. Unions ruined GM, and Chrysler causing our government to bail them out. The economy will suffer and become stagnant. Free market and the freedom to bid on our public service will not be allowed. Big mistake.

    • Brian says:

      Yeah, yeah, yeah. We have heard all of this rhetoric before. It’s all the union’s fault. Those who managed these businesses had nothing to do with their demise. It’s all because of unions. Yaddah, yaddah, yaddah……

  20. JoJo says:

    Vote all these deadbeat incumbents out come November and fire expensive Landon. He makes more than a Senator. No one is worth that much in Palm Coast. I drive past Town Center and not a leaf is out of order but we can’t get our grass cut in the sub divisions.

  21. Steve Wolfe says:

    Seems that most of the commenters point to the city council as the source of many ills for Palm Coast. People have seen the council pander to their own costly vision even as the citizens have pushed back against it. Whether it is true or not, the council has certainly done little to reverse that impression.

    Disturbing:

    Taxes always increasing;
    A utility used as a honey pot;
    Businesses shuttering during our “recovery;”
    Persistent blight in too many neighborhoods;
    Persistent high unemployment;
    Red light cameras, a questionable enterprise indeed;
    A recent report that property values are up everywhere in Flagler except Palm Coast;
    A few lone, yet unafraid people challenging the city council’s stewardship being brushed aside;
    Now the city’s employees feeling ignored/neglected as well.

    Not that there aren’t some good things:

    Pretty medians;
    Four McDonalds, two Wendy’s;
    Not far from some real cities;
    um….

    Sorry I haven’t had any coffee today.

    It is election season, and there are folks running who have a vision that includes ways to grow our local economy, to the benefit of all. A vote for incumbents means you think all is well.

    The blue collar workers of Palm Coast are not the only ones feeling ignored. Their boss confirms the deafness pervades throughout city management. Unionization will be a sterile response to their needs unless we voters push for change at the top.

  22. Diana L says:

    Some of the candidates running to replace the current city council members are not interested in governing, they are interested in destroying the government. Go to a city council meeting and hear for yourself how negative and unprofessional they are. Be careful who you vote for as you might just end up with a constant fight with no progress. You bet, I am voting and it won’t be for the disrespectful candidates that I have seen in action. In fact, they are an embarrassment to themselves.

  23. just a thought says:

    Citizens should gather together all those “nuisance abatement and code enforcement notices” they’ve received from the city over the years and deliver it to the PC officials at the next public meeting in an act of reciprocating how PC citizens see them and what they intend to do come next election.

  24. Anonymous says:

    I am all for unions, 27 years in one and now i have a 75,000.00 a year pension paid medical coverage for me and my wife. I would have being living like some of the people in bunell if i was not represented by a mediator and binding arbitration

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