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Palm Coast Is Fighting Firefighters’ Union on Forming a Single Bargaining Unit

| October 22, 2010

Friday's hearing: from nearest to farthest, Jim Landon (on his computer), Gary Glassman, the attorney representing the city, Jason Laughren, leader of the Palm Coast firefighters' local union, Manly Bolin of the International Association of Fire Fighters, and Lt. Mike Shields of the Palm Coast Fire Department. (FlaglerLive)

Four months ago, Palm Coast firefighters voted to unionize. They formed local 4807 on June 14, but the city did not recognize the union. The two sides disagree over what ranks the union would consist of. The firefighters are arguing that their bargaining unit should include firefighters and lieutenants. The city, besides objecting to the formation of a union, objects to the inclusion of the lieutenants in the same bargaining unit. (There are 15 lieutenants in the department and some 45 firefighters).

The matter went to a public hearing, and on Friday, Suzanne Choppin, a hearing officer with the Public Employees Relations  Commission—a state agency—heard both sides. She has 45 days to make a recommendation to the commission, which will then rule one way or the other, possibly not until the new year. The hearing was a window into the department’s workings, procedures and lines of authority as both sides see them, although there appears to be little question that the formation of a bargaining unit (or two units) is a matter of time: when the unionization effort began, more than 70 percent, including 10 of the 15 lieutenants, voted to unionize.

The Palm Coast Fire Department consists of five stations, 62 men and women, including the chief, the deputy chief, a fire marshal one inspector, three captains, and 15 lieutenants. The rest are firefighters. The department also has 50 volunteer firefighters.

Friday’s hearing was held at the Palm Coast Community Center on Palm Coast Parkway. Choppin led the hearing by phone, from Tallahassee. In the room (the same room where the Palm Coast City Council holds its meetings), some 20 firefighters sat on one side, a few city officials sat on the other. Those officials included Fire Chief Mike Beadle, City Manager Jim Landon and Gary Glassman, a city attorney. James John Maher, a notary, also sat with the city group, swearing in the witnesses.

The hearing was relatively cordial. There was little banter or niceties before the meeting, with each side keeping to itself. Landon walked in a few minutes after the informal part of the hearing had begun, when Choppin was on the line, going over ground rules and paperwork, but before she officially opened the hearing.

Jason Laughren, a lieutenant and a leader of the unionizing effort, was the first witness, with the firefighters’ representative—Manly Bolin, a district vice president with the International Association of Fire Fighters—doing the questioning.

Hearing officer Suzanne Choppin was piped in by phone from Tallahassee. (FlaglerLive)

Bolin’s intention was to establish that lieutenants, while wielding some authority over the rank and file, are like the men on the line—sharing their duties and expectations more than imposing them. Bolin wanted to show that their supervisory roles are incidental or administrative rather than defining or ultimately binding: in almost every regard, lieutenants’ key decisions involving others have to be ratified by captains or the chief. Laughren said firefighters and lieutenants share sleeping quarters (in the three new stations, they each have individual bunk rooms), they saher the same toilet and shower facilities, they eat together, they rotate the cooking, and after meals, lieutenants help clean up and wash dishes “in most stations.” Lieutenants are also expected to help keep the stations clean, replace hoses on trucks, wash them, help reset and restock medical supplies. During down time, they intermingle in the TV and day rooms with the rank and file (as they very much did in the hearing room Friday).

The highest degree of discipline lieutenants can exercise is a verbal reprimand, “but we still have to inform our captain,” Laughren said. Anything above a verbal reprimand has to be approved by the captain, and obviously can be overridden. Lieutenants do sit on the interview board for the new hires, but so do rank and file firefighters. Lieutenants conduct employee evaluations but don’t ratify them: that’s the captain’s and chief’s job. Only the chief decides whether to award merit raises. Lieutenant can neither suspend a firefighter nor approve time off or invoke overtime (which is not being allowed this year anyway, except in the rarest circumstances).

A key point lieutenants are making: when they take time off, rank and file firefighters replace them, “riding up” to the authority of a lieutenant on a fire truck. That’s happening routinely since the city, in an effort to save money, restructured the way it answers emergency calls.

There was just one objection the entire day: when Bolin, the union representative, asked Laughren what number of lieutenants he thought were willing to unionize, Glassman, the city attorney, objected, citing hearsay. The hearing officer agreed, though the proportion is in the record: two thirds.

Glassman, questioning Laughren, went through some of the same procedures, though Glassman looked to underline the fact that lieutenants are the first line of authority at fires and the first line of disciplinary action overall. Glassman went into more details when, after one other lieutenant was called by the union (Mike Shields), he called Chief Beadle to the chair.

Beadle, answering Glassman’s questions, sought to establish that lieutenants’ authority is clear and their judgment is relied on “absolutely,” in personnel disciplining, hiring and training decisions, as well as some administrative decisions. The lieutenants had said they were not involved in budgetary matters. But Beadle said their recommendations are listened to.

“I personally do not recommend that lieutenants be considered part of the bargaining unit,” Beadle said, comparing them to middle management.  He stressed, following the attorney’s questioning, that when rookies are hired, “lieutenants are their role model, mentor, teacher, they’re the ones who are going to see if this employee is going to make it or not.” Glassman asked if there’d be conflicts if lieutenants are involved in the bargaining unit. Beadle said that because lieutenants are involved in drafting policies on a policy committee, which was formed at the request of employees, their inclusion in the bargaining unit would create conflicts.

That was an interesting, if incomplete, point: The firefighters say that the policy committee, while active, hasn’t led anywhere—that the city is holding off on implementing policies. The city’s delays, a year and a half after creating the committee,  are, in fact,  one of the reasons  behind the effort to unionize: firefighters think the city created the committee for appearances’ sake, only to sit on recommendations.

The hearing officer asked clarifying questions. “How often do you accept what the lieutenants have evaluated?” she asked. “I never say never,” Beadle said, “but I don’t believe I’ve ever changed anything that a lieutenant recommended.” He does ask for elaborations or further explanations on evaluations, however, and the final number on merit increases “does rest with me.” Currently, there are no such increases, though they’ve ranged from zero percent to 5 percent, with 2.5 percent being the average.

That was it for Beadle and the union’s witnesses, or rebuttals. The proceedings took just over an hour.

Both sides will file written closing arguments.

After the hearing, Landon chatted for a few moments with his entourage then walked out. Beadle walked over to the firefighters’ side and shook hands with Bolin, Laughren and others, patting them on the back. “We’re all good, we’re all doing the job,” he told Bolin.

Bolin said the city was not being wise in attempting to split the firefighters: should the firefighters lose this round, Bolin said he’ll simply re-file to have two bargaining units instead of one. The process would then start over. It’s not merely a procedural matter: The city is paying an attorney for every hour it delays the union’s implementation.

Polite segregation: the city's management sat on the left, the city's firefighters on the right. (FlaglerLive)

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36 Responses for “Palm Coast Is Fighting Firefighters’ Union on Forming a Single Bargaining Unit”

  1. New media needs to be held accountable says:

    Do the lieutenants “ride up” to captain? If that is a factor for their argument that the firefighters are like they are then wouldn’t the same be true if the “ride up” to be captains? Are lieutenants in union fire departments allowed any input in budget negotiations? I thought union votes were kept secret, if that were the case, how can we know that 10 of the 15 voted for it? I’ve been in unions and that kind of stuff was always guarded as top secret information. There are 2 sides to every story, I’d like to hear the City’s because we all know Pierre is NEVER a fan of what they do.

  2. New media needs to be held accountable says:

    One more thing … please identify the people on the left side of the picture. THe “Polite segregation” implies so much … I didn’t even know this meeting was being held, how many other citizens did not know?

  3. Anonymous says:

    Looks like there’s 2 maybe 3 firefighters sitting on the left side. They ran out of room on the right.

  4. starfyre says:

    screw the unions…

  5. Orion says:

    Just find it interesting that Mr. Landon, always shows up just at the last minute, or even a bit late. Something like the bride at a wedding, wanting to have all the eyes on them/him. I agree with the bride’s position, but there is no reason for him to be stylishly late…. I see he is using his newly purchased, $700 IPAD, most likely to communicate to Mr. Netts, on the proceedings. What I find more interesting and questionable, is the absence of the hearing officer, electing to call in, and not seeing the dynamics of the comments being made. There is much to be said, of an in person meeting and seeing the “other sides ” reaction to comments being made. I guess we need more taxes to get an in person hearing officer.

  6. LL says:

    I fully support our local firefighters and their efforts to unionize. Unions do have a place and are vitally needed in this city. Citizens need to be informed of what is going on and what the issues are.

    I agree that is is disappointing the hearing officer was not present at the hearing. I am not at all surprised by Landon’s late appearance-he has shown little respect to others many times in the past. It seems the city adminstrators in general hold a very pompous attitude toward workers.

  7. Mr Right says:

    According to those people masquerading as Palm Coast town councilors Mr Landon is doing a fine job and is worth every dollar he is paid.

  8. Joe A. says:

    Screw the Unions? Starfyre – that is a very uneducated statement. You make a statement that is purely biased with no facts. Not a good post.

  9. John Smith says:

    Well as usual Anonymous and Starfyre show how smart they are. Where is your religion NOW Star. What the hell are you talking about Anon.

  10. starfyre says:

    my religion is my 7 dogs…and my welfare check

  11. John Smith says:


  12. New media needs to be held accountable says:

    Perhaps the reason only firefighters are there is because they are the only ones interested, it is their future. Why would anyone else want to go? Don’t most unions separate admin and the workforce? The mediator not being there .. who made that decision? Before we throw stones, let get some facts.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Yes, primarily management and the workforce are separated. I believe the county LTS are included in their local union where as Captains and upper staff are not. This is just another way Palm Coast is trying to wear down the UNION and the members start backing away from membership as they did in Flagler Beach and the union was desolved after the city dragged the contract negotiating on for so long that the members quit it.

  14. wsh302 says:

    unions gave me a 60,000 a year pension and lifetime medical coverage for me and my wife. god bless the unions

  15. LL says:

    The Lts in the Fire dept. are not part of administration or “upper management”. They are line duty firefighters and cannot hire or fire anyone. I agree with Anonymous-I think it is just the city’s way of intimidating firefighters and wearing them down so that they do not end up being successful in their union efforts. However, the fact that 70% of teh FFs voted to unionize speaks volumes-that is a significant percentage of members. I think it is time for more workers to speak out and stand up against the city!

  16. Barbara Taylor says:

    wsh302- You and the unions are the reason so many states are going broke and jobs are going overseas. Unions had their place back in time. If things are so bad with the fire department, why don’t they just go to a government run labor department?
    Ask the 16 firefighter recruits that lost their job in Jacksonville last month how the union helped them. The union sure did not help the unemployment problem in that city.

  17. Unions as a necessary evil says:

    In the South unions are synonymous with the Civil War. They don’t mean anything in Right to Work States. Just throwing your money away. Civil War still going on.

  18. Steven Mcaffery says:

    Several things: First – starfyre “my religion is my 7 dogs…..and my welfare check”, perhaps you wouldn’t need a welfare check if you did not have to feed 7 dogs or got a job. Second – If you have never had to work a job where you risk your life for the same citizens(not all) that say you are over paid, don’t need a union, should not have the benifits that you already do ,or, moreover, complain every time the fire department gets new equipment that inevitably will be used to save a life or property ( possibly yours); then you have nothing to say. Your Monday to Friday 9-5 is what pays your bills,(most people who work anyway) good for you. Their 24 on 48 off 365 days a year missing birthdays, holidays, school events of their kids and other important events to provide the highest quality (life saving services) to certain ungrateful people is what they do. All they ask is for fair treatment, reasonable working conditions and the same across the board treatment that everyone else gets. But, you know how it really goes, “well the firefighters think they deserve more than everyone else”. Really? Really?? Is that how small minded people think? If military service personnel (god bless them everyone) wanted change in work related things, everyone would bend over backwards for them. I guess it does not matter exactly what you do for a living but rather how you could die doing it and the frequency of it happening before you get looked at seriously. Based on your logic the 343 firefighters that where all killed on the same day in the events that transpired on 9/11/2001 should not have been in a union either, huh? But they were. FDNY employs a unionized department of over 15,000 firefighters and they are looked at as “Americas Bravest”. Besides the size of the city, why is Palm Coast any different? I guess when the wildfires possibly take off again and you need their help, only then will they be worth their salt!

  19. Nice... says:

    Very Well Spoken Bull!!!!

  20. LL says:

    Gosh, there are just so many ignorant people here it is amazing. It is not worth the argument to try to change your minds. But the day you need the services of your fire department, perhaps you will finally think differently.

  21. New media needs to be held accountable says:

    I truly appreciate what firefighters and police officers do and are willing to do. However, they CHOSE this career and they knew going in that they work holidays, etc, etc. So, it seems silly to me to think they are special because they do that. As far as the firefighter go, yes they are willing to sacrifice for us and we owe them for that. However, if what they get isn’t enough, why did they choose that career?? Police put themselves in danger every single day when they walk out the door,and they were at Twin Towers on 9 1 1 too, let’s not forget that. Back to the point at hand, what are they saying is so awful that they need a union? Have I missed that? I agree that unions were once very necessary, but they must bare at least part of the blame for so many jobs gong overseas. I’ve been in unions and so has my husband, I would prefer to bargain with my employer on my own. In my experience, the unions have their own problems, their on echelon and they are in it for themselves, not truly the guy at the bottom, or i this case on the truck. We all know about the corruption in the trucker union. My husband was in the carpenter’s union and his BA is now in jail with several of his cronies. This is not uncommon, the uncommon part is them getting caught. I was in a strike situation once and our union rep did nothing but make us look bad and the media was all over it. Of course he drove in his Mercedes. I think the unions have outlived their usefulness, but that’s me. What do I know?

  22. LL says:

    I am tired of the “they chose that career” mentality and consider it an invalid argument. In fact, it further supports that they have earned the support of our community-for choosing to do a job that others do not wish to do, or cannot do. Are there other similar professions? Of course, but that does not make their fight to unionize any less significant.

  23. Nice... says:

    I think the biggest reason they wanted to unionize is because of issues with management. When I say that, I do not mean management in the Fire Dept, ie Chief Beadle or Asst. Chief Forte, it is the managment of the city. Go figure… I’m sure that they aren’t the only department in the city that has issues with management, just that they are the only department trying to do anything about it. I’m sure if the article was about the other departments in the city wanting to unionize, all these people would still be bitching about it saying the same things they are now. To bad the FD is taking the heat for standing up for themselves…

  24. New media needs to be held accountable says:

    Teachers are unionized look how far it’s gotten them. Again, they chose a career where they help children. If they wanted to make the big buck, they should have chosen something else. As much as it should change, it never will – politicians are in charge of it all utlitmately, so nothing ever gets changed. What has the City done to them does anyone know?

  25. LL says:

    New media,

    What is your point? That since politicians are in charge people should all just give up and let themselves be treated unfairly and/or not fight for better wages or better working conditions? That atttitude is why people get what they have always gotten, which is just not good enough.

  26. Wow says:

    Just came across this article. It’s good to seen people standing up for themselves whether it be firefighters, ironworkers, Coal minners, ( who ever). If you don’t stand up for yourself, no one else sure as he’ll will.

  27. fair minded says:

    What I meant is that Firefighters chose their profession and then they complain how they aren’t treated wonderfully. What exactly does the City do or not do that has them that they want to unionize? LL thinks that if we disagree with him/her we are ignorant. Well, then enlighten us and give us some facts. I don’t think you can compare firefighters in Palm Coast with firefighters in NY, just like I don’t think the City Manager’s salary should be compard that way either. What do the firefighters think the union is going to change for them? Maybe if we knew this, we could form an opinion more in line with LL as opposed to genralities. No one in Florida that I know makes the same kind of money or benefits we made up north. Didn’t the Fire Dept come mostly from the County when the city was formed? They LEFT a union to be non-unionized. Are these “old timers” for this union formation? I for one would like to hear from firefighters in Palm Coast, those for and those against and then I’ll form my EDUCATED opinion. From what Ihear they do pretty good and most of them are just po’d because the City has cut into their overtime.

  28. LL says:

    I do not believe that the county had a formal organized union when PC formed its Fire Dept. So no, the firefighters did not leave a union to become non-unionized. Also, why would the firefighters who are trying to unionize play their hand and discuss their reasons publicly? Do you know a different story? If not, than you do not have the answers to make a judgement either.

    I do not believe that just because FFs chose to do this career that they need to put up with being treated unfairly-not does not come as part of a profession. In fact, I think what it missing here-on part of the city-is just that-a profession.

  29. New media needs to be held accountable says:

    I didn’t mean they left a union to be non-unionized, but they haven’t been voting for a union before this, have they? So, by that fact, it implies that they were okay with the status quo in PC. What is the City doing to treat them unfairly. Not sure what your last sentence meant?

  30. LL says:

    New media, actually you did state “They LEFT a union to be nonunionized”. I am not even going to waste my time addressing the rest of your post because you have no clue. And no, I am not going to provide you the details.

  31. New media needs to be held accountable says:

    LL’s a bit touch, eh? You are talking semantics. Is it true that, when the city was formed, many firefighters came from Flagler County FD, which was unionized? Have they been in a group for over 10 years now that has been non-unionized? Is that clearer? Just because someone disagrees with you doesn’t mean we are stupid or don’t know what we are talking about.

    If I chose to not go to college, then I have no right to complain when people who did (I did not) make more money than me and are given positions I am not given a chance at, it is a choice I made.

    If I chose to become a firefighter, I knew the pay was crappy, but wanted it for other reasons.
    If I chose to become a teacher, I knew the pay was crappy, cut wanted it for other reasons.

    So, your argument about being tired of hearing “they chose the career” doesn’t wash with the rest of us. So, enlighten us by sharing what they want, what is so bad that they now are forming a union?

    Does Flagler County have better benefits? Better pay? Enlighten us, who knows we may go your way! But getting ticked because someone disagrees does not bode well for your cause. I’m asking questions to try to understand your logic but you don’t want to answer any of my questions.

    How does PC rate with other cities of the same size? Is there someone onlline we can look this stuff up? Maybe we’d surprise you and actually agree and even stand up for them if we agreed. But, it doesn’t sound like you want to even give us a chance.

  32. CC says:

    Ok, I have been watching for a while and would like to shed some light on the whole topic. When Palm Coast became a “city” there was not “union” per say there was a club however it had no “collective bargaining” there for it was just a club. That union disbanded for whatever reason. Fast forward a few years. Flagler County unionized a few years ago, whatever their reasons were they were not questioned. That is just a slight overview of the history. So why now do the PC Firefighters want to unionize? Everyone in the union has their own reasons. I know how I feel. I would like to have a little more job security, we have had employees that were “separated from employment” after being injured on the job. While there is more to that story I am not going to air their private business in a public forum. There are other employee relation issues as well. As of now there have been no requests from the union to the city. The city does not recognize nor will talk with the union. Hopefully after the PERC delivers its verdict they will speak with the union. Like I said the union has not made any requests. I know that one of the concerns that some of the Firefighters have is the retirement. The City of Palm Coast is the only paid Fire Department that does not offer a defined benefit retirement. Again the union has not asked for anything. The biggest thing that employees would like is the city to follow its own policies and to put policies in place to protect the people that protect its citizens. The job of the union is not to keep people from being fired if they do wrong. It is to make sure that the policies that they have in place are followed. To have someone on the employee’s side that is looking out for their best interest. I ask that you do a little research on other Fire Departments Retirement. Most of the information can be found on the State of Florida website. Like I said this is just some of the issues at hand. To those that support the Firefighters thank you. For those that want to learn more and ask questions thank you as well. A more educated public it better for all.
    Be safe.

  33. New media needs to be held accountable says:

    thank you CC – that makes it so much clearer and there are citizens, like me, who do just want to know the other side of the story. I would hope that the City is careful in its “separation from employment” especially in this Open Records state because facts can always be out here and their dirty laundry can and will be aired. Good luck in your quest, I hope the best happens for all 3 sides, firefighters, administration and the good citizens of Palm Coast, because ultimately whatever they get will come out of our tax dollars.

  34. PC resident says:

    To help reiterate what CC had said…………… Union’s do more that just get their members raises. They ensure that all employees, member’s or not, are treated fairly. They make sure that if the city/department has rules that those rules are followed by both sides and enforces equally for all. They also ensure that management doesn’t abruptly change rules to benefit the city/management. Most importantly they protect workers! Workers should have rights so for all those against unions you should do some soul searching.
    If a jobs pay is crappy you can either fight for a more desirable salary or quit. With the cost of living continually increasing and the firefighters salary remaining the same many of them will began finding work somewhere else, leaving few or god forbid no firefighters/EMTs/Paramedics left. Then what will do when you call 911. Wait…………

  35. PC resident says:

    FYI….. Over 100 firefighters die every year in the U.S. while working in the line of duty. You couldn’t say that for very many careers but your right they dont deserve more.

    Special thanks to all firefighters, EMTs, Paramedics, Police officers and military men/women, you deserve more!

  36. New media needs to be held accountable says:

    Thank you to all public employees – totally agree! PC resident: where do you draw the line on what they deserve. Is it something that can have a monetary value? I think it should be respect and support – I also think the most important thing is that if something happens to one of them, we make sure the family is protected.

    That said, how do we guage it? Do these employees deserve better benefits than those of us who work in the private sector? Or for that matter, how do you compare them with other public workers? It’s easy to say “you deserve more”, but the “more” if monetary will come out of your tax dollar … how much are you willing to pay?

    I personally hope that our firefighers and police are paid proportionately to other cities in this state. If not, I totally agree, they deserve more. But, I’ve been in unions and it seems to me the people who gain the most in them is the union representatives. I’ve been at City hall in that main entrance place and seen citizens scream at the ladies at the counters? No way you could pay me for that job. May seem insignificant to most of us, but just watch the news and the crazies that go after City Hall workers. Those people are just the workers. Sure,, not a great comparison to walking into a burning building or saving the life at an accident, but my point is that all public employees serve the public. Isn’t that why they are called public servants? How do we decide?

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